Authors: Jacquelyn Mitchard
“UTTERLY COMPELLING AND MOVING…AS SUSPENSEFUL AS ANY THRILLER…. JACQUELYN MITCHARD GETS ALL THE DETAILS RIGHT, FROM PICTURES ON MILK CARTONS to the
magazine cover stories. Her characters emerge as real, flawed human beings, with messy, complicated lives, and she gets all those details right, too. She’s not afraid of the deep end of the ocean.”
“It has the pace of a thriller with an emotional wallop.”
—St. Paul Pioneer Press
“A wise and wonderful story of guilt, rejection, bewilderment, and resilience in a family shaken to its core.”
“Burns itself into the memory line by line. It is by turns lyrical and startling, brilliant. I wish I had written it. Ms. Mitchard is blessed with a surplus of talent.”
“Wonderful…. Ordinary people caught in the most extraordinary circumstances…. Once you start reading you will never stop.”
“THEIR LOST FACES ARE EVERYWHERE: ON LEAFLETS UNDER OUR WINDSHIELD WIPERS, ON POSTERS IN GROCERY STORE WINDOWS, ON FLIERS STAPLED TO TELEPHONE POLES. AMERICA’S MISSING CHILDREN…. Jacqueline Mitchard is a master of the geology of living in this compelling saga of shattering loss…. Weare entirely hers as she crisscrosses a family’s emotional fault line…the constant shifting and sinking, losing and finding of people in the universal familial mystery…. She unearths a hard truth: Strangers rarely destroy a family: it is accomplished internally…or [the family] is spared.”
“Richly written…movingly examines family life, love, and the issue of identity.”
“Compelling and heartbreaking…the Cappadoras’ fall is painful because it is very believable. The family remains intact—but it’s a bloody flag they wave.”
“A novel of tremendous power…very emotional.”
“Riveting…. A compassionate eye examines love and loss and what it means to be a family.”
“EXTRAORDINARY…A TERRIBLY MOVING AND VERY SATISFYING DRAMA.”
—New York Daily News
“Stunning, remarkable…a haunting, gut-wrenching novel that keeps you guessing.”
“Explores the wide spaces between family members, the faint signals they send to one another for comfort, and the mysterious force that somehow holds them together…. Subtle and vivid…written with unusual strength and clarity, intelligence and grace.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A reflection on the meaning of family…fast-paced, makes for wonderful reading.”
—White Plains Reporter Dispatch
“Fist-clenching family drama…keeps us turning pages.”
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,
London W8 5TZ, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
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Published by Signet, an imprint of Dutton Signet,
a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.
Copyright © Jacquelyn Mitchard, 1996
All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For the two Dans,
and for my father and my mother
Though there usually turns out to be only one name on the cover, every book’s a collaborative effort, and that is monumentally true for this one.
Without the support and encouragement of key angels in my life, it would still be, as it was for two years, four pages on a forgotten disc at the back of a drawer. For getting it out of the drawer, I must first thank the two Janes, my friend Jane Hamilton and my friend and agent, Jane Gelfman, one who said I could do this, the other who said that I had.
I also wish to extend my deepest gratitude and affection to the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, where substantial portions of this book were written in 1994 and 1995, especially to Annie Adams and Sylvia Brown. For their expertise, I want to thank police officers Nancy Robinson, Mary Otterson, and Ralph Gehrke; medical specialists Marilyn Chohaney and Tom O’Connor; David Collins of the Matthew Collins Foundation for Missing Children; lawyers Michele LaVigne and Kaye Schultz; and, for special valor, my basketball tutors—Rick, Mike, and T. And for their astonishing faith in me, to Barbara Grossman and Pam Dorman, thank you.
For their endurance and generosity, Hannah Rosenthal and Rick Phelps, Jean Marie and Christian Kammer, Georgia Blanchfield and John Wiley, Steve Schumacher and Victoria Vollrath, Franny Van Nevel and the rest of my Madison circle deserve a medal of honor, as do my friends from afar—especially my dear Joanne Weintraub, and also Bridget Flanner Forsythe, Deborah Toscano, Anne D. LeClaire, and Kobena Eyi Acquah.
Most urgently, let me thank my family for their tolerance in sharing my heart and mind for so long.
To my son Robert, who is my right arm and sometimes my left, and to my sunshine son, Daniel, and my son Martin, the small Hemingway who titled this book, and to the beautiful woman who is my daughter, Jocelyn, and to my daughter of the heart, Christin, bless you for staying the course. When I promised that this was as much for you as for me, I meant it; and I love you beyond reckoning.
June 3, 1995
Grief fills up the room of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form. Then have I reason to be fond of grief. Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I, I could give better comfort than you do.
Act III, scene iv,
by William Shakespeare
Altogether, it was ten years, easily ten, from the hot August morning when Beth put the envelope full of pictures into the drawer until the cold fall afternoon when she took them out and laid them one by one on her desk.
Ten years and change, actually. The summer just past had marked a full year since Beth had learned what happened to her son Ben. And if she counted the whole spiraling spectacle of what came after, it was really closer to eleven. Just weeks before, in October, a front-page story called “Ben: An Epilogue” had appeared in
—a belated “one year later” attempt based on a couple of stale quotes from those few people who would still talk to the press. But it hadn’t been the story that reminded Beth of the pictures.
She had simply awakened one morning knowing. She would look.
It was raining that day, a chill, insistent November murk. For years, rain had frightened Beth into a concentrated burst of the most habitual quotidian tasks. But, that day, even the rain did not dissuade her. She was, if anything, in a hurry, as if looking at the pictures would put a period at the end of a sentence that had straggled all over the page.
Beth laid the pictures out, only sixteen—a small roll, because Pat had used that silly little Instamatic then, the one that embarrassed Beth. She laid them facedown, like an old lady laying solitaire in a window seat.
And then she closed her eyes and touched one.
It did not vibrate. There was no voltage. All she felt was Kodak paper, feathery with a skin of dust. Nothing mystical. Beth caught her breath in relief. All those years. The seal had remained tight, like closed paper lips, with the date stamped across it in smeared ink, an astounding prophecy. June third, and the year. June third, a Saturday, because Pat had dropped the roll off at the mall color booth the day she left for the reunion. When he remembered to pick them up, at the end of that erased first summer, Pat had come into the house sobbing and given them to Beth, as if expecting she would enfold him, comfort him by somehow managing to cope with the evidence.
Instead, she had taken the picture folder securely between two flat hands and brought it to her desk. It had seemed important then—she had never been exactly certain why—that she always know where the pictures were, no matter how uncomfortable that sometimes was. For example, there were the times Beth glimpsed the envelope when she opened her desk drawer to reach for her paper clips or her address stamp. She did it quickly, as she once used to gather her speed before rushing past the Goya print of Kronos munching on a child that her grandmother Kerry unaccountably kept on a wall at the turn of the stairway. She felt the same oxygen deficit when she closed the drawer as she did when she put that hideous image behind her.
But she still sometimes saw it, and once or twice she actually brushed the envelope with her fingers. And when they’d been packing for their move to Chicago, Beth had gone purposefully to the drawer as if she actually meant to take those pictures out and look at them.
But she hadn’t. It had still been too soon. Too soon to look, too soon to toss.
There were other things left over from Ben that Beth had gradually found the nerve to give away or pack up. On a few rainy days, suffocating days, she had even broken some of those things—a music box, a ceramic picture frame decorated with nursery blocks.
She had never even considered doing that with the pictures. After all, Beth was a photographer; pictures were talismans to her. But she also had a sense that a time might come when she could cherish those photos, particularly the last one on the roll, the porch snapshot. The simple passage of time, or religion, or resignation, might make it her bittersweet delight, a record of Ben the last time she saw him—well, not the last time she saw him, but the last time she saw him as he was, her sunny, un-complex son, the one who never came to her dreams, though she bade him often, weeping, thinking that at least she need not fear him in her sleep. And so someday, perhaps when she was dying and was sure that frank oblivion was her immediate prospect, when she was sure that she was not going to have to drag herself through more life, she might want to look at those pictures often, perhaps every day.
So she’d need them handy. Otherwise, she’d lose them. That became especially clear when she returned home, weeks after the reunion, and noticed how she had begun to lose everything with remarkable ease, how keys, checks, paper money floated from her hands as if they had their own kinetic lives. Beth would stand in her kitchen unable to remember, as she unpacked a grocery bag or folded laundry, where cereal went and where sheets. She learned to regard it as chronic, like a limp after an accident.
It was only when she looked back at its progress that Beth could see her impairment was a deliberate choice, not a temporary fog that could have burned off when she felt equal to seeing things clearly. The impairment was her training. She taught herself to veer off, mentally, into the tall grass of lost school forms and stuffed peppers, at the first hint that a memory of Ben, or of that day, was about to break the surface.
Beth knew that she could not bear up under those thoughts; and she could not heal without inviting them. And so she had made the choice, it seemed now, to not heal. Instead, she would try to live around the friable edges of a crater, to tread softly and avoid what she had come to think of as the avalanche.
Without success, Beth had tried to explain the avalanche and the necessity of confounding it to her husband, Pat.
She’d tried and sounded like a fool, telling him about people who had a disease—Korsakov’s syndrome—that sliced their memory to moments. Such patients, mostly alcoholics, could meet a doctor, a social worker and talk intelligently for long minutes, about the weather, their health, the stories on the front page of a newspaper spread on a desk. But should the doctor or the social worker leave the room, even for a minute, victims of Korsakov’s would have no memory of ever having met any such person. Introductions would begin all over again.
That, Beth told her husband, was nearly how she felt—how, in fact, she longed to feel. A virtually functional woman, who would look normal to anyone who couldn’t see the key in her back. But Pat, who had watched her become a robot wife and mother, thought her grief irrational. Pat grieved for Ben as a normal person would grieve, as if they’d lost their little boy to childhood cancer or a wildfire outbreak of some outmoded disease, polio or diphtheria. As time passed, Pat proceeded through grief’s “stages,” almost in the manner described in Compassionate Circle pamphlets.
Beth couldn’t do that. It seemed to her a process as impossible as cutting your straight hair short and willing it to grow out curly.
What she felt about Ben, Beth tried to tell Pat, was as similar to that sort of grief as a biplane is similar to a dragonfly.
Grief, Beth knew. When Beth was eighteen, her mother had died, of a complex series of organ failures and cluster catastrophes that started with a kidney cyst, hurtling toward death with an absurd speed that ended the day she was brought home in an ambulance after breakfast only to leave again in a hearse after dinner. It had been horrible, a train wreck, a blunt invasion of Beth’s life.
But it wasn’t her fault.
Beth had not teased a pestilent growth out of her mother’s kidney. Nothing she neglected to give or do or say had drifted off her like contagion and settled on her mother.
Losing her mother had been regular old agony, not a trip to the lip of the avalanche. If she dared to embrace what she really felt about Ben’s loss—pulled apart the skeins of stupidity and lack and the truth that everything that matters in life is decided irrevocably in seconds—Beth knew something would happen to her. And it was that, the beyond-grief, the sealing-up of a mind still expected to produce order and plans, which she dreaded.
She’d had little tastes of it, small rock slides that caught her unawares, sending her from room to room, bent over, panic rumbled over longing. Images of him in a closet, or a grave. The churn of her bowels as her brain popped his name. His one-bell Ben name.
And then, unless someone, someone persuasive, Ellen or Candy, was there to redirect her, Beth would begin, feverishly, to rewrite the rest of that day, restring the entrances and exits, and all the elements of plot, revamp the dialogue as if she were an artist who could fill in speech balloons from people’s mouths. All the while, above her, ominous rumbles, glacial shifts. Beth would shuffle faster, irresistibly trying to imagine a way to beg back ten minutes, maybe four minutes, long enough to walk back over to the luggage trolley, where Vincent stood, whining and fidgeting, and take Ben back to the hotel registration counter with her. Or perhaps even let the panicky, dropping moments happen, if they had to, for the sake of penance, but then let the tape play in reverse, fast, and see Ben come walking to her, backwards, from the magazine stand or the revolving door, or wherever he had first gone—theories varied. Come walking back and back into her, into her arms, his over-round belly pulsing against her hands, his heart beating as it did when he was scared or startled—beating so she could almost feel the outline of it, like Road Runner’s in the cartoon, after he outsmarted the coyote—Ben, smelling of red pop and Irish Spring, and if he was hot, a little tang, like the smell of rubber bike handles, because he was too young to truly have hormones. She would feel herself spanking him; she would have spanked him, she would admit to herself, during those rock slides, just once, hard, felt his threadbare favorite denim shorts under her hand. Feel his cupped little rear, so firmly packed it seemed he had water injected just under his skin.
Feel Ben. Ben safe.
It was that palpable sense of presence shoved up against the reality of absence, like hot against cold, that really threatened to buckle the whole mass. Then Beth would have to strain to stop it.
What resulted looked like stoic calm, to editors she worked with, sometimes even to family. And indeed, Beth appreciated that her impairment, like courage, was a state of grace. But only she understood the disadvantages. She knew that for a very long time she had not actually “loved” the children, though she was careful to be mostly kind and sometimes noticing to them. She was certain that Kerry especially, who had never known Beth any other way, didn’t feel the difference.
But Vincent did. Especially on those nights when Beth, on the way to school to pick him up, would forget where she was and why. When she’d finally arrive, sweating, Vincent would be standing outside the school, bouncing his basketball in the gathering darkness, looking at her with a scorn so bold that had she been able to feel anything at all about him, she would have been enraged.
On the whole, however, it worked. What, after all, had she given up to protect herself and her remaining children from abuse, or worse? The odd few years of examined life?
A more-than-fair trade.
So, when she turned over the first photograph—even in the full knowledge that the images could no longer hold any dread—she still felt that minute tectonic shift, and the impulse to run from the landslide.
When she fought that impulse down, Beth recognized, all in a wave, what she had really been seeking from the pictures, especially the last one, taken just as they set off for the reunion. The real reason she’d been unwilling to discard them.
She realized what she was looking for, and that it wasn’t there.
Not in any of them—not in the picture of Vincent fishing at Terriadne, or of Ben feeding Kerry her bottle. Especially in the porch picture, the worst shot on the roll, intended, really, only to capture Pat’s lilacs. She and the children were just a prop for the record of Pat’s horticultural triumph. Even so, it had taken forever. Beth recalled her husband scolding Vincent for fidgeting.
But in fact, Beth saw now, it was Ben who had moved.
She wouldn’t have recognized him. Beth had not seen her son’s three-year-old image for a very long time by then, and in a real sense it was the image of a child she’d never really known. Not her baby Ben. A little-boy Ben she’d only just met.
She stared at the picture, wishing she had her good photographer’s loup. There was Jill, Pat’s nineteen-year-old cousin, who lived with them then and helped out while she went to school, carrying Beth’s cameras and bags. Jill with long hair, looking like a sunny little hippie. There was Kerry, a minuscule infant face above a dress bordered with red and blue and yellow boats. Vincent had still been blond. Beth could not remember her older son, with his brown mat, lush and coarse as bear fur, ever having been blond.
But Ben’s face, that was a blur.
Poised to receive that face like sacrament from the drawer bottom, she saw instead…not much of anything. She saw details—how very many freckles he’d had on his arms, how long and enormously well-muscled his legs were, even as a preschooler. But his face…all you could tell was that his mouth was open. He had been talking. But his features were indistinct. There was no message. Even changed as she now was, on the molecular level—all her old beliefs discarded—she realized that she had still, somehow, expected it.
Beth had been a newspaper photographer and photo editor, working mostly freelance, since college. When she edited, because of the nature of what scholars wrote about, Beth got to see many photos of people who later came to trouble. Soldiers in fresh uniforms with raw shaves. Immigrant families at the metal rails of ships, in layers of clothes, their luggage beside them on the deck. Cowboys. Aviators.