On a seemingly ordinary day, seventeen-year-old Lia Haddock hears news that will change her life forever: three hundred men, women, and children living at a research facility in Limetown, Tennessee, have disappeared without a trace. Among the missing is Emile Haddock, Lia’s uncle.
What happened to the people of Limetown? It’s all anyone can talk about. Except Lia’s parents, who refuse to discuss what might have happened there. They refuse, even, to discuss anything to do with Emile.
As a student journalist, Lia begins an investigation that will take her far from her home, discovering clues about Emile’s past that lead to a shocking secret—one with unimaginable implications not only for the people of Limetown, but for Lia and her family. The only problem is...she’s not the only one looking for answers.
Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie are first-rate storytellers, in every medium. Critics called their podcast Limetown “creepy and otherworldly” (The New York Times) and “endlessly fun” (Vox), and their novel goes back to where it all began. Working with Cote Smith, a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize Finalist, they’ve crafted an exhilarating mystery that asks big questions about what we owe to our families and what we owe to ourselves, about loss, discovery, and growth. Threaded throughout is Emile’s story—told in these pages for the first time ever.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Zack Akers is the cocreator (with Skip Bronkie) of the podcast Limetown and the Two-Up podcast channel. He graduated from Tisch School of the Arts in 2008 with degrees in Film & Television and became a documentary producer with Flagstaff Films whose work has appeared on HBO, ESPN, CBS, and NBC. Limetown (written with Cote Smith) is his first novel.
Skip Bronkie was raised on a farm outside of Buffalo, NY. He graduated from Tisch School of the Arts in 2008 with a degree in Film & Television and worked as a creative director at Facebook and Pinterest. He went on to cofound Two-Up with Zack Akers, producing Limetown and 36 Questions. He lives in Brooklyn and can be found in Prospect Park any given day.
Read an Excerpt
Lia’s mother disappeared one month before the Panic at Limetown. Unlike those three hundred plus, hers was a gradual vanishing. She had been pulling away for months, maybe longer. Retreating from Lia and her father, to a hidden space no one else was allowed.
In the beginning, the space was mental. Lia’s dad would ask her mother a question at dinner and receive a delayed response. She would forget minor anniversaries, which most people wouldn’t celebrate in the first place, but that were treated like national holidays in the Haddock household. Gone was the mom who gave the house a housewarming gift ten years to the date she and Lia’s father closed. The mom who well into Lia’s teens snuck into her bedroom and left two quarters under her pillow in honor of the day Lia lost her first tooth. In her place was a woman who asked no one about their day, who made everyone coffee but drank her mug in the study, alone.
Lia was a senior in high school and had tragedies of her own. A boy she told herself she should like died stupidly over winter break. His name was Brad. They had been neighbors early in Lia’s childhood, friends even, or so she was told, in a time and a house Lia didn’t remember. This, before her mother received tenure and her father started his own landscaping company, affording the family a larger home in a more sterile part of town.
At school, Lia had watched all the other girls pair off with all the boys, coupling together, splitting apart, before finding another partner and starting the process all over again. It was like observing some sort of live biological experiment, one that Lia had never felt the need to participate in. Though, she supposed Brad was as good a candidate as any for a crush. He was everything she was not: popular, athletic, carefree, quick to laugh. But when she imagined what it would be like to walk down the hall with him, holding his hand or hanging onto his arm, as she had seen other girls do with their boys, she felt nothing.
Brad wasn’t exactly a bad boy, though he had owned a used motorcycle. One night in late December, while on break before what would have been the final semester he and Lia shared together, Brad did what teenagers do. He threw a party, drank, made a bad decision, and crashed his bike off the state road. It was after midnight. No one found him until the following afternoon.
Lia sometimes thought about Brad lying on the side of the road. He always wore his helmet, so he wouldn’t have died right away. He would have had time to wonder. Why him. Why now. Maybe near the end Brad would call out to someone. His father. His mother. Maybe Brad would shout God’s name. Or maybe he would whisper, Lia.
Old mom would have consoled her daughter. She would have asked what was wrong and offered advice Lia wouldn’t truly appreciate for years. But when Lia broke the news to new mom, she simply lifted her head from her coffee mug and said, “That’s awful.”
Old mom was gone.
A week later, the first day of spring semester, new mom was gone too.
