Sara and her mom have a plan to finally escape Sara’s abusive father. But when her mom doesn’t show up as expected, Sara’s terrified. Her father says that she’s on a business trip, but Sara knows he’s lying. Her mom is missing—and her dad had something to do with it.
With each day that passes, Sara’s more on edge. Her friends know that something’s wrong, but she won’t endanger anyone else with her secret. And with her dad growing increasingly violent, Sara must figure out what happened to her mom before it’s too late…for them both.
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What She Left Behind
I sometimes have this dream that I’m drowning in a giant bowl of oatmeal. That’s how I feel when I’m at home. When I’m at school, it’s different. I hang out with Zach, sneak Ritz Bits crackers during class, and read horror novels in history. I like horror because it puts things in perspective. I mean, at least I’m not being chased by killer bees and no one’s trying to hack off my arm.
First period is band. Right now it’s marching season, which sucks because it’s all about football. I hate football. Usually I stuff a copy of Soap Opera Digest between my uniform and my real clothes so I have something to do between the pregame and halftime shows.
What I really like is concert season. That’s when I get to trade in my big, clunky, ordinary clarinet for my E-flat clarinet. Matt—that’s my brother—used to call it the “shrunken clarinet,” as if I had left it in the dryer too long.
I’m playing my shrunken clarinet in the living room, trying to chase away that oatmeal-dream feeling, when my mom comes in and stands right next to me. “Sara, we have to go,” she whispers, even though my dad isn’t there to hear her. She’s not crying. She’s calm. Matter-of-fact. As if she’s asking me whether I want mayo or mustard on my sandwich. Except in secret.
I know it’s time to go. I’ve known for a long time.
“You must think I’m an idiot for not getting us out of here sooner.”
“It’s okay,” I say. I twirl my ponytail, like you do to turn off the faucet when the hose is spraying all over you. I do that when I’m nervous. Or lying. Or both. “I’ll go get my things.” I open the case and put away my clarinet.
“We’ll leave at lunch tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at the Dairy Dream.”
Tomorrow? When you decide to do something, you should just do it. Otherwise you might change your mind. Especially if you’re my mom.
“Don’t pack a lot. Just your duffel bag.”
One bag? How do you put a whole life in one bag?
“Leave it under your bed. I’ll stop and get it just before I come pick you up.”
That’s it? This is Mom’s plan?
“Hurry. Before he gets home.”
On your marks, get set …
“Sara, we have to be careful. Your dad said—”
“Can’t we talk later? Like, tomorrow in the car?” I know what she wants to tell me. She forgets I was there.
We were in the living room. Dad was reading a book about the history of polio. He always reads nonfiction. I was at the piano, playing a song called Wildfire by ear and trying to remember the words. My mom was dusting. She knocked a book off a shelf and it hit the ground with a loud bang. Like a gunshot.
“What Matt did is your fault,” my dad said, slamming his book shut. “And don’t you ever forget it!”
I stopped playing. Before I took my next breath, he was across the room. Dad cupped his hand around Mom’s throat and slammed her head into the wall. Thump!
Mom didn’t fight back. She never did. The worst part is, she didn’t look afraid. She just looked empty.
I stared, like always. A tree in the Petrified Forest. I looked down at my hands and feet and ordered them to move, only they wouldn’t. Please don’t let her die. Please, Matt, tell God to let her live.
“Don’t even think of leaving.”
Slam! The wall again. “Do you hear me? Don’t even think of it. I won’t have people saying, ‘You know that Ray guy? Heard what his son did? Yeah, well, his wife left him too.”
Let her go, let her go! my voice said inside me, only my mouth wouldn’t open so the words couldn’t get out.
Dad wrapped one hand around her chin and forced her to look at him. “I will find you,” he whispered. “Guaranteed.”
He let go of her and took the Statue of Liberty figurine that we got a long time ago on vacation off the shelf. He threw it against the wall, next to Mom’s face. It shattered on impact.
