Illustration by Thisbe Wu

This piece received third place in the fiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

When the girl named Lucy Tatum was found just outside town she was thin and dead and the color of old teeth. 

Before they found her body, though, the Tatum girl was missing, and the library was printing flyers of her face in black and white. The image was so over-exposed that Lucy could have been anyone, so the librarians (knowing colored ink was a luxury the library budget could not accommodate, not even for a missing girl) gave the after-school group left to their care all the red and orange crayons that could be found and, after brief instructions, told the kids to go to town. Lucy’s hair was a family of flames; Lucy’s hair was a red parabola atop her head; Lucy’s hair was a curly orange waterfall. The Lucy variations were posted on telephone poles and windows and cash registers. You could walk down any street and she would follow like the sun. Go for a run, and you’d experience a flipbook effect: Lucy’s hair flickers, grows, evolves. 

There was a Lucy posted under the stop sign at the end of our lane. My little brother Pat and I were walking our bikes to the main road when we first saw it. I had only that day heard she was missing. There was a big assembly at school. They brought out the state flag for the occasion. 

“What’s with her hair?” Pat said. He squinted at the poster like it was a museum piece. “And what’s with her eyes?” There were black caverns where there should have been eyes. I hate to admit that, combined with the hair, this made Lucy look a bit like a demon. 

Pat turned to me and giggled. “That’s what you look like when you’re late to breakfast in the morning.” His hair bounced as he laughed.

I punched Pat’s arm. We mounted our bikes and rode into the dusk. 


“They’re holding a candlelight vigil later tonight,” our father said at dinner the next day, chewing his chicken. “We should go. To show our support.” 

“What’s a candlelight vigil?” Pat asked. 

Our mother was doing a juggling act with pans and hot pads in the kitchen. “It’s a night event,” she said over the clanging of various kitchen instruments, “where people come together with candles to show the heavens their support for a cause.” These were the days when Mom was getting in touch with her spiritual side. Her nightstand had been turned into a shrine for some sort of river goddess, much to our father’s dismay. “Ohhh,” Pat said. “Like in that movie.” 

“What movie?” Dad asked. 

“I don’t remember the name.” 

Gone Girl,” I said. 

“Yeah, that’s it! Gone Girl!” 

Gone Girl?” Dad asked. “Why have you seen Gone Girl?” 

Pat, never missing a chance to throw blame on me: “Christopher was watching it with his friends.” 

“And you were watching it with them? Isn’t it rated R?” Dad turned to me. “Why did you allow this?” 

“What was I supposed to do?” I said. “Tell him to leave? It’s not even that graphic or anything.”

“No, yeah, it’s not that bad,” Pat said. “The only graphic thing is when that guy is on top of the Gone Girl and she slits his throat and he dies, right there on the bed!” Pat looked at me. Mom looked at me. Dad looked at me. I looked at Pat. “Why would you tell him that?” 

“You let Pat watch that? He’s in elementary school, Christopher!” 

“Next year I’ll be in middle school.” 

“It’s just a movie, Dad!” 

“No, that’s not a movie, you know what that is, that’s junk food for your brain—no, worse than junk food, it’s like drugs for your brain—” 

“—oh my, no, drugs are drugs for your brain! Movies are movies!” 

Mom did some aggressive pan-clanging to silence the argument. We swiveled our heads to the kitchen. 

“We can talk about this later,” she said. “You boys should get dressed for tonight.” 

“Dressed?” I said. “What do we have to wear?” 

“Something that looks nicer than what you have on.” 

I opened my mouth, but she pointed a spatula at me before I could say anything else. 


In the grassy area in the middle of town, everyone was slowly everywhere. People carried paper lanterns, lighters, flashlights. Some carried small candles that fit in their palms, and some carried tall candles that dripped wax onto silver trays. For some reason, everyone was whispering. Lucy’s face watched from streetlamps and store windows. 

Teachers and neighbors and adults we didn’t know asked Pat and I how we were holding up. Neither of us really knew Lucy Tatum. She was younger than me and older than Pat. Mr. Tatum ran the hardware store by school, and when we would go there with Dad, a redheaded girl would sometimes bring us the screws or brackets we were looking for. Other than that, we never saw her. We said we were holding up fine. We were told we were strong boys. 

Pat, perhaps out of some protest toward our mother, had buttoned his one good dress shirt all the way up so that it squeezed the color out of his neck. Untucked, without a belt or a tie, this looked ridiculous. I told him I liked his fashion sense. He stuck his tongue out at me. We held our candles and longed for music. 

