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'This is gonna be the best party ever,' Geordie declared.
Caitlin attached the last of the streamers, and carefully dismounted the rickety stepstool. 'Well, I hope so.' She looked fondly at Geordie. 'It's not every day you turn six years old,' she said.
'YESTERDAY, I turned six years old,' he reminded her.
Caitlin nodded. 'I know.' They had held off on having the party until Sunday because Geordie's only cousin, ten-year-old Travis, had Boy Scouts on Saturday, and his mother didn't like for him to miss a meeting. 'It was nice of you to put off the party until today so Travis could come.'
Geordie nodded gravely. 'No one wants to miss my party,' he said. Geordie was a wiry little boy with a missing front tooth, buzz-cut brown hair and large glasses. Tucked under his arm was Bandit, a shabby stuffed Dalmatian with one ear hanging on by a thread, and black rings around its eyes. 'Is the cake here yet?'
'Aunt Haley should be here any minute.'
As if on cue, the front doorbell rang. 'That's probably her,' said Geordie.
Geordie scampered off toward the front door while Caitlin made a mental inventory of the party goods she had set out. Cider and soda and paper cups, plates for the pizza and for the cake. Plastic forks. Noah was outside putting up the last of the games on the front lawn. They were pretty much ready.
'Caitlin, look!' Geordie cried.
He came dancing into the kitchen ahead of a round-faced, blond-haired woman carrying an enormous cake shaped to appear like a medieval castle with playmobile knights tucked into the ramparts.
'Oh, Haley,' Caitlin exclaimed. 'That is fantastic.'
Haley Jordan smiled proudly. 'He asked for a castle.'
'I didn't know you could make gray icing.' Caitlin laughed.
'Oh, sure. There's just not a very big demand for it.' Haley owned Jordan's, a bakery in downtown Hartwell. She was the ex-wife of Geordie's uncle Dan, who now lived in Philadelphia. In the two years that Caitlin had been married to Geordie's father, Noah, she and Haley had become friends. Caitlin suspected that Haley still carried a torch for Dan, although they were now ostensibly just friends. 'So, who all is coming?' Haley asked casually.
'Well, everybody,' said Caitlin. 'Half a dozen kids from Geordie's class. Emily's parents, of course, and Dan.'
'It's really good of you to have Emily's family,' said Haley. 'I know they appreciate it.'
'Well, they're Geordie's family. They always will be,' said Caitlin, gazing down at the little boy who was trying to resist poking a finger into the gooey icing.
The doorbell suddenly sounded. 'Hey, you,' she said to Geordie. 'You better go out there and greet your guests.'
He looked up at her, his innocent eyes magnified by his glasses, overcome by a sudden attack of shyness. 'Will you come with me?'
'Your Dad's out there,' Caitlin reassured him.
'OK,' he said, popping up.
'Hey,' she said, 'why not leave Bandit here in the kitchen? You're gonna need both hands for presents.'
Geordie looked reluctantly at his beloved toy. He clearly did not want to part with him. 'No. Someone might sit on him,' said Geordie.
'You're right. You know what?' said Caitlin. 'I have got to sew that ear of his back on. I promised you I would. Before the party gets underway, why don't you run and put him in my room on the bureau. That way I won't forget and I can sew his ear on tonight.'
Geordie hesitated, and then nodded. 'OK.' He skipped out of the room and down the hall clutching the shabby toy.
Caitlin turned back to Haley. 'Let's see. Where was I? Noah's sister and his mother. And ...' Caitlin rolled her eyes. 'Travis, of course. If he sees Geordie carrying Bandit around, he'll start baiting him about how he has a real dog and Geordie doesn't. And how only babies carry stuffed animals. Why should Geordie have to put up with that at his own party?'
'Hey, if Emily were here, she'd agree with you,' said Haley.