Which was worse? Losing someone in an instant, or watching them disappear over time?
Lia didn’t know anything was wrong right away. Her dad did a good job covering for her mother. Partners until the end. It helped that Lia was a self-admitted moody teenager. The fall semester of junior year, she had to take a strengths assessment, this boring exam that asked a hundred questions designed to determine what kind of person you really were, so you could plan your looming career accordingly. At the end, it gave your top five strengths, and the bottom three. Your weaknesses. Lia’s number-one strength was intellection, which meant she was an introspective person who liked to be mentally challenged, and who liked to be alone.
At the bottom was sympathy. This came as a shock. She’d always thought of herself as a nice person, someone who could sense how others were feeling, when they were happy or sad. And maybe that was true. But her number-two strength was empathy, which meant, yes, she was very perceptive about the emotions of others, but that didn’t mean she cared. She simply understood and, in her case, moved on.
She thought about that test often, wondering if her lack of sympathy was the reason she never paired off with anyone. Or if it explained why she did not have any friends at school. She had acquaintances in Newspaper, and smiled politely to the girls she sat with at lunch, but beyond that her classmates seemed to recognize she wanted little to do with them. Everyone gave her space, a fair distance from which she could safely watch the world around her, which for reasons she could never explain, she never felt a part of.
The first week her mother was gone, her dad claimed she was at a conference. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“I think I would have remembered,” Lia said. She had a good memory, and thanks to her Newspaper teacher, Miss Scott, one of the saints of public schools, she had become quite observant.
“Oh, well, nothing to worry about.” He patted her on the shoulder and retreated upstairs.
A conference was conceivable. Her mother was a biology professor at the local community college, and although her department showed little interest in whether or not she published, she attended at least one conference per year to stay up to date on the latest findings, as she put it. But Lia’s quick Internet search revealed no stateside conferences the week of her disappearance. When pressed, her dad said the conference was probably very small, but very affordable.
Lia’s first newspaper assignment when she returned to school was a preview of the basketball team’s upcoming season. Under normal circumstances she would have promptly completed the assignment, but she was having trouble getting started with this one. Old mom might have wondered if her reluctance was related to Brad, who had been a starter on the basketball team before he died. What if, old mom might ask, the story isn’t what you’re really avoiding?
That isn’t the problem, Lia told herself.
Then what is?
Lia told Miss Scott she wanted to interview some of the players’ family members, so that she might go beyond surface level facts. And although Miss Scott lifted her eyebrows, she let Lia leave campus to work on the assignment. Miss Scott was great like that, giving her students enough rope to hang themselves, but trusting that they wouldn’t. There was a rumor that before she started teaching she worked for the local newspaper until she was fired for exposing the corrupt city manager, who happened to be the brother of the paper’s editor in chief. She must’ve known what it would cost her, Lia thought, to publish the story. Lia always admired people like that, those who knew the rules but broke them anyway. She believed that although many rules were arbitrary, most existed for a good reason. Her mother said she must’ve got that way of thinking from her dad, the kind of man who always sorted his recycling.
Lia drove straight to Brad’s house and parked across the street. She hadn’t been there since the night of the party. She’d gone with a girl who by all accounts she should have been friends with, and the two of them snuck away from the crowd and into Brad’s room. The room was small and ordinary. A poster of an athlete on one wall, a band Lia knew but thought were terrible on another. It was all so—expected. The girl dared Lia to smell Brad’s sheets or steal his underwear, but Lia had no desire to touch any of Brad’s possessions. She felt nothing standing there, minus the small buzz she got from trespassing with her classmate, standing in the dark room with her. She eyed the girl for a moment, until the girl caught her looking and backed out of the room.
Lia left the car running in front of Brad’s house and what she was told was her childhood home. Both houses were small, though hers had an extra window just below the gabled roof that must’ve belonged to an attic. A few minutes passed before Brad’s mother came out to grab the morning paper. She noticed Lia idling across the street, and stared in her direction for a moment, confused, before offering an unsure wave. Lia put the car in drive and sped away.
You’re afraid, old mom said, in her head.
You are. You’ve never felt loss before and you don’t know what to do with it.
It’s more than that.
You liked him.
I didn’t. I only wanted to.
I thought I was supposed to.
Lia thought of the girl in Brad’s room, of the slight buzz she felt from staring at her. It was a feeling that was both new and old, and that she pretended she didn’t understand.