Later I picked up the big pieces and vacuumed up the rest. Dad was back to reading. He smiled sweetly as if nothing had happened. “Thanks, Sara. You always know the right thing to do without being asked.”
Trying to forget that day, I hurry down the hallway to my room. I pull my duffel bag from the closet. It’s red and black, and has the logo of a cigarette company on it. My dad smokes so many cigarettes that he’s in some kind of rewards program. Our whole house smells like cigarettes, only once you’re inside for a few minutes you can’t tell anymore. In a few days I’ll be living in a place without that smell.
I open the zipper and shove Sam, my stuffed dog, inside. Sam has brown fur and a box-turtle-size black patch on his back. He also has a gaping hole in his neck, but the stuffing is so solid it never falls out. I know it’s stupid to take him. At sixteen, no one should need a stuffed animal. Too bad I have trouble sleeping without holding on to him.
After Sam, I add my shrunken clarinet to my bag. Technically it’s not mine—it belongs to the school—but I can’t leave it behind. Not only is it cute-looking, but you can play amazingly high notes on it. Somehow I’ll figure out a way to pay for it. I’m going to need it to keep me from obsessing about my dad showing up and dragging us back to life in the oatmeal bowl.
Next I pack the usual—underwear, socks, jeans, T-shirts. I tuck in a few sparkly silver butterfly clips and my Sheer Blonde shampoo and conditioner, for my hair that’s still sort of blond and that I desperately want to stay blond. My blondness links me to my brother and my mom. My dad’s hair is brown, and I want no part of looking or being like him.
Should I pack for winter, too? I throw in my Eastern Michigan sweatshirt, then switch it out for something more generic. No sense broadcasting where we’re from—Mom and I will need to blend in to our new town.
Since Mom has me packing just a duffel bag, she’s probably planning on getting us new stuff. Although I’m not sure how. Has she been hiding cash in the freezer, next to the waffles my dad never touches? The only credit card I’ve ever seen her use is the one with Mickey Mouse on it—not because we’re ever going to go to Disney, but because it came with zero-percent interest and my dad used it to buy a new canoe. That’s a joint account. Does she have one in her own name?
More important, does she know what she’s doing? I mean, it’s not like there’s a bookstore in a fifty-mile radius where my mom can buy a guide to leaving your ex-cop husband and not have everyone in Scottsfield find out about it, including my dad. Scottsfield is about as far out in the sticks as you can be, which means that everyone knows everything about everyone except the things that really matter. Maybe Mom used the Internet at work. I try to be optimistic.
I go over to my desk and grab my photo album. I open to the first page. There we are: me, Mom, Dad, and Matt in front of the Statue of Liberty. Even Dad is smiling. I close the album and stick it in my bag.
Toothbrush! I knew I was forgetting something. I almost have it in my bag when I remember that I still need it for tonight. And tomorrow morning. Why are we waiting for tomorrow? We should be leaving now. How are we going to make it through dinner with Dad?
A car door slams. He’s home. My hands shake like I’m playing a solo during a band concert. I fumble with my tennis shoes, stuffing them into the bag, then I zip it and toss it onto the floor. I try to push it under the bed, but it’s too tall. It keeps getting stuck.
Keys clink against the kitchen counter. I take the tennis shoes out of the bag, and yank at the zipper. It catches on a pair of shorts. Forget about closing it. I kick the bag under my bed.
“Hello? Where is everyone?” My dad’s footsteps thump closer.
Is my mom’s bag packed and stashed under the bed or does she have stuff strewn all over the room? I have to go with the stuff-strewn-everywhere version. Ever since Matt died, my mom doesn’t do neat and tidy. She does chaos, which I guess is simply a reflection of how we all feel. Unfortunately it also means that I have to pick up the slack with cleaning. My dad requires counters to be dish free, coffee tables to be magazine free, and the laundry-room floor to be clothes free. That’s just for starters.
I take my tennis shoes into the hall and plop myself in front of my dad to put them on. “Hi, Dad!”
“Hi, yourself. How was your day?” He speaks so normally, so rationally, some of the time.
“Great,” I say. My voice comes out too high-pitched even for a girl. “I’m going biking. Want to come?”
Wrong question. He frowns and wanders off toward the window without responding. My dad hasn’t been on a bike since Matt died. We used to go biking together all the time. Me, Matt, and Dad. Dad can’t go running with us anymore because of the gunshot wound he got when he was a cop, but he can still bike. Funny thing is, when I bike I can still feel Matt riding next to me, hear the crunch of his wheels on the gravel. It’s my dad who seems to be missing.
I finish tying my shoes and stand up. “I better ask Mom how long before dinner,” I say, sprinting off toward my parents’ bedroom.
My mom is busy straightening their comforter. The whole suitcase-under-the-bed thing has me nervously twirling my ponytail. It feels like a plane has crashed and the black box is beeping a signal at a frequency only I can hear. And I hope Dad never hears.
“I was just checking to see how long I had before dinner,” I say from the doorway. Mom and I avoid looking at each other. It’s easier that way. “I wanted to go for a bike ride.”
“Sure, have fun,” she says, a bit too loudly. “Be back in an hour.”
I pedal down the dirt driveway, surrounded by twenty acres of hay and sweet smells. We don’t farm—those acres are just a cushion between us and the rest of the world. Grasshoppers bounce along in front of my bike, trying to get out of the way. I look back at our house—white vinyl siding, black trim, and a green roof. There are lots of shrubs, stone frogs, gnomes, and fake dragonflies on metal stakes, but no more flowers. Gardening used to be my mom’s hobby. We spent every Saturday one spring ripping out grass to make more flower beds, but this year Mom let the grass grow back in.
Chester, the neighbor’s horse, is out in his field, tossing his head over the fence. Most afternoons I feed him carrots. My heart skips. Will Chester be okay once I leave? Mr. Jenkins takes about as much care of that horse as he does his house. In other words, not much at all. His roof needs to be reshingled, the barn repainted, the bushes trimmed, the fence repaired, the siding replaced. My dad has a mental list of about a hundred things he thinks Jenkins needs to do. Half the items most people could have come up with. The rest are things only my dad would notice.
As I pedal, I think about my favorite TV show, In Plain Sight. It’s about the Witness Protection Program. I always thought it would be exciting to hide behind a new identity. I just didn’t think it would actually happen to me. Also, I underestimated the ache I would feel over never seeing my dad again. My dad hasn’t always been like this. Back when we lived in Philadelphia and he was a cop, he was always smiling. After we moved to Michigan, he smiled a lot less. Since my brother killed himself, he’s stopped smiling altogether. And he takes it out on my mom. Me, he leaves alone.
My dad’s voice echoes in my head. What Matt did is your fault. What was I thinking? What if Dad’s already figured out that we’re planning on leaving? What will he do to Mom? I shouldn’t have left her alone with him. Not that I’ll be much help. I spin around and bike home as fast as I can.
When I get back, the house smells of garlic mixed with oregano. Spaghetti. My dad’s favorite. How fitting for our last night together. From the doorway I can hear the thud of silverware being laid down on the table and the clink of glasses being carried together. Dad’s news program murmurs on the TV in the living room. He doesn’t suspect. At least, not yet.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I say. Not that anyone’s listening.
The water trickles down my face. I love long, hot showers, but I only dare to take them when my dad’s not home to scream at me for wasting water. Of course, he’s never actually yelled at me about the water, just at Matt.
When we leave, I’m going to miss Zach most of all. I can’t tell him what I’m going to be doing at lunchtime tomorrow. Not that I even really know myself. Still, I don’t want him knowing anything that my dad can punch out of him.
Zach was a favorite topic of conversation for my therapist, Maureen. She had just graduated from shrink school, and I could tell she was a real fan of Freud. Which wasn’t bad, since it meant she had a couch. Our first appointment went something like this:
“Who would you say your friends are?” she asked.