Caitlin felt her cheeks redden when Haley equated her with Geordie's real mother. It was two and a half years ago at a charitable event commemorating Emily's death that Caitlin had first met Noah. The event was announced in the paper. A year after her death, Emily Eckhart's family was going to plant a garden in her honor at the Pediatric Cancer Center in Vineland. The public was invited to the planting of the garden, which was a fundraiser, as well as a day of remembrance. Caitlin had debated with herself a hundred times whether or not to go. She knew that she needed to introduce herself to Emily's family, to tell them the truth. On the day of the actual event she felt physically ill, and almost talked herself out of going, but then she summoned all her courage and went.
The day did not turn out at all as she had planned. She met the late Emily's husband, Noah, and instantly there was a connection between them. Caitlin hesitated and, to her shame, kept her secret. Noah called her the next day for a date. Their courtship lasted all of six months. Geordie was four years old when Caitlin married Noah, moved into Emily Eckhart's house and became her son's stepmother.
The first year had not been easy. Geordie was never a cranky child, and Caitlin naively assumed that they would all adjust smoothly. But instead of the blissful honeymoon period she had hoped for, Caitlin found her every night's sleep rent by Geordie's cries as he immediately began to suffer from night terrors. Noah would go to him, and soothe him back to sleep. No sooner would they get back to sleep, then Geordie would wet the bed and call out for help. Together, Caitlin and Noah would strip the bed and remake it with clean, dry sheets.
In the morning, bleary-eyed as she washed the sheets before she left for work, Caitlin would force herself to think about the loss of his mother, and all the changes that Geordie had endured. She would remind herself to stay on his side. Little by little, her patience was rewarded. Little by little, it got better.
'Thanks,' said Caitlin. 'I'd like to think so.'
Carrying a tray of paper cups filled with cider, Caitlin stood on the lawn, in the lovely September sunshine, and paused to enjoy the shrieking of happy six year olds as they tussled with one another over the games in the yard. Noah came up on her from behind and slipped his arms around her waist.
'Yikes,' Caitlin said, 'the cider.'
Noah took the cider tray from her hands and set it down on a nearby table.
Then he resumed holding Caitlin around the waist. 'This is a nice party,' he said. 'You did a great job.'
'Geordie seems happy.'
'Which is all that really matters. Because for his father, it will, no doubt, be the longest afternoon of the year,' he said.
Caitlin smiled. 'Oh, stop it.'
'Children's birthday parties are just slightly more pleasurable than a toothache.'
Caitlin took his grumbling with a grain of salt. He was the most devoted of fathers. He just couldn't pretend to enjoy the commotion of the birthday party. Truth be told, she would also be glad when it was successfully completed and the last guest had left. All that really mattered to her was that Geordie should be happy with his party.
A well-worn Volvo pulled in and parked behind the last car of the many assembled in their long driveway. Noah let go of Caitlin. 'Let me see if Naomi needs help with my mom.'
'Sure,' said Caitlin. She watched as Noah loped toward the Volvo. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with a wide face and wavy, light brown hair. She knew that Geordie resembled his late mother more than Noah. All the photos of Emily around the house showed a slim, dark-haired woman with shiny brown eyes and an oval face.
Noah opened the passenger door of the Volvo to help his mother, Martha, get out of the car. She was an otherwise healthy woman in her sixties, but she suffered from the effects of macular degeneration. Her eyes seemed to tremble behind the thick lenses of her glasses, like two gray egg yolks. Martha, widowed at an early age, had lived a very independent life, but now, because of her condition, she was completely reliant on Naomi. Noah helped them financially but his sister, Naomi, was Martha's caretaker.
Naomi, her ten-year-old son, Travis, and Travis's dog, an ill-tempered mutt named Champ, got out of the car as well. Champ began to yip in a loud, frantic tone. Travis, pudgy and scowling, walked with his head bent, fiddling with his Game Boy.
Why did Naomi let him bring Champ? Caitlin thought. She didn't want a dog running loose among all these children. She was reluctant to complain, for she knew how attached Travis was to Champ. Travis's father, Rod Pelletier, had been killed in Iraq when Travis was small, and Naomi had let him get a dog shortly thereafter as a way to console him. But Champ was cranky and highly strung and Caitlin didn't trust him around all these kids.
Noah's family ambled in Caitlin's direction, Martha resting her hand on Noah's arm. Naomi was carrying two wrapped packages. Plain and overweight, Naomi dressed for comfort and never bothered with makeup. She worked at the county recycling center, where she had created and ran a free bookstore organized from salvaged books which people had discarded.
'Welcome,' said Caitlin. 'Glad you could be here.'
Martha gazed in Caitlin's vicinity. 'It's a nice day,' she said.
'It's a beautiful day,' Caitlin agreed. 'Travis, there's so many kids here. Maybe you should put Champ back in the car.'
Travis glowered at her. 'No. Mom, tell her. You said it was OK.'
Naomi seemed oblivious to the exchange. 'Is there somewhere I can put these presents?' she asked.
Caitlin took a deep breath. 'Inside,' she said. 'I'll show you.'
Noah put a hand on Travis's shoulder. 'Caitlin's right. Champ's going to have to wait in the car. We don't want any of these kids upsetting him. Don't worry. I'll roll the windows down and we'll give him some treats. I'll take him. Why don't you go play with the other kids? They're playing space ship.'
Travis shook off his uncle's hand. 'I don't want to play dorky games with first graders.'
'Come get something to eat then,' said Caitlin. She led the way across the lawn, up the front steps, and into the house. It was a comfortable house with new construction in an old, farmhouse style. It had been Emily's house, and from time to time Caitlin wondered what it would be like to have a house that was only hers, but then she would banish that thought, ashamed of herself.
As she climbed up onto the porch, she saw Haley gamely making conversation with Emily's brother, Dan, and the woman he had brought along, a lovely, long-limbed girl in Jimmy Choo stilettos named Jillian. Caitlin had been at the door when Dan arrived with Jillian. The expression on Haley's face, when she saw the honey-haired beauty on Dan's arm, had been painful to behold. Of course, their marriage had been over for years, and each of them had had other lovers, but Caitlin suspected that, for Haley, no one compared to Dan.
Caitlin opened the front door and pointed to an oak sideboard in the dining room. She looked back at Naomi. 'You can put the presents there,' she said. 'There's snacks everywhere and there's pizza in the kitchen.'
'I want pizza,' said Travis, pushing past her.
She followed him into the kitchen. Emily's parents were manning the kitchen activities. Paula Bergen, who had worked her way up from file clerk to director of operations for the electric company, was helping in the kitchen by cutting up pizza and putting it on paper plates, while her husband, Westy, was creating balloon animals for a small but rapt audience of children at the kitchen table.
'Now this is what I call a birthday party,' Paula exclaimed. 'Where is Geordie? I want him to see what his grandfather is doing,' she said, smiling indulgently at Westy, a balding man in a blue shirt. Westy never shared his wife's ambitions. 'One executive in the family is enough,' he liked to say. He had inherited family money, and spent his working life in the local hardware store. Now retired, he could build or fix anything.
'Westy,' said Naomi, 'you have hidden talents!' Westy looked up at Noah's sister and Naomi pointed to the turquoise blue dachshund which was taking shape in his gnarled, arthritic hands. Naomi gave him a thumbs up.
Caitlin felt, not for the first time, a certain admiration for these two families, related by marriage. They seemed to have bonded over the tragic deaths of Rod and Emily, to provide some continuity for the children. 'Pizza, Travis?' asked Caitlin kindly, sliding a plate across the counter and handing it to the stocky boy who suddenly grew quiet in the company of so many grown-ups.
'You can take it out in the yard, with the other kids.'
Travis grabbed the plate of pizza in both hands and headed for the yard. He encountered Noah, coming into the kitchen. Noah ruffled Travis's hair as they passed in the doorway.
Noah came up to Caitlin and draped an arm around her shoulders. Caitlin smiled and grasped his hand. As always, she felt a little self-conscious when Noah showed her any affection around Emily's parents. But if Paula and Westy had any resentment of Caitlin taking their late daughter's place, they didn't let it show. On the contrary, they always seemed grateful that their grandson had a stepmother who cared so much about him. Paula was humming and wiping the counters as if she were at home. Seated at the kitchen table, Westy took orders for balloon animals and exhorted the children to be patient, that he was twisting balloons as fast as he could.
Haley came into the kitchen and looked around anxiously. 'Is it time to serve the cake yet?' she asked.
All the children at the table forgot about balloon animals. 'Yes. Cake!' they cried.
The cutting and serving of cake was followed by the opening of presents. Geordie sat perched on a chair above a colorful mountain of ribbon and wrapping paper. Many parents had already come to collect the pint-sized guests, but there was a knot of unclaimed children remaining.
Geordie's Uncle Dan came up behind Caitlin and Noah. He wore a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and smelled of expensive aftershave. Dan had a life, Caitlin mused, that any man might envy. He lived in a townhouse in the city, wrote a popular sports blog and worked as a sportscaster for a satellite radio station in Philly. He traveled to every stadium in the country, watched games and got paid for it. His new girlfriend was young and beautiful – one of several such women he had brought around. Dan spoke quietly. 'Has he opened my gift yet?'
'What'd you get him?' Caitlin asked.
'That set of Pixar DVDs he wanted.'
'Yeah, he opened them,' said Noah.
'Does that mean we can leave?' Dan asked hopefully.
'No. If I have to stay, you have to stay,' Noah said to his former brother-in-law with cheery malevolence.
'Oohs' and 'aahs' erupted from the remaining kids as Geordie listlessly held another stuffed animal aloft. Westy presented him with another package, this one in a square box. Geordie tore off the wrapping and then looked puzzled at the result. 'What is it?'
'It's binoculars,' said Westy. 'Your very own. So we can go birdwatching!'
'Birdwatching! Westy, for heaven's sake,' Paula chided him. 'I told you to get him sports equipment. That's a sport for old people.'
Westy's blue eyes widened and a hurt expression crossed his face. 'I saw a bald eagle last week. I'll bet he'd like that. And there's ospreys and herons down by the lake. We can take the canoe!'
The confusion in Geordie's eyes turned to delight as he opened the box and pulled out the binoculars. 'Cool! Can I, Dad? Can I go birdwatching with Grandpa?'
'Sure,' said Noah. 'Look, finish up there, son. People have to leave.'
Geordie looked cursorily for another unopened package. 'I don't see any more,' he said. He slid off the chair and picked up a package of laser light swords. 'Can I take these outside and play with them?'
'Sure,' said Noah. 'Why don't you? Take these kids with you.'
Geordie ran screaming through the house, the few remaining kids in tow.
Caitlin got a big garbage bag and began to stuff it with wrapping paper and ribbons. Haley stood there awkwardly, trying to avoid glancing at Dan. 'Can I help?' she asked.
Caitlin pushed her hair out of her eyes. 'Oh, that's all right. You've done enough, bringing that cake. We'll just clean it up as we go. I'll bring that tray the cake is on back to the bakery.'
'No hurry,' said Haley. 'I've got lots of them.'
A sudden, terrible noise erupted outside the house. Caitlin instantly recognized the sound of Geordie's crying. She ran toward the front yard. Geordie was in tears, holding the remains of a broken laser sword in his hand. Travis was watching him furtively.
'What happened?' Caitlin demanded.
Geordie could barely sob out the words. 'Travis broke it.'
'I didn't mean to,' Travis protested in an unconvincing tone.
'You did it on purpose,' Geordie insisted.
'You're just a crybaby,' Travis sneered. The other six year olds cowered, not wanting to come between the warring cousins.
Naomi sighed. 'All right. Come on, Travis. Time to go. Mom, are you ready to go?'
Excerpted from Missing Child by Patricia MacDonald. Copyright © 2012 Patricia Bourgeau. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 19, 2012
Posted May 4, 2012
Like all of Patricia MacDonald's books this one was a winner. Kept me on the edge of my seat til the last page. Haven't read a Patricia MacDonald book that I didn't like. Love them all. I hope she never gives up writing for awhile.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 10, 2013
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