I don’t know what I want.
Lia turned onto her street. Without thinking she had driven to the home she remembered. The garage door opened. She slowed down and watched her dad, who should have been at work hours ago, back out and head in the opposite direction of his job.
You want to follow him.
Lia stayed a few cars behind, like in the movies she’d seen, but her dad didn’t look back in any of his mirrors. He drove over the speed limit, odd for such a stickler for the rules. Lia still had no clue where he was going, other than that he was headed downtown. Her mind wandered to various possibilities, none of which made sense. Besides her mother’s conferences, her parents were boring. They never went anywhere. They worked, came home and cooked, and one weekend out of the month they went to a movie Lia had no interest in seeing. Yet now her mother was gone. And her dad was going who knows where.
She almost missed him when he veered down an alley and into the back entrance of a parking garage. Lia let her imagination churn. She saw her dad meeting some mystery man. The two of them sharing a cigarette, though her dad never smoked. A manila envelope stamped shut with a secret symbol would be exchanged, tucked safely into a trench coat.
But if he were meeting a conspiracy theorist or whistle-blower, this was the worst place. The lot was chock-full of squad cars. This was parking for the police station, which must have resided above. As she considered the possibilities, her dad’s car disappeared from view.
Lia circled around until she found her dad’s car, on the lowest level. He wasn’t in it. She checked her phone. No service, but Lia’s hour was almost up. If she left now, she could make an excuse Miss Scott wouldn’t buy, but might permit. She parked instead, across from her dad, and waited. Fifteen minutes. Half an hour. The entire time her mind listed all the rules she was breaking, the ways she would get into trouble.
Finally, her dad appeared. His hands were empty, his head hung low. He didn’t get in his car immediately. He leaned against the trunk. Maybe he was waiting for someone. The mystery man. Or maybe he was waiting for Lia’s mother.
He heard Lia get out of the car.
“Hello?” he said. He couldn’t see fully, not in the dark of the parking garage. “Who’s there?” There was a tremble in his voice Lia hadn’t heard before. Had she ever seen her dad cry? A sappy children’s movie, maybe. In a picture of him in the hospital, right after Lia was born. “I’m not playing any stupid games, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Lia stepped forward. “Dad, it’s me.”
“Lia? What in the world—”
He pulled her in for a hug and scratched Lia with his rough face. Before today, he hadn’t gone a day without shaving for as long as she’d been alive.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was worried about you,” Lia said.
“Why aren’t you at school?”
“Why aren’t you at work?”
He laughed, a small sob catching at the back of his throat.
“Why are you at the police station?” Lia asked. Her dad looked around, his car surrounded by a sea of cruisers. “Is something wrong with Mom?”
Her dad looked away. Growing up, he was the softer parent, the one she ran to when the other said no. “There’s nothing wrong with your mother,” he said. “She’s at a conference.”
“It has nothing to do with you, okay? It’s just . . . your uncle.”
“Emile. Now let’s get you back to school. You shouldn’t be here.”
He walked Lia to her car and opened the door. Lia repeated her uncle’s name to herself. “Emile.” She tried to conjure a picture of her dad’s brother, but she had no real memories of him, only a faded dream of the two of them lying in a field somewhere, staring at the blue sky and making shapes out of the clouds. He was the black sheep. She knew that much. At home, the only time his name was spoken was when Lia’s parents badmouthed him in hushed voices, whispers that quickly dissipated when she entered the room.
Her dad shut the driver-side door. “Seat belt.”
Lia buckled up, put the car in reverse, but lingered on the brake. “Is he okay?”
“No,” her dad said. “But he never will be.”
Lia returned to school in time for fifth period. It was peer review day in English, which meant she sat in the back and watched the two girls in front of her evaluate each other’s poorly written essays for five minutes before they gossiped for the remainder of the class. They talked about their hair mostly, or the laundry list of things that annoyed them: Abby’s skirt, the cafeteria lunch that day. They also talked about Brad.
“Did you hear there’s a memorial this Friday?” one asked.
“Are you going?”
“Of course. You?”
“Of course. One time we were this close to hooking up.”
At the end of class, the TV bolted to the corner turned on automatically to air NewsNow, a fifteen-minute news program in which young, theoretically cool journalists tried to relay some piece of national news to the most inattentive generation in history. The girls in front of Lia continued to gossip, but she tuned them out. The reporter, a twentysomething woman, was talking about a place called Limetown, a town that until a few months ago didn’t exist. Lia was certain she had heard the name before, though she wasn’t positive where. Perhaps it was over dinner with her parents. They often talked about the news of the world for Lia’s benefit, doing their best to encourage what then was a mild interest in journalism. But what they said about this place she couldn’t remember.
The reporter said that if you asked the people of Sparta, Tennessee, who at fifty miles away were Limetown’s nearest neighbors, the whole place appeared overnight. Magic, one man said. Not magic, his wife said. The government. The reporter, however, had done some digging. She was from Sparta originally, which, she explained, was the only reason she’d heard about Limetown to begin with. She hadn’t found much, but she did discover a name: R. B. Villard, a telecommunications giant who, in the eighties and nineties, made the kind of money people sell their soul for. Role tape A: Villard, predictably male, white, and old, testifying before Congress, swearing to God that his recent purchase of three rival telecom companies did not pose a threat to the sovereignty of the field’s remaining competitors. Role tape B: a montage of reporters from major networks reporting on the settlement Villard’s company, Realore, was forced to pay shortly after.
“So, do we bring candles to this thing or what?” one of the girls said.
“Yeah,” the other girl said, “it’s BYOC.”
“And now, this,” the reporter said, gesturing toward the chain link fence behind her, tall and wide as the camera’s frame. The fence appeared to be guarding nothing other than the Tennessee woods, but according to the locals, the fence made a semicircle around the town, which lay some hundred yards or so past the fence. The fence ended when it ran into a ridge. The ridge led to a small range of mountains, beneath which, the reporter said, were a tangle of caves that extended for miles, like tree roots.
Lia felt a heaviness in her chest. This town had nothing to do with her, but its mystery reminded her of the others in life. Her missing mother, her father’s strange behavior. The feeling she felt at school, observing all the couples. That something inside her was missing.
“Locals claim the caves are where the town gets its name,” the reporter said. “They’re made of this.” She held a small chalky rock up to the camera. “Limestone.”
There were no pictures of Limetown. No records or blueprints at the county courthouse. NewsNow did not have the money for a helicopter, the reporter explained, but even if they had they were told on multiple occasions that because of Limetown, White County, Tennessee, was now a no-fly zone. It was the only no-fly area in the country that wasn’t a federal building or military base.
“So will his family be there?”
“No,” the other girl said. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. It’s a secret. For close friends. No one else is supposed to know about it.”
“For the moment,” the reporter said, “all we know is what Realore tells us.”
A week before the news story was set to air, after a deluge of phone calls and requested interviews, Realore issued a statement. Not to the reporter specifically, but to all media. It was brief, vague, and intriguing. The press release read:
The mind is a tool humans have yet to maximize. Limetown and its inhabitants aim to change that. And in the end the world will be better for it. Far best is he who knows all things himself.
At the end of the segment, the reporter approached the fence’s sole gate but was quickly escorted away by a security guard who looked like he worked nights at the local mall.
“So no one else knows about it?” the girl said.
“No one but us,” the other said. “Unless you count Brad.”
The bell rang. The TV shut off.
“That’s kind of creepy,” the girl said.
The other girl took her hand. “I know.”
No one was home after school. Lia’s dad had returned to work; her mother was still at her purported conference. Out of curiosity Lia tried the cell phone her dad gave her mother for Christmas, but it was new to her and she’d always claimed to be a bit of a technophobe. Lia’s call went straight to voice mail. She didn’t leave a message.
That night she couldn’t sleep. She lay in bed rehearsing tomorrow, her normal routine, which she liked because it gave her a sense of control. She told herself that tomorrow she would focus on the story she was assigned for Newspaper. Not her dead wannabe crush, not her missing mother—not any of the different mysteries that had become knotted in her mind. She would go to the memorial, get quotes from Brad’s teammates, and finish her piece on the basketball team’s upcoming season. Because it didn’t feel good, these growing mysteries, not for someone who only liked a good riddle if she was confident she could solve it.
After she planned tomorrow, her mind involuntarily replayed today. She saw her dad crying in the parking garage, heard the pain in his voice when he said his brother’s name. Emile. Lia still knew nothing about him, but as she drifted off into sleep, her imagination, longing for answers, filled the void. She dreamed of her mother and Emile running off together. She saw him taking her for a midnight ride outside of town, swerving to avoid a deer, and running Brad off the road. Her mother standing over his body, saying, We have to do something. Emile grabbing her by the arm, pulling her away, the two of them escaping to Limetown, where they would start a new life.
Miss Scott gave Lia detention for never reporting back the day before. She laughed. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “Lia Haddock, of all people.” She had Lia clean each desktop in her classroom, and when Lia was finished, she took her rag and spray bottle down each hall looking for gum. Lia had twenty minutes to kill, so she wandered slowly. She wiped the fingerprints off the wall of trophy cases surrounding the main auditorium, making her way to the small cabinet housing the plaques for nonathletic accomplishments, tucked in the corner of one hall. There were no fingerprints on its glass, only dust.
Above the band room were portraits of every previous senior class, including the ones from way back when her dad had attended. Lia had glanced at these before, and once or twice she’d found him in his class photo, his dark and embarrassing feathered hair, his thick eyebrows that he’d passed on to Lia. But where was Emile? He would have gone here too. She scanned the years before and after her dad graduated. She went a decade in the past, flashed five years in the future. There was no Emile Haddock listed.
As she made her way back to Miss Scott’s classroom, she wondered when Emile had turned bad, bad enough that her parents rarely spoke his name. Maybe, like Lia, he carried around the persistent feeling that he belonged elsewhere. Maybe he didn’t fit in in high school either. Maybe if he came back, he could help Lia. Maybe he could—
“You have three minutes left of detention,” Miss Scott said, after Lia returned to her classroom. She didn’t bother lifting her head from the student essay she was tattooing red.
“You knew my dad, right?” Lia said.
“Your mother too. Good people.”
“No. I mean, he went here. He was a student of yours.” Miss Scott had said something that first day of class. Called Lia a spitting image. The apple of his eye. “What about my uncle? Did you know him?”
Miss Scott looked up. She took off her reading glasses. “What’s this about?”
“I was looking at the class portraits. I didn’t see any Emiles listed.”
“That’s because Emile was never a senior,” Miss Scott said. “He had a difficult time.”
“So you did know him.”
She stared at Lia for a while, studying her face, perhaps looking for a trace of her uncle, a landmark from the past. “Not as well as I would’ve liked,” Miss Scott said, “but I know your dad cared about him. He was very protective.”
Miss Scott had taught Lia interview techniques the first week of the fall semester. She showed her different ways to elicit information from a subject who was less than forthcoming. First: Repeat their words. Make them feel insecure. Force them to elaborate.
“For whatever reason,” Miss Scott said, “Emile got in fights. Quite a few, before he dropped out.”
“I know what you’re doing.”
Miss Scott laughed. She twirled her red pen around her thumb, until the pen’s point stopped, landing on Lia.
“Why didn’t my dad get in trouble?”
“He did. But after a while, he wised up.”
“But Emile kept fighting.”
Second: When repetition fails, finish their thoughts.
“Well, from what I heard, he didn’t start many of the fights. He just had a way of finishing them.”
The bell rang. Lia grabbed her book bag. Third: It’s okay not to ask every question. Press pause, walk away. Give the subject time to feel guilty for all the things they kept secret.
Miss Scott walked Lia to the door. “You’re getting good,” she said. “But you need to be careful.”
Careful? Lia thought. But she knew better than to push it.
The rest of the week passed without event, and without the return of Lia’s mother. Monday would mark two weeks that she’d been gone, and Lia’s dad had taken to avoiding Lia altogether. Notes in the kitchen said he was working late. Or he left messages on their archaic answering machine, having called when he knew Lia wouldn’t be home.
He was gone Friday night too, the night of the vigil. The strangeness of her empty house pushed her out the door. The vigil was held at Lost 80, a remote park in the middle of the woods good for fighting, smoking, and sex. Lia had been there once, with a boy who was too nervous to make a move. She parked away from the gravel lot and picnic benches. The cops knew about Lost 80 too. Most of them had gone to Lia’s high school and never escaped after graduation.
Everyone gathered on the far side of Potter Lake. It was really more of a large pond, but the town was short on scenery. The tallest hill was called a mountain. The two girls from English were there, huddled together, faces glowing above a shared candle. It was difficult to tell how many other people were present. Someone had built a small fire, the only light other than the candles and orange dots from joints and cigarettes. It would snow later that night, and the sky was overcast, the moon nowhere to be seen.
“We should get started,” a girl said. Abby, one of Brad’s longest flings. She was a tiny girl with long dark hair, a button nose. She stood by the fire holding a sheet of paper. A poem, maybe. This whole thing was probably her idea. “Does anyone want to speak first?”
The frosted grass crunched beneath shifting feet. They watched each other’s breath. Abby unfolded her paper. She looked down at her words and shook her head.
“I wrote something,” Abby said, “in English class. But it’s not . . . I don’t think . . .” She folded the paper, put it in her coat pocket. “Brad was good to me. Though really, I wasn’t that good to him.” Some awkward laughter. “We dated for eleven months but I never liked him the way I should’ve liked him. Like he liked me.” Lia stepped closer to the fire. Abby frowned. “Anyway, what I wrote was stupid. It was a dumb poem about how no one is ever gone. Like, how I can hear his voice, even though my parents are atheists and I know better.”
Lia shivered. She heard her mother’s voice tell her a ghost was passing through.
Abby took out the paper and dropped it into the fire. A few people closed in around her. The English girls, one of Brad’s best friends. They took her arms and formed a chain, and together they watched her words burn.
The fire died, was brought back to life, and threatened to die again. Girls passed around weed and wine coolers. Boys shotgunned beer. Lia was too afraid to drink or smoke, but she stayed because she knew nothing waited for her at home. She lingered by the fire and wondered how long it would go on like this. What would happen if her mom never returned home, if Lia had to watch her dad slowly disappear too?
Abby put her hand on Lia’s shoulder. “?‘No man is an island,’?” she said. “What a joke.” It took Lia a moment to realize what she was talking about—the words carved into the tree a few yards behind her. “It isn’t fair,” Abby said. Her eyes were red from crying, or maybe it was the smoke. “Everybody liked Brad.”
Abby took a swig from a wine cooler she’d tucked beneath her arm.
“You liked him, didn’t you? Is that it?”
“No,” Lia said. “I mean, yes, but—”
“Yeah, you did. You little weirdo. Tell the truth.” Abby ruffled Lia’s hair like Lia was a small dog. Lia tried to step away but Abby pushed her, catching her off guard. Lia fell, feet away from the fire.
A few girls laughed, a dumb boy meowed. Lia rolled away from the fire and into the darkness, shutting her eyes to make everyone disappear. What could she say? She thought she cared about Brad, but didn’t? That until the night of the party, the night that Brad died, she’d let herself believe that Brad was, if not the answer, then at least an answer to her loneliness?
When she finally opened her eyes, Abby was gone. Lia sat up. Everyone was running. Into the woods, in all directions.
A few seconds later police flashlights streamed through the trees. Lia stood and ran.
She hid in the woods for an hour, watching the cops’ half-hearted attempts to make arrests. They caught a few kids who were too slow or too high. One kid insisted to the cops that he didn’t do anything wrong. But the others, they cried. They begged for mercy. Don’t tell our parents, they said.
While she waited for the cops to leave the woods, Lia practiced apologies to her dad. Sorry, I lost track of time. No, I wasn’t drinking. I would never smoke. No, I wasn’t at a friend’s. I was at a vigil. I lost someone.
When she finally made it home, the kitchen light was on but dimmed. Lia started to apologize before she even saw who was sitting at the table, watching the news.
Her mother didn’t turn to face her. She kept her eyes on the TV. A plane had crashed somewhere in the Pacific. There were over two hundred passengers. No survivors.
“You’re grounded,” her mother said.
“I’m sorry,” Lia said.
“No, you’re not. That’s the one thing I’ve learned. People do what they want. Good luck trying to stop them.”
“So how was the conference?”
“Illuminating,” her mother said. “And nonexistent.”
“Then where were you?”
“Nowhere, as far as I can tell.”
Lia sat opposite her mother, blocking the TV. Eliminate distractions, Miss Scott said. Confine your subject to the story.
“Mom, I was worried. What’s going on?”
“It’s nothing you need to worry about,” she said, though she still wouldn’t look at Lia.
Don’t let them off easy. If you let them evade, you’ll never get the truth.
“You disappeared for almost two weeks for a conference that you just told me didn’t happen.”
She continued looking down. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry. You deserve a better excuse. So does your dad.”
“He didn’t know either?”
Behind Lia a reporter narrated the crashed plane’s projected flight path. Where it took off from, where it should have landed. Lia turned and watched for a moment as the reporter drew a large circle on a map of the ocean, an estimate where the passengers likely died. But really, he said, they could be anywhere.
When Lia turned back around, her mother was in tears.
“Oh, Lia,” she said. “Something bad is going to happen there. I tried to warn him. I told him not to go back.”
The news went to commercial. Lia’s mother fixed her dark eyes on Lia, as if willing her to understand.
“Mom, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s going to happen? Where?”
Lia heard a creak on the stairs. Her mother looked around her, worried.
“Mom, tell me what you mean.”
The commercial ended abruptly. There was breaking news. They found the black box. And with it, the reporter said, hope for answers.
“Limetown,” her mother said. “It will not end well. He needs to get out.”
Her mother leaned in, just before Lia’s dad entered the kitchen.
“Your uncle,” her mother whispered. “Emile.”
Her dad stood in the doorway, recycling bag in hand. “So,” he said. “What are we talking about?”
Lia’s mother glanced at her, then quickly looked away.
“Nothing,” Lia said. “A plane crashed.”
Her dad raised an eyebrow, but didn’t question Lia’s answer. He turned to the TV. “Oh, I saw that. All those people. What a tragedy.”
Lia was in Miss Scott’s room, working late on the piece about the basketball team when she heard the news about Limetown. Before that, Lia would later think, it could have been an ordinary day. If someone was reporting on her life, if they took a snapshot of her on her way to school, they wouldn’t know that she had taken her mother’s car—newer and nicer than her pre-owned—to school that morning because her mother canceled her classes that week, and would for the rest of the semester. If they interviewed her dad, they might shoot Lia a passing smile as she rushed through the kitchen, only pausing long enough to say she didn’t have time for breakfast. Until Lia got out the door and took off the mask, until she sat safely in her mother’s car, which she would rifle through later, looking for any clue as to where she had been, she could have been any other naive midwestern teen with no idea how good she had it.
Miss Scott read the headline off the Internet, as if it were any other trivial story. “Entire Town Vanishes in White County, Tennessee. Huh. Look at that. Limetown.”
As she read, Lia grew very hot. She felt nauseous. Over three hundred men, women, and children. Vanished. Every home and building abandoned. An entire town—gone. The next day there would be a full report on NewsNow and every other major media outlet. No cameras were allowed inside. NewsNow set up outside the fence, behind which billowed an enormous tower of smoke seemingly erupted from the trees. The reporter stood in front of the fence, desperate to know what had happened. But she had no answers. No one did. All she could do was direct the camera to the smoke and wonder.
“Are you almost finished?” Miss Scott asked.
Lia had been staring blankly at the computer screen, imagining all the ways someone could disappear.
She didn’t answer. Her head buzzed with the possibilities, all the things she didn’t know, everything her parents were hiding.
“Lia,” Miss Scott said. “Are you all right?”
“My uncle was there. In Limetown.”
Another teacher poked her head in. Miss Scott waved her away.
Lia wiped her eyes, but they were dry. “I didn’t even know him.”
Lia looked up at Miss Scott. She wanted to tell her about her mom. About her uncle, the way her dad sounded when he said his name at the police station. She wanted someone to help fill in the strange gaps that had crept into her life, to sort through the possibilities and tell her what was true.
“There are too many questions,” she said, knowing what Miss Scott would say before she said it.
She said, “You’re only as good as the questions you ask.”
She stood Lia up for a hug. Lia squeezed her as hard as she could.
“Something is wrong,” Lia said, trying to describe the growing heaviness in her chest.
“That’s your intuition,” Miss Scott said. “A good journalist never ignores it.”
Her intuition. Maybe that was what led her to Brad’s house, to the police station parking lot. Maybe that was what set off alarm bells when she saw the story about Limetown. But was any of it connected? If she closed her eyes again, and concentrated hard enough, could she weave the threads together?
Lia lifted her head from Miss Scott’s shoulder. “I don’t know where to start,” she said.
“Not yet,” Miss Scott said. “But someday you will.”