I kicked my shoes off and lay down on the couch. I liked the feel of the leather through my socks. I folded my hands under my neck and stared up at her ceiling.
She looked down at her notes. “Last week you said that he was your brother’s best friend.”
“Yeah, so?” I could see her trying to figure out which shrink theory that proved.
“How about girlfriends?”
I didn’t want to talk about it. “No, Zach’s not dating anyone at the moment.”
“I mean, do you have any close friends who are girls?”
“Zach’s my best friend. Lauren used to be my best friend, but we kind of lost touch after Matt died.”
“And why is that?”
“Because of what I was doing the day Matt died.”
“Which was?” She tilted her head, ready for me to tell all.
I glanced at her desk. “Nice flowers. Are they from your husband?”
Maureen nodded. My dad never gets flowers for my mom anymore. Probably just as well. She wouldn’t notice them anyway.
Maureen never seemed annoyed when I didn’t answer her questions. She just tried a new approach. “So it’s basically just you and Zach now?”
“How does that make you feel?”
I went back to staring at the ceiling. “I don’t know. Happy, I guess.”
“Sure. Zach acts a lot like my brother did. So sometimes I forget they’re not the same person.” I sat up and brushed my hands together. “Okay. Are we done here?”
The day after that, my dad smashed the Statue of Liberty. He made my mom call and tell Maureen I wouldn’t be in to see her anymore. He said therapy is a waste of money. He also told her to upgrade the cable service and to order him a subscription to Military History magazine. Then he went and bought a new fishing pole for Matt, who is dead.
“Where’s Matt? He’s always late for dinner.”
My dad often talks like he thinks Matt is still alive. To be fair, I do my share of pretending Matt’s alive. But I don’t vocalize it, at least, not most of the time.
I look down so my mom will answer. My wet hair brushes against the back of my neck, giving me a chill.
“I think he has a tutoring session with his history teacher. More cheesy bread, Ray?” She passes him the bread basket, then turns to me. “So how was school today?”
“Fine, I guess. Rachel spilled hydrochloric acid on herself in chem and had to use the emergency shower.”
“She’s okay, I hope,” says Mom.
“Yeah, she’s fine.”
I look over at my dad. As usual, he’s staring out at the fields, muttering to himself. The only word I catch is “oil.” Although I know I should hate him, my heart tells me to talk to him since I may never see him again. My stupid, stupid heart.
I clear my throat. “So, Dad. How was work today?”
“Dad,” I say, a little louder. “How was work today?”
“Oil. Matt needs to change the oil in his car. How does he expect it to run if he doesn’t change the oil?” He bangs his fist on the table for emphasis.
“Right. I’ll remind him when he gets home,” my mom cuts in. Then, in a fake-cheery voice that most people reserve for two-year-olds, she says, “Call volume was up today.” It’s her way of pretending that this conversation is perfectly normal. She makes a point of looking at both me and my dad when she talks, even though I’m the only one listening.
“That’s great,” I say. “Any special reason?”
“We were running a special on the Autumn Splendor sets. I showed you one of the plates, right?”
“Yeah, really cute.”
Mom works in management for Essence dinnerware. She’s always coming home with some sample or damaged merchandise. She loves all of those patterned plates and bowls—and especially the matching doodads that go with the sets, like place mats and candleholders. They even make piggy banks and snow globes. Mom has it all.
After dinner, Dad retreats to the basement and his trains. When he’s in his muttering phase, he’s usually pretty safe, so I follow. Dad’s never actually hurt me, anyhow. He’s just hurt Matt and my mom. Now just Mom. I’m not sure why, but I think the reason he leaves me alone has something to do with the trains. I am the one who comes down here with him, who watches him build and play. I am the one who goes with him on train-picture-taking missions. Together we have taken hundreds of pictures of trains. Maybe he thinks I understand him, get him.
But I do the best job pretending.
Dad sits on a high gray swivel chair. I duck under the table and stand in the center cut-out. He flips a few switches and a steam engine emerges from an old brick engine house. It looks dusty, but only because he painted it that way.
Trains have a way of helping Dad talk coherently. “I thought I’d make the haunted house next,” he says. Engines, boxcars, and building kits are all we get my dad for Christmas. Matt and I gave him the haunted house years ago, but he never put it together. His town has a grocery store, grain elevator, and an orange and green house Matt and I called the “pumpkin house.” Soon it will have our haunted house. Too bad neither Matt nor I will be there to see it.
“You can put it right here,” I say, pointing to an empty spot next to a cabin on the bank of the fake river. Dad designed the cabin to make it look like Ramona’s Retreat, this place we used to go on vacation. It also has these little people standing around outside it, like the four of us.
“Good point,” I say, nodding. In real life, the cabins near Ramona’s Retreat are so far apart you can forget there are other people around. “How about next to the hardware store?”
“Sure. That sounds good.” He smiles for the first time in a long while.
I stand and watch the trains travel around me, breathing in deeply the wet-potato basement smell that I love, but everyone else hates. And in this way, I say good-bye to Dad.
When I go back upstairs, Mom is watching our favorite soap, The Winds of Change. Mom let me start watching it with her when I was nine. I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s on late enough in the afternoons that, if I want, I can watch it live after school, but usually I just wait and watch it on the DVR with Mom.
“Sorry I started without you,” Mom says, hitting pause on the remote. “You want me to rewind?” She looks so pale and uncomfortable that I worry when Dad comes back up he’s going to figure out what we’re planning.
“No, it’s okay.” I sit down next to her. “You’ve got to try harder to look normal,” I whisper.
She nods and takes a deep breath.
“What’s happened with Julia?” I ask.
“She doesn’t remember getting hit by the car. Or that Ramón isn’t really her husband.” Mom takes a handful of Ritz Bits and offers me the box.
“She doesn’t remember that Ramón’s her stalker? No way. What about the apartment? How did he explain why they don’t have any pictures?” I pop a couple of crackers in my mouth.
“He said there’d been a fire.” She shakes her head.
“Hmm. I guess that would explain why they don’t have much furniture, either.”
I wonder if that’s what we’ll say too, when we get to where we’re going with just our duffel bags.
Reading Group Guide
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR:
What She Left Behind
by Tracy Bilen
1. Why doesn't Sara tell anyone except Zach her suspicions about her mom? Is there anyone else she could have or should have told? Would you have told someone else, if you were in her situation? Why or why not?
2. Alex starts showing an interest in Sara right around when her mom goes missing. In what ways is her growing relationship with him good for her during this time, and how is it bad? Why didn't Sara tell Alex about her mom?
3. For English class Sara writes a lot about her family. What do you learn about them and about her from these essays?
4. Sara and her mom watch a TV soap opera, Winds of Change. How is the main character, Julia, like Sara's mother?
5. What has made Sara's dad so violent and crazy? What was he like back when the family lived in Philadelphia?
6. Early on, Sara says she is mad at her brother Matt for killing himself. Why do you think she is mad at him? Do you think that is a fair response for her to have?
7. At one point, after Sara's mom has been missing for many days, Sara thinks “I want to go home,” even though she's actually in her house. Why doesn't it feel like home to her now? What does home mean to you?
8. Were you surprised by the ending? Did anything in the story lead you to expect this outcome?
9. In the end, Sara says she still loves her dad: How can this be? If you learned a parent or loved one did something criminal, do you think you would still love him or her?
10. Sara keeps the secret from her friends, teachers, and other family members that her mom is missing and that her dad might have killed her mom. What other characters have secrets that their friends and family don't know?
11. Do you think Sara faces her problems courageously? What are examples from the story that help you answer this? Explain, from your answer, what you think courage is.
Guide prepared by Jean Kowaleski.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.