From "The Missing Piece of Charlie O'Reilly"


Chapter 1

Charlie O’Reilly was an only child. It therefore made everyone uncomfortable when he talked about his little brother.

Liam. The kid who sang incessantly, left his dirty socks on the floor, and messed up Charlie’s carefully arranged comic books. The one who both drove him insane and made him laugh until his sides hurt. That little brother.

But Liam didn’t do that stuff anymore, because he didn’t exist. And according to nearly everyone in Charlie’s life, he never did.

“Please, Charlie,” his father would say, removing his reading glasses and tipping his head to the ceiling. “Not again.”

After a year of seeing that look on his father’s face, Charlie learned to kept quiet. At home, anyway. But he had to talk during his visits to Dr. Barton’s office, session after session, perched on her couch, the cushions dented by him and countless other troubled kids.

Dr. Barton had spent months explaining—in that tone that made Charlie feel like he was four years old instead of almost twelve—that his “imaginary brother” was a perfectly normal psychological response to “all the stress at home.”

All the stress. The code words every adult used for Charlie’s mother.

“People don’t just vanish from everyone’s memory, Charlie,” Dr. Barton had said at their first session. “And your parents could never forget one of their own children.”

But Liam had. And his parents did.

Charlie understood one important thing from his weekly sessions: no one was listening.

Today, however, was different. There was nothing Dr. Barton or his dad could say that would ruin Charlie’s good mood. The next twenty-four hours held too much promise and hope for Charlie to let the doubters get him down.

“It’s nice to see you in good spirits,” Dr. Barton said over her cup of tea. She was tucked into her overstuffed leather chair, a perpetual electric waterfall burbling beside her. The sound of the waterfall was supposed to be soothing, but all it ever did for Charlie was make him need to go to the bathroom.

“Well, it’s a big day tomorrow,” Charlie said with a smile.

“I know, it’s your birthday,” she said.

“Yup. And one year to the day since Liam disappeared.”

Charlie’s father, sitting awkwardly beside him on the sofa, wilted at these words. Dr. Barton drew in a slow, deep breath.

Charlie knew what these sessions were about: to coax him into finally uttering, “Liam isn’t real.” Those three little words held the power to stop all the appointments, frustration, and hand-wringing. And as such, these sessions were pointless. Charlie would sit on this couch until he was eighty before he would say those words. Charlie’s loyalty was stronger than whatever force had taken his brother away and wiped him from everyone’s minds.

Just think of what we could accomplish if we spent this time acutally looking for Liam instead of sitting here blabbing, Charlie thought.

“As you know, Charlie,” Dr. Barton said, “your father and I believe something happened last May. We just don’t understand what, exactly. Why don’t you tell us about that day one more time?”

Charlie stared at the bowl of fidget balls on the table between them. They had dissected his eleventh birthday countless times in Dr. Barton’s quest to figure out what had “really happened.” The truth, apparently, wasn’t good enough.

He sighed. “When I went to bed the night before my birthday, Liam was there, in the bunk above mine. When I woke up the next morning, he was gone.” Charlie recounted every detail: how the top bunk had vanished; how Liam’s Legos and stuffed animals and posters and clothes and favorite cereals had disappeared from the house as cleanly as his existence had been scrubbed from everyone’s minds. Charlie told the story slowly; they had an hour to kill, after all.

In each telling, Charlie offered up everything he could remember about that terrible morning, and the days that followed. Charlie’s dad would rub his back reassuringly as Dr. Barton ticked through her usual probing questions, most of them about his mom.

But she never asked about the night before, about what happened between him and Liam before they went to bed. Which was convenient, because Charlie was never going to tell her. That was none of her business. Only Ana, Charlie’s best friend, got to know about that.

The fact that Liam’s disappearance was Charlie’s fault.

Finally Dr. Barton brought the session to a close with an unsatisfied sigh. “Well, our time is up for today. I’ll see you both in two weeks.”

Not if I can help it. Charlie popped up and headed down the hall, giving the adults the space they needed to whisper about him in the office doorway.

“Have a happy birthday tomorrow,” Dr. Barton called after him.

“Oh, I will.”