By Lisa Scottoline
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Lisa Scottoline
All rights reserved.
Ellen Gleeson was unlocking her front door when something in the mail caught her attention. It was a white card with photos of missing children, and one of the little boys looked oddly like her son. She eyed the photo as she twisted her key in the lock, but the mechanism was jammed, probably because of the cold. Snow encrusted SUVs and swing sets, and the night sky was the color of frozen blueberries.
Ellen couldn't stop looking at the white card, which read HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHILD? The resemblance between the boy in the photo and her son was uncanny. They had the same wide-set eyes, smallish nose, and lopsided grin. Maybe it was the lighting on the porch. Her fixture had one of those bulbs that was supposed to repel bugs but only colored them yellow. She held the photo closer but came to the same conclusion. The boys could have been twins.
Weird, Ellen thought. Her son didn't have a twin. She had adopted him as an only child.
She jiggled the key in the lock, suddenly impatient. It had been a long day at work, and she was losing her grip on her purse, briefcase, the mail, and a bag of Chinese takeout. The aroma of barbecued spareribs wafted from the top, setting her stomach growling, and she twisted the key harder.
The lock finally gave way, the door swung open, and she dumped her stuff onto the side table and shed her coat, shivering happily in the warmth of her cozy living room. Lace curtains framed the windows behind a red-and-white-checked couch, and the walls were stenciled with cows and hearts, a cutesy touch she liked more than any reporter should. A plastic toy chest overflowed with plush animals, Spot board books, and Happy Meal figurines, decorating never seen in House & Garden.
"Mommy, look!" Will called out, running toward her with a paper in his hand. His bangs blew off his face, and Ellen flashed on the missing boy from the white card in the mail. The likeness startled her before it dissolved in a wave of love, powerful as blood.
"Hi, honey!" Ellen opened her arms as Will reached her knees, and she scooped him up, nuzzling him and breathing in the oaty smell of dry Cheerios and the faint almond scent of the Play-Doh sticking to his overalls.
"Eww, your nose is cold, Mommy."
"I know. It needs love."
Will giggled, squirming and waving the drawing. "Look what I made! It's for you!"
"Let's see." Ellen set him down and looked at his drawing, of a horse grazing under a tree. It was done in pencil and too good to be freehand. Will was no Picasso, and his go-to subject was trucks. "Wow, this is great! Thank you so much."
"Hey, Ellen," said the babysitter, Connie Mitchell, coming in from the kitchen with a welcoming smile. Connie was short and sweet, soft as a marshmallow in a white sweatshirt that read PENN STATE, which she wore with wide-leg jeans and slouchy Uggs. Her brown eyes were bracketed by crow's-feet and her chestnut ponytail was shot through with gray, but Connie had the enthusiasm, if not always the energy, of a teenager. She asked, "How was your day?"
"Crazy busy. How about you?"
"Just fine," Connie answered, which was only one of the reasons that Ellen counted her as a blessing. She'd had her share of babysitter drama, and there was no feeling worse than leaving your child with a sitter who wasn't speaking to you.
Will was waving his picture, still excited. "I drew it! All by myself!"
"He traced it from a coloring book," Connie said under her breath. She crossed to the coat closet and retrieved her parka.
"I drew it!" Will's forehead buckled into a frown.
"I know, and you did a great job." Ellen stroked his silky head. "How was swimming, Con?"
"Fine. Great." Connie put on her coat and flicked her ponytail out of the collar with a deft backhand. "He was a little fish." She got her brown purse and packed tote bag from the windowseat. "Will, tell Mommy how great you did without the kickboard."
Will pouted, a mood swing typical of toddlers and manic-depressives. Connie zipped up her coat. "Then we drew pictures, right? You told me Mommy liked horses."
"I drew it," Will said, cranky.
"I love my picture, sweetie." Ellen was hoping to stave off a kiddie meltdown, and she didn't blame him for it. He was plainly tired, and a lot was asked of three-year-olds these days. She asked Connie, "He didn't nap, did he?" "I put him down, but he didn't sleep."
"Too bad." Ellen hid her disappointment. If Will didn't nap, she wouldn't get any time with him before bed.
Connie bent down to him. "See ya later ..."
Will was supposed to say "alligator," but he didn't. His lower lip was already puckering.
"You wanna say good-bye?" Connie asked.
Will shook his head, his eyes averted and his arms loose at his sides. He wouldn't make it through a book tonight, and Ellen loved to read to him. Her mother would turn over in her grave if she knew Will was going to bed without a book.
"All right then, bye-bye," Connie said, but Will didn't respond, his head downcast. The babysitter touched his arm. "I love you, Will."
Ellen felt a twinge of jealousy, however unreasonable. "Thanks again," she said, and Connie left, letting in an icy blast of air. Then she closed and locked the door.
"I DREW IT!" Will dissolved into tears, and the drawing fluttered to the hardwood floor.
"Aw, baby. Let's have some dinner."
"All by myself!"
"Come here, sweetie." Ellen reached for him but her hand hit the bag of Chinese food, knocking it to the floor and scattering the mail. She righted it before the food spilled, and her gaze fell on the white card with the photo of the missing boy.
She picked up the bag of Chinese food and left the mail on the floor.
For the time being.
Ellen put Will to bed, did a load of laundry, then grabbed a fork, napkin, and a cardboard container of leftover Chinese. She took a seat at the dining-room table, and the cat sat at the other end, his amber eyes trained on her food and his tail tucked around his chubby body. He was all black except for a white stripe down the center of his face and white paws like cartoon gloves, and Will had picked him because he looked so much like Figaro from the Pinocchio DVD. They couldn't decide whether to name him Figaro or Oreo, so they'd gone with Oreo Figaro.
Ellen opened the container, forked chicken curry onto her plate, then dumped out the leftover rice, which came out in a solid rectangle, like sand packed in a toy pail. She broke it up with her fork and caught sight of the Coffmans, her neighbors across the shared driveway, doing their homework at their dining-room table. The Coffman boys were tall and strong, both lacrosse players at Lower Merion, and Ellen wondered if Will would play a sport in high school. There had been a time when she couldn't imagine him healthy, much less wielding a lacrosse stick.
She ate a piece of chicken, gooey with bright yellow curry, which was still warmish. It hit the spot, and she pulled over the mail, sorted out the bills, and set them aside. It wasn't the end of the month, so she didn't have to deal with them yet. She ate another bite and was about to daydream her way through the Tiffany catalog when her gaze fell on the white card. She paused in midbite and picked it up. HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHILD? At the bottom it read, American Center for Missing and Abducted Children (ACMAC).
Ellen set her fork down and eyed the photo of the missing boy again. There was no blaming the lighting this time. Her dining room had a colonial brass candelabra that hung from the ceiling, and in its bright light, the boy in the photo looked even more like Will. It was a black-and-white photo, so she couldn't tell if they had the same eye color. She read the caption under the photo:
Name: Timothy Braverman
Resides: Miami, Florida
Stranger Abduction: 1/24/06 *
She blinked. They both had blue eyes and blond hair. They were even about the same age, three years old. Will had just turned three on January 30. She examined the photo, parsing the features of the missing boy. The similarity started with his eyes, which were a generous distance apart, and the shape, which was roundish. They both had small noses and shared a grin that was identically lopsided, turning down on the right side. Most of all, there was a likeness in their aspect, the steady, level way that they looked at the world.
Very weird, Ellen thought.
She reread the caption, noticed the asterisk, and checked the bottom of the card. It read "Timothy Braverman, Shown Age-Progressed to Three Years Old." She stumbled over the meaning of "age-progressed," then it registered. The picture of Timothy Braverman wasn't a current photo, though it looked like one. It was an approximation of how the boy would look right now, a projection done by computer or artist. The thought eased her, unaccountably, and she remembered the day she'd met Will.
She'd been doing a story on nurses in the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit at Dupont Hospital in Wilmington, and Will was in the CICU being treated for a ventricular septal defect, a hole in his septum. He lay at the end of the sunny unit, a tiny boy in a diaper, in an institutional crib with high white bars. He was undersized, failing to thrive, and it made his head a bobblehead doll's on a bony frame. His large blue eyes were his most prominent feature, and he took in everything around him, except people. He never made or held eye contact with anyone, which Ellen later learned could be a sign of neglect, and his was the only crib with no plush toys or colorful mobiles attached to the bars.
He was between heart operations when she first saw him — the first procedure was to patch the hole with a Dacron graft, and the second to repair the graft when one of the stitches came loose — and he lay silently, never crying or whimpering, surrounded by monitors that relayed his vital signs to the nurses in glowing red, green, and blue numbers. So many tubes led to him that he appeared to be tethered; an oxygen tube was taped in place under his nose, a feeding tube disappeared into a nostril, and a clear tube popped grotesquely from the center of his naked chest, emptying fluids into a plastic canister. His IV snaked to his hand, where it ended, adhesive-taped to a board and topped by half of a plastic cup, jury-rigged to make sure he didn't pull it free. Unlike the other babies, Will never tried.
Ellen kept doing research for the story and found herself visiting Will more frequently than necessary. The story became a series, and the angle changed from the nurses to the babies, among them, Will. But amid the cooing, gurgling, and crying babies, it was the silent one who held her attention. She wasn't allowed to approach his crib because of CICU regulations, but she would watch him from a short distance, though he always looked away at the blank white wall. Then one morning, his eyes found her, locking in and latching on, their blue as deep as the sea. They shifted away, but after that stayed on her longer and longer, connecting with her in a way she began to sense was heart to heart. Later, when everyone asked why she'd wanted to adopt him, she would answer:
It was the way he looked at me.
Will never had any visitors, and one of the mothers, who had a baby girl awaiting a heart transplant, told Ellen that his mother was a young girl, unwed, who hadn't even seen him after his first operation. Ellen followed up with his caseworker, who investigated and told her that adoption was a possibility, and she'd gone home that night, elated and unable to sleep. She'd been elated ever since, and in the past two years had come to realize that even though Will wasn't born to her, she was born to be his mother.
Her gaze fell again on the white card, and she set it aside, feeling a pang of sympathy for the Braverman family. She couldn't imagine how any parent lived through such an ordeal, or how she would cope if someone kidnapped Will. A few years ago, she'd done a piece in which a father had kidnapped his children after a custody dispute, and she toyed with the idea of calling the mother, Susan Sulaman, and doing a follow-up. She had to keep the story ideas coming if she wanted to keep her job, and it would give her an excuse to meet with her new editor, Marcelo Cardoso, a sexy Brazilian who'd come to the paper a year ago, having left behind the L.A. Times and a model girlfriend. Maybe a single mother would make a nice change, and if he'd seen enough of the fast lane, she could show him the checkout lane.
Ellen felt a smile spread across her face, which was embarrassing even though the only witness was a cat. She used to think she was too smart to crush on her boss, but Marcelo was Antonio Banderas with a journalism degree. And it had been too long since the man in her life was older than three. Her old boyfriend had told her she was a "handful," but Marcelo could handle a handful. And a handful was the only woman worth handling.
She scraped curry from a few chicken pieces and slid her plate over to Oreo Figaro, who ate with a loud purr, his tail bent at the tip like a crochet needle. She waited for him to finish, then cleaned up the table, put the bills in a wicker basket, and threw away the junk mail, including the white card with the missing children. It slid into the plastic kitchen bag, and the picture of Timothy Braverman stared at her with that preternatural gaze.
"You're a dweller," she heard her mother say, as surely as if she'd been standing there. But Ellen believed that all women were dwellers. It came with the ovaries.
She closed the cabinet door and put the white card out of her mind. She loaded the dishwasher, pushed the Start button, and counted her blessings again. Butcher-block counters, white cabinets with glass fronts, and a hand-painted backsplash with painted wildflowers, matching walls of pinkish white. It was a girl kitchen, down to the name of the wall color — Cinderella. Though there was no Prince Charming in sight.
She performed her final chores, locking the back door and retrieving the used coffee filter from the coffeemaker. She opened the base cabinet and started to throw the grinds away, but Timothy Braverman looked back at her, unsettling her all over again.
On impulse, she rescued the white card from the trash and slipped it into her jeans pocket.
The alarm went off at six fifteen, and Ellen got out of bed in the dark, staggered in bare feet onto the cold tiles of the bathroom, and hit the shower, letting the hot water wake her. Even people who counted their blessings never counted them in the morning. For one thing, there wasn't time.
She finished dressing by seven so she could get Will up and dressed before preschool, which started at eight thirty. Connie would arrive at seven thirty to feed and take him, and Ellen would hand Will to her on the fly, like a domestic relay. Mothers ran this race every morning, and they deserved the gold medal in the most important event of all — life.
"Honey?" Ellen switched on the Babar lamp, but Will was sleeping soundly, his mouth partway open. His breathing sounded congested, and when she stroked his forehead, it felt hot to the touch. She told herself not to worry, but once you've had a sick kid, you hold your breath forever.
"Will?" she whispered, but was already wondering if she should send him to preschool. A crust had formed around his nostrils, and his cheek looked pale in the soft light from the lamp. His nose was a ski slope that was the beginner version of hers, and people often mistook him for her biological child, which she liked more than she should. She found herself wondering if Timothy Braverman looked like his mother, too.
She touched Will's arm, and when he didn't move, decided not to send him to school. Perspective was in order, and construction-paper snowflakes could wait another day. She didn't kiss him because she didn't want to wake him and instead patted Oreo Figaro, sleeping at the foot of the bed, curled into a Mallomar. She switched off the lamp, tiptoed from the bedroom, and went back to her room, to use the extra fifteen minutes. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Look Again by Lisa Scottoline. Copyright © 2009 Lisa Scottoline. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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