You can't exist in this world without leaving a piece of yourself behind. There are concrete paths, like credit card receipts and appointment calendars and promises you've made to others. There are microscopic clues, like fingerprints, that stay invisible unless you know how to look for them. But even in the absence of any of this, there's scent. We live in a cloud that moves with us as we check e-mail and jog and carpool. The whole time, we shed skin cells -- 40,000 per minute -- that rise on currents up our legs and under our chins.
Today, I'm running behind Greta, who picks up the pace just as we hit the twisted growth at the base of the mountain. I'm soaked to the thighs with muck and slush, although it doesn't seem to be bothering my bloodhound any. The awful conditions that make it so hard to navigate are the same conditions that have preserved this trail.
The officer from the Carroll, NH police department who is supposed to be accompanying me has fallen behind. He takes one look at the terrain Greta is bulldozing and shakes his head. "Forget it," he says. "There's no way a four-year-old would have made it through this mess."
The truth is, he's probably right. At this time of the afternoon, as the ground cools down under a setting sun, air currents run down-slope -- which means that although the girl probably walked through flatter area some distance away, Greta is picking up the scent trail where it's drifted. "Greta disagrees," I say.
In my line of work, I can't afford not to trust my partner. Fifty percent of a dog's nose is devoted to the sense of smell; compared to only one square inch of mine. So if Greta says that Holly Gardiner wandered out of the playground at Sticks & Stones Day Care and climbed to the top of Mount Deception, I'm going to hike right up there to find her.
Greta yanks on the end of the fifteen foot leash and hustles at a clip for a few hundred feet. A beautiful bloodhound, she has a black widow's peak, a brown velvet coat, and the gawky body of the girl who watches the dance from the bleachers. She circles a smooth, bald rock twice; then glances up at me, the folds of her long face deepening. Scent will pool, like the ripples where a stone's thrown into a pond. This is where the child stopped to rest.
"Find her," I order. Greta casts around to pick up the scent again, and then starts to run. I sprint after the dog, wincing as a branch snaps back against my face and opens a cut over my left eye. We tear through a snarl of vines and burst onto a narrow footpath that opens up into a clearing.
The little girl is sitting on the wet ground, shivering, arms lashed tight over her knees. Just like always, for a moment her face is Sophie's; and I have to keep myself from grabbing her and scaring her half to death. Greta bounds over and jumps up, which is how she knows to identify the person whose scent she took from a fleece hat at the day care center and followed six miles to this spot.
The girl blinks up at us, slowly pecking her way through a shell of fear. "I bet you're Holly," I say, crouching beside her. I shrug off my jacket, ripe with body heat, and settle it over her clothespin shoulders. "My name is Delia." I whistle, and the dog comes trotting close. "This is Greta."
I slip off the harness she wears while she's working. Greta wags her tail so hard that it makes her body a metronