On the far side of Midland Park, which overlooks a field of cornstalk stubble half buried in snow, I lean against a boulder. Its edges jab my back. I wonder if I've misplaced my brain--no, whether I've ever had one.
How could I have been so stupid?
I take the letter from my jacket pocket. It feels crisp in the dark, a little warm from my body. I can't see it. Don't need to. My mind zigzags through every line like a crazy freeway driver.
This is my first letter. Ever. On paper, that is. Everyone e-mails or text messages. Even my grandma Mim, who has no idea how to turn on a computer or cell phone, knows that. But this letter, the one that changes everything? I'm not ready for it.
The wind comes up. I shiver.
Then . . .
Like the far-off rumble of a train before the whistle sounds, a little crack in the wall of my memory threatens to break wide open. I see an image of a snake. Car headlights. A man's creepy face. The words "You'll be sorry, bitch!"
As fast as one picture flies into my mind, I push it away. Take a deep breath.
What do they mean, these fragments that flash too close and terrify me?
I look up. Watch the moon come out from behind thick clouds. Unfolding the letter from my mother, I flip on my pen flashlight. I've read only half of it so far. But I start over again. It can't be true.
Believe me, Anne. I never meant to hurt you. You have to understand that before you read on. . . .
"Mom," I whisper, drawing my fingers over each side of the smooth white pages that feel like shark's teeth, "where are you?"
Two months earlier my life in Centerville had been normal. For me, that is. School, band, best friend, mother, grandparents, black and white cat. Our home, an old two-story of gray stone with a guest cottage, sat back from the road, hidden behind an orchard of crab apple trees. It had probably been an awesome house at one time, but before Mom bought it, no one had lived in it for years.
I tried to talk her out of moving to Centerville. About as pointless as attempting to slow down a tornado. We had already left three cities before that. Every new place was the same: alien faces and classrooms. Lunch alone. Eventually I'd find a friend or two. Then Mom would fold up the tent, and away we'd all go again.
To add to the misery, I was short and fat, freckled, redheaded, and disturbingly shy. Gramps entertained me by teaching me card games and every song he knew. We played chess. After a while I won a few matches. He called me Champ after that.
Sometimes I sat on the porch swing and practiced Beastie Boy, my silver baritone with the dent in the side, until my lips swelled and went numb. Or until Zorro, my cat, started yowling.
Sometimes I read.
Or waited for Mom.
Who was always, always gone.
For the first three years in Centerville, Mim--real name Miriam--and Gramps stayed in the guest cottage but took care of me in the stone house while Mom traveled. But they had always wanted a place of their own. So when I turned fifteen, they bought themselves a small home a block away with pale green siding and black shutters. Gramps grew tomatoes in the back. Mim made raspberry and blackberry jam from the bushes that lined one side of their lot.
The inside I'd describe as having a gray-blue theme with lots and lots of doilies, flowered pillows, curtains. The kitchen, though, had bright yellow wallpaper full of arrogant red and green roosters.
Some say Centerville is the kind of quiet rural town people dream of moving to. Peaceful compared to the city's noisy traffic and living practically on top of your neighbors. Worrying about crime, too. Centerville. Comfortable and familiar, like recognizing almost everyone in town.
Other things make it nice. Enormous trees touching branches over rows of streets that spread out straight and flat as a graph-paper grid. Quiet summer nights except for the sound of crickets. Breezes bringing in the sweet smell of mown hay--a little manure along with it, but you get used to that--weirder yet, even like it sometimes. One mile in any direction and you're on a dirt road pulling up to a barn. To the south, you can sit on the edge of Lake Willow and watch long-legged birds wade in the rushes. To the north is the Centerville mall.
I didn't consciously see the town as this idyllic little refuge from the city. Only a place that I had finally come to think of as my real home.
In Centerville, shopkeepers on Main Street called customers by their first names. Homeowners left their doors unlocked. Everyone trusted each other. That is, except my mother. One of the first things she did when we moved into the stone house was to install an elaborate alarm system.
That should have been the first clue.
But I was only twelve and just a lonely kid in a strange new place.
Until the autumn I turned seventeen, I didn't realize nightmares can visit small towns and the people who live there.
People like me.
I did find a friend. You know how it is. Sometimes people click. Her name was Bianca Colon, Co-lone, not the intestinal pronunciation, she was quick to point out. From day one in seventh grade when Bianca, big-boned, skinny, frizzy-haired, said hi with her wider-than-wide grin, she and I clicked. My best friend forever.
Maybe I had come from the city. But I caught on early that new kids in a small town like Centerville stuck out (like me). Some fit in right away. Some didn't (like me). The new and uncool--translation: 1. uncute, 2. unathletic, 3. untrendy, 4. unoutgoing--faded into the cornfields fast. Guess that happens everywhere. Except for the cornfields part.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Torn to Pieces by Margot McDonnell. Copyright © 2008 by Margot McDonnell. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.