We turned at the sound of some commotion. Mr. and Mrs. Tatum were swimming through the crowd. Old ladies would take Mrs. Tatum’s hands and say that they were so terribly sorry, that no one should have to go through this. The men would tell Mr. Tatum that the authorities, being so hard at work, would surely find Lucy soon. But the Tatums were visitors from another world. Mrs. Tatum would let her hands be taken and blink and nod. Mr. Tatum’s head mumbled at the ground. 

I was watching when the change occurred. Pat’s math teacher tapped Mr. Tatum’s shoulder and Mr. Tatum snapped up, turning to look over each shoulder, trying to locate himself as if he had just awoken from some terrible nap. 

“Where is she?” He turned to someone. “Where is she?” Another turn. “Where is she?” 

And then, turning again, his gaze fell on Pat. Pat froze. Mr. Tatum hurried to my brother. 

“Where is she? Where is she? Do you know where she is?” 

Pat swallowed. Mom and Dad and I were frozen.

Pat spoke through a tight throat. “I don’t know.” 

Mr. Tatum seized Pat’s shoulders. Something happened in the air between them. “You have to find her,” he begged. “You have to find my girl. You have to find my Lucy. I know she’s out there. I know she’s out there. You have to find my girl.” Pat was a mannequin in a button-down. Mr. Tatum let him go and shuffled away, mumbling. My parents flocked to Pat and, not knowing what to say, hugged him. People slowly began to roam again. A woman in an I Love Lucy shirt set her candle on the ground and started to pray. 


“I have to find her,” Pat said. It was late and we were both in our beds. These were the first words anyone had said since the vigil. 

I turned to my other side to face Pat’s bed across the room. “He was just saying that, Pat. Mr. Tatum’s really scared and stressed, you know.” 

“I know.” 

“But he wasn’t choosing you specifically. He doesn’t expect you to be Sherlock Holmes or something. You just happened to be in his sight, that’s all.” 


“Try not to worry about it and get some sleep,” I said. I rolled onto my back and closed my eyes. I heard Pat reposition himself under his covers. We tried to watch our eyelids, to follow the pools of neon as they appeared and sucked themselves up and appeared again. 

“I’m going to find her,” Pat said. “And you have to help me.” He knew that recently updated, post-disappearance family rules required me to follow him around.

I mumbled an okay and thought about candles, and red hair, and the girl being somewhere and everywhere in the night. 


Pat shook me awake in the morning. 

“Chris! Chris! We gotta go!” 


“We gotta go find Lucy!” 

He was wearing a tan vest covered with Cub Scout patches. I had never seen this vest before and to this day have no idea where it came from. The straps of his Star Wars backpack were clipped together across his chest. He stood there in his hiking boots and sucked on the straw of his water bottle. 

“What the hell time is it, Pat?” 

Pat looked at his wrist, at a toy spy-gadget watch with lots of buttons. He pressed some of these buttons and furrowed his brow and gave up. 

“I don’t know. Probably seven. We’re not gonna find her if we spend all morning in bed.” 

“It’s too early, Pat. We can look for her later.” 

“Actually, I just got this watch to work, and it’s seven-thirty-seven. So.”

I groaned.

Pat started handing me things—jeans, backpack, first aid kit, duct tape, binoculars, notebook, Oreos—and soon we were out the door, marching into the morning air. Under our stop sign, Lucy was sagging. Her red hair leaked past her shoulders. She had been hit by a sprinkler in the night.

“We’re going to find you,” Pat told the poster. He studied some kind of map he had drawn, a mess of geometric shapes on yellow construction paper. “Don’t you worry, Lucy.” 


Lucy Tatum was not in any of the main shops in town. Lucy Tatum was not off the side of the path in the park. Lucy Tatum was not behind the arcade. Lucy Tatum was not in the wooded area behind the school. Lucy Tatum was not in the front yards of the Samuelsons or the Franklins or the Delgatos. Lucy Tatum was not under the bleachers at the old baseball field, or under any cars at the gas station, or in any dumpsters by the power plant. 



“You know the police have been looking for Lucy, right?” 


“And you know they’ve been looking pretty hard.” 


“So why are we looking?” 

“Because maybe she’s somewhere they wouldn’t think to look,” Pat said. “Some place only a kid could find.” 

