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By Drusilla Campbell
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Trudar Productions, Inc.
All right reserved.
Dana Cabot stood in the doorway to the undercroft holding a pastry box full of twenty-six dollars' worth of still-warm croissants. How typically Episcopalian to use the medieval word undercroft to designate what was essentially a basement consisting of one large room and five smaller ones connected by a narrow hallway. The walls of the undercroft were covered with Sunday school bulletin boards and pictures of Jesus as infant, boy, and man. And photos of Bailey Cabot.
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS LITTLE GIRL? Seven-year-old Bailey Cabot was abducted from her home on May 29, 2004. At the time she wore a pink and lime green dotted Swiss dress. Bailey's hair is light brown, her eyes are brown, and she's four feet, one inch tall.
Red and green sticky circles dotted the maps of southern California and western Arizona that were stuck to the walls with strips of masking tape. Green meant the county had been leafleted; red indicated a Bailey task force had been started in one or more church congregations. Lutherans and Presbyterians, Methodists and Unitarians had all become involved. Yellow circles showed that thousands of ID photos of Bailey had been distributed all over California, Arizona, and Nevada. On a map of the United States blue circles indicated an e-mail campaign underway from San Diego to Vermont.
A three-page article had appeared in People magazine: "HAVE YOU SEEN BAILEY CABOT?"
There could be no one left in the United States who had not heard that Bailey Cabot had been stolen from behind her own front door. If it were propaganda, Dana thought, we'd have won the war by now.
Instead of circles on the maps, Dana wished the committee had used stars like those Bailey showed off on the work she brought home from Phillips Academy. The stars were a code that had been explained to the parents in a special letter mailed from the principal's office: a single star meant good effort, and all the children got that, no matter what; two meant progress; three were cause for a celebration. No one celebrated circles; circles went nowhere, and only emphasized the futility and frustration of the search for Bailey that had started in one place, gone all around the world, and ended up right back where it started, with a big zero. Circles meant nothing; circles were holes to fall into. Dana wanted constellations like the Big Dipper, Orion, and the reliable North Star pointing the way to Bailey.
Dana's hands began to shake. Beth Gordon strode across the room and took the box from her.
"These are going to be appreciated."
Dana looked at the empty room and wondered by whom.
How could she not have foreseen what had to happen eventually, that the women and men who had come forth immediately and with such optimism would eventually grow tired of spending their days in a gloomy basement pretending their cause was not a hole in the ground. She did not blame the others for giving up. She herself wanted to give up sometimes.
Even her husband, David, when he talked about Bailey, had begun to get a discouraged sideways look around his eyes. As much as she wanted to talk about this with him, she could not make herself ask the question. Will we ever find her? All their years together they had been each other's support and encouragement. When David's professional football career was over, she told him he would ace the California bar and be another kind of star. Her Ph.D. efforts dragged on and on, but he told her she was brilliant anyway. And when doctors said there was something wrong with Bailey's mind, they had held each other up. It was the way their marriage had worked until Bailey vanished. For comfort and support they were no good to each other now.
For a few weeks she had attended a support group for the families of children who had disappeared. As if agony could be slotted into an appointment book, the group had met every Tuesday night at seven in a church basement virtually indistinguishable from the undercroft. On a table to one side of the circled chairs, coffee and tea and some kind of cake or cookies were set out. Dana remembered the hum of the air conditioner and the almost constant sound of bodies shifting on the uncomfortable metal chairs. Heavy sighs, the rustle of clothing and scuffle of shoes on the linoleum floor. No one was at ease in that room. No one wanted to be there. Mothers and fathers, boyfriends, grandparents, everyone either overweight or way too thin, the jittery eyes Morse coding the need for a smoke: they all had stories. Their children had vanished from highway rest stops, shopping malls, on the way to school. Ordinary children, not one of them spectacular in any way. Little boys in OshKosh B'Gosh overalls with tape on the temples of their small eyeglasses. Girls in school uniforms or cutoffs, their hair in ponytails or curly or cut short and straight with bangs that hung down over their eyebrows. Dana saw there was an epidemic, a virus of vanishment running through the cities and suburbs of America, with hardly a family left uninfected. "Support group" was a misnomer. The sad faces and stories only deepened Dana's misery and fed the rage she struggled to suppress.
She was not a quitter. Her emotions never got the better of her good sense. She was stubborn and dogged once she set her mind on something. These were traits that had served her well and brought her far from her beginnings. But sometimes she wished she had been made differently.
Beth's teenage grandson, Jason, came through the door from the parish kitchen. A fidgety, beanpole boy in baggy pants and a baseball cap worn backward, he stopped when he saw Dana. From across the room she could see the color rise in his cheeks.
"Oh. Mrs. Cabot. Hi."
He saw the croissants.
"Help yourself," Dana said.
Beth gestured for him to open a folding chair for Dana. Beth was a tall, stately woman somewhere in age between sixty and eighty, with broad, straight shoulders and the posture of a cadet. Before May, Dana had known her only as a familiar face at the eight o'clock Eucharist. Since Bailey's disappearance she had learned of Beth's troubled family history. A son gone bad, a grandson named Jason whom she doted on despite his problems with authority. When Bailey was taken, the shyly adoring Jason had been the first to offer Dana his help, and then Beth and the churchwomen had come forth bearing food-the calming, soporific casseroles, the tortilla bakes and shepherd's pies. While David and Dana were still stuporous with shock, Jason and the women of St. Thomas's Episcopal Church had organized the Bailey Fund and raised a phone tree with branches all over the vast diocese of San Diego, stretching into Orange County, Los Angeles, and Arizona. They held a banquet and raised thousands of dollars to cover the cost of materials and printing, though, of course, by now expenses had gone far beyond that. Beth told Dana not to worry about money. The ECW was managing the finances. And a good thing, too. Dana had not looked at a bank statement in three months. She and David were deeply in debt, but it did not matter. There was only room for Bailey in her mind.
Bailey: a seven-year-old with her mother's brown eyes and her daddy's heart-shaped mouth and dimpled chin. She had not quite mastered skipping and could not tell time. She had been teaching herself to whistle. She was so pretty and her smile so extraordinarily sunny and dimpled, it was not immediately obvious that there was something wrong. At first Dana and David had not wanted to believe it, and after a dozen trips to doctors of all varieties up and down the coast, they knew no more than what they had guessed themselves. There had been a genetic glitch, and nothing could be done about the slow learning, the obsessive behavior and unpredictable moods. Bailey was not autistic or OCD, the experts said. She was mentally slow and easily frustrated. There might be a mood disorder, but they would not know until she was older.
Beth gestured to the empty room. "It's one of those days when everyone has an appointment they made months ago. They'll be coming in later. Do you know I have to arrange to see my dermatologist six months in advance, he's that busy?"
She's embarrassed. Because no one is here.
Jason said, "Me and my friend, we're gonna post these here at all the interstate rest stops." He held up a new flyer printed on bright yellow paper with Bailey's school photo in the center. Three front teeth out, but she grinned from ear to ear with no idea of how funny she looked. By now that empty space would be filled in.
Beth said, "Jason likes road trips. He's going to drive up I-5 and then down 101."
"What about your job?" Dana asked the boy.
"The copy shop don't care." He scuffed his feet into the worn linoleum and added, looking at the floor, "They done all the printing for half price."
Beth patted Dana's arm. "In their way, they're part of this, too. We all are. This time next week there'll be new pictures of Bailey from here to the Oregon border."
Dana imagined a mountain of paper litter, thousands of trees slaughtered in the name of Bailey Cabot. What happened to these flyers when they'd been read-presuming that anyone looked at them anymore, that people were not sick of the subject of missing children. Who could blame them? Why would anyone want to think about lost children unless life forced the subject upon them? She bit into a chocolate croissant that was dust on her tongue and sawdust in her throat. Sugar thickened on her taste buds, and she realized she had not eaten since lunch the day before. She put her hand over her mouth and swallowed hard.
Beth sat beside her. "Tomorrow there'll be half a dozen people down here typing and making calls and all that good stuff. Don't you worry."
"Do I seem ungrateful?" Dana asked. Misery had made her transparent to others, but to herself she was mystery and dark corners. "I am grateful, though. Truly. Without everything you've done, Beth ..."
"If the shoe were on the other foot, wouldn't you be helping me? Of course you would."
Dana could not think how to respond. She could not remember the kind of person she had been before May twenty-ninth. Those days were on the other side of time, in a universe where the only problems were money, snagging time for herself, and making sure the details of life ran smoothly.
"What can I do?" she asked the older woman.
Beth stood up and looked around, hands on hips, her broad shoulders straight as a T square. She and the women like her held the church on their shoulders. "If we make pom-pom streamers for car antennas, the churchwomen will distribute them along with photos." Walking across the room to a cupboard, she dragged out a box full of rolls of three-quarter-inch satin ribbon in lime and pink. "These came in as a donation day before yesterday. Lime and pink were her favorite colors, right? You told me that?"
Dana nodded. She blinked, and her eyelids ached.
"By next Sunday afternoon there'll be thousands of these on car antennas from here to L.A. If I have to tie this ribbon around their throats, no one's going to forget Bailey. I promise you that." Beth seemed to read Dana's mind. "I know they look trivial, kind of silly in a way, but they're not. Our biggest challenge is to keep the public thinking about Bailey, watching for her."
The first few weeks Dana had not been able to sleep but refused the sleeping pills the doctor prescribed, fearing that if she started taking them she would sink into oblivion. One night she dreamed of Bailey at the glass, Bailey knocking at the window crying "Mommy" and Dana too deeply asleep to notice. When Dana was five and her mother left her with her grandmother, she had for weeks slept sitting up and wearing shoes, terrified she might not hear the lugging idle of her mother's old Chrysler New Yorker if it pulled up to the curb.
Beth was saying, "The worst thing that can happen, is if we let people forget-"
"I don't mean that you'd forget, Dana. Not you, not anyone who ever knew ..." Beth stopped, looking stranded.
These days no one talked to Dana as if she were a normal person. They treated her like fragile goods, broken by a breath. And she had lost the gift of conversation. She imagined hostility and irritation all around her; her feelings were easily hurt, and she took offense even when she knew none was intended.
The door to the hall opened, and Lexy Neuhaus, the priest at St. Tom's and Dana's best friend, stepped into the room.
"Dana, I thought I'd find you here. I saw your car parked under the telephone line getting pooped on big time."
Dana lifted her shoulders and let them drop. She hadn't washed her car in three months.
"Can I steal her for a little while, Beth?"
"Go right ahead. I'm fine here. Jason and I have plenty to do."
Lexy looked at the blue box from Bella Luna. "Do I see chocolate croissants?" She turned her head away, moaning. "Sometimes I think the whole course of history might have changed if Satan had offered Jesus a chocolate croissant."
Chapter TwoLexy held the door open, and Dana passed through, ahead of the priest but aware of the businesslike click of her high heels on the cement stairs as they both stepped into the bright September heat. Without speaking they walked across the tree-shaded parking lot separating the church from the remodeled single-story house of no distinction that held the church offices. Their feet crunched on the litter of curled oak leaves. Though the September days were still hot in San Diego, the nighttime temperatures had begun to drop into the sixties; and in front of the office the leaves on a pair of large liquidambar trees were changing from bright green to orange and glossy red. The shrubs and flowers had spent too many long, warm days madly manufacturing chlorophyll. In the planters lining the path the marigolds, zinnias, and pink cosmos nodded on their leggy stems and looked fevered, on the verge of breakdown, as exhausted as Dana.
In the heat Dana's white polo shirt stuck to her back, and she felt dumpy beside Lexy, who always managed to look stylish in priestly garb and collar and ankle-breaking high heels. Like many at St. Tom's, Dana had been confused and vaguely put out when the search committee called a redheaded former model, a divorced woman and recovering alcoholic, to replace St. Tom's retiring priest. Some parishioners had drifted off to churches with more conventional clergy. Those who remained praised the wisdom of the search committee and fell in love with Lexy's humor and plain speaking, the goodness she carried within her.
Before Bailey disappeared, Dana and Lexy had made progress in overcoming the inhibitions imposed by Lexy's clerical collar. The first time they met for coffee at Bella Luna, Lexy had told her, "Hardly anyone speaks to me like a real human being anymore, and even my brothers have stopped giving me a bad time. They don't know how much I long to be silly." She was not a Bible-quoting priest. "I refuse to act like I'm holy. I'm as big a sinner as anyone."
Gradually, Dana and Lexy had worked through their histories to what Dana thought of as the "deep stuff": God and family and feelings, and though there was much she believed she would never talk about to Lexy or anyone, their friendship had been a revelation of freedom to Dana.
But Bailey's disappearance had set a wall of awkwardness between them. Lexy was God's representative at St. Tom's, and Dana was angry with God.
Lexy's office occupied what had once been the master bedroom of the bungalow. Across from a large corner window open to the street, a wall of bookcases was packed tight with books that Dana had at first assumed were seminary texts. Looking closer she saw Buddhist titles as well as psychology, biology, and physics, Sufi poetry, the enneagram, and even astrology.
"I don't mean to be rude, Lexy, but can we cut to the chase here?" Dana perched on the edge of a worn leather couch. "I've got a lot to do today."
Lying had always come easily.
Lexy sat behind her desk. "I've been missing you."
Dana had not been in church the past two Sundays. If it weren't for the Bailey Committee, she would have stopped attending altogether.
"I always like to watch you during my sermons. Your face is so responsive."
Excerpted from blood orange by Drusilla Campbell Copyright © 2005 by Trudar Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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