We walked down bike trails and under power lines and along a creek that spit us out across town. No Lucy. Pat offered me half a KitKat and crossed locations off his map.

“So we’ve been behind the school.” 


“Did we check by the old chapel?” 

“Pat, listen to me.” 

“And we looked around the baseball field.” 

“Look, Pat, the girl’s probably dead.” 

Pat stopped putting check marks on the map. 

“In all honesty,” I said, “Some creep from out of town probably snatched her up, and now she’s on the side of a road somewhere—somewhere far from here—and it’s only a matter of time before we hear about it.” 

Pat tried to kill me with his eyes. He unleashed upon me what was, in his world, the worst insult imaginable: “That’s something a grown-up would say.” 

We kept looking. 


We were walking on the sidewalk, heading home, when Pat stopped. 

“Hey,” he said, “let’s stop here.” He turned to a light blue house with peeling paint and a sign on the porch that read: BARTHOLOMEW LARKIN — SOOTHSAYER EXTRAORDINAIRE. 

“My god, Pat, we are not gonna ask that old hippie if he knows where Lucy is.” 

“Why not? The police probably haven’t thought to ask him. He might know something we don’t.” 

“Oh, what, like who the stars say you should marry? Mom’s started up on that shit, you know. That’s why she’s been so bossy lately.” 

“His name’s Bartholomew. Like a wizard.” 

I snorted as Pat went to knock on the door. Knock knock knock. There was no answer.

“Too bad, Pat. Guess we’ll just have to head home.” 

Pat pressed watch-buttons that made defeated beeps. We turned away from the door and stepped off the porch. 

“We’ll try again tomorrow,” Pat said, and then the door swung open behind us. A man with quiet eyes and thinning gray hair stood in the doorframe. He wore a robe that looked like something you’d find in a costume shop; the inside lining, I could see, was patterned with five-pointed stars and white-tipped magic wands. A jack-o-lantern smile sprouted on his face. 

“You boys look like you’re on an adventure.” 

Pat and I exchanged looks. 

“I’m terribly sorry to say that I am closed for the day, but if you’d like a tarot reading, palm reading, divination, you come back tomorrow.” 

“No thanks,” I called out with a wave, and the old man went to close the door, and Pat blurted: “We’re looking for Lucy Tatum.” 

Bartholomew Larkin took his hand off the doorknob. He looked past Pat, scanning the horizon like a stormwatcher. 

“Oh my,” he said. 

“The missing girl.” 


“And we were wondering if you might be able to help us.” Pat fiddled with the straps of his backpack. “We thought with all your divinations and stuff you might know something the cops don’t. Like where to look.”

I rubbed at my eyes with my palm. Bartholomew kept looking at things we couldn’t see in the distance. 

“I read symbols on cards and creases in skin. I’m afraid looking for a missing girl is a job for the police. It’s certainly not a job for me, and it is most certainly not a job for young boys like yourselves.” 

I was stunned. The most agreeable thing I had heard all day, coming from a man who believes in bird-omens. I tugged on Pat’s sleeve to go. 

“However,” he continued, looking at us now, “there is a place, past the bend in Robin Road, that I find most helpful when I need to connect with what is lost.” I tried to think of where Robin Road was. I had never heard of it. 

Pat gasped. “The Spirit House!” 

I looked at Pat, looked at the old man. The old man nodded his approval. “Over the years I have known men who swear that this factory or that hotel is haunted—a terrible, insensitive word, haunted, don’t you think?—just because they heard noises and were too slow to catch sight of the source. But The Spirit House, well, I can confidently say that, in all my years, I have never known a more popular rest stop for those on their way to higher places.” 

I pictured a ghost on a bench, blowing on a cup of hot chocolate and kicking her feet, waiting for the bus to the afterlife. My brother beamed. “Thank you, Mister Larkin!”

“Be safe, boys,” the man said. The door closed, and the robed man was swallowed by the blue house, and Pat was dragging me down the sidewalk in the direction that wasn’t home. 


In the last of the day’s light we passed a Lucy with hair like yellowed weeds, a Lucy with cartoonish slanted eyebrows, a Lucy whose mouth had been ripped by the wind, leaving a paper flap drooping below her nose. 

“The Spirit House is where all the ghosts go to live,” Pat was explaining to me in fast rushes of words between breaths. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of it! And I can’t believe you never knew about it when you were in fifth grade. Me and my friends talk about it all the time.” 

“We’re talking about that abandoned house, right? Out past where we took piano lessons? That’s just a party spot. It’s where Don Parker was thinking of throwing the homecoming afterparty.” 

“I thought you weren’t cool enough for parties.” 

“I go to parties. I go to more parties than you.” 

“I’m eleven.” 

“Look, even though I’ve never been to that house, I’m pretty sure I would’ve heard by now if that place was full of ghosts.” 

Pat stopped listening. As he walked he scribbled in the notebook he had packed, sketching little blobs with eyes. 

“And because I did a research project on township planning for history class last year, I know for a fact there’s no road anywhere near here called Robin Road, so whatever you and your friends and that old man—” 

Pat’s hiking boots stopped. He was pointing. I followed his finger. 

We had found ourselves at a dead end. The words K  EP OUT were painted on a sad wooden barricade sitting at the end of the street. Beyond, things sloped into a ditch. To the left of the barricade was a narrow gravel path cutting through patches of bare dirt. My eyes found a long metal pole, driven into a splotch of dead grass beside the path, on top of which sat an egg-blue box with a perch like a tiny diving board. A birdhouse. “Robin Road,” Pat said. 

When I look back now, I can remember having the feeling that I was in a moment I might have dreamt—or maybe a moment Pat had dreamt—and in that dream world, ghosts stirring in the party house was a reality as obvious and irrefutable as air. As I lifted my head to see that birdhouse, I somehow knew this would be my last real adventure, my last chance to be an explorer of the essence of things, and I can see now that the best days of my remembered summers are compressed into that one final breath of childhood, taken on a road known only to construction paper cartographers and old men who think they can read the stars. 

And suddenly Pat and I were the same age, racing at the running speed known only to children, down the path and through the brush and finding ourselves in the field with the abandoned house. 


It was a small single-story. Vines had taken custody of the walls, and the porch covering folded over itself to touch the warped boards below. Corpses of shutters peppered the perimeter, fallen the short distance from their former heights. What windows remained were cracked—lines snaked across their bodies like veins. 

Inside, there were only a few rooms, all branching off a main hallway. A desk lamp and a collection of empty picture frames claimed the floor of one room. In another, bugs crawled between the threads of the rugs, and rust flaked off an old file cabinet, its drawers littered with crushed beer cans. Mold dripped down all the archways, yellowing the corners and seams, making the edges of the house like those of an old paperback. I smiled at Pat. “Are you ready to solve a mystery, Sherlock?” He smiled back. We looked in cabinets and cupboards, in the bedrooms and the bathroom, under bed frames and under coffee tables, and then we saw a door unlike the others, slightly ajar, with light crawling under it. A shadow swept by. 

Pat poked me. “Look.” 

I’m not sure what we were expecting to find. It was just a broom closet, with a hole in its back wall that opened up to the field outside. The shadow had come from a rat pacing in its pool of moonlight. It scurried when we saw it, but not before giving us a look of pity, as if to say, I’m sorry I’m not a missing girl

Pat and I looked at each other, willing new ideas, before the lock between our eyes was broken by dust, snowing down between us. We heard a creak from above.

“Mister Larkin called this place ‘a stop on the way to higher places,’” Pat said. “Do you think he was trying to tell us there’s an attic?” 

We roamed with our heads tilted up until Pat found it: a pull for the attic steps. He jumped to reach the string, and jumped again, and on his third jump he caught it, and a hatch opened, and a ladder accordioned down to my feet. I grabbed Pat’s wrist and held a finger to my lips. We crept upward, tensing with each uncooperative creak. 

At the top, I helped Pat up into the long A-shaped space. On the other end, shadows of trees spilled through a window frame, shuffling around on the wooden floor. A short curtain riddled with holes rippled in the breeze, shifting its weight in a dance with the night. The girl was not there.

Pat hugged my waist and let soft slow sobs into my stomach. Pat’s other adventures, I realized, had all been imaginary; dancing between trees with cartoon characters, waving branches in battles with invisible enemies. For the first time in his young life he had lost. I scratched his hair and looked out the window frame. 

“We’re never going to find her, are we,” he said, wiping at his eyes. I wasn’t sure if this was a question or a statement. I took his shoulders and prepared myself to be a big brother, to lie and say that everything would be okay. I made him face me and noticed he was holding a crumpled piece of paper. He let me take it from his hand. It was one of the posters: Lucy Tatum wearing waxy, crayon-drawn, sunset hair. 

“I was going to give it to her when we found her,” Pat said. “I was going to tell her she was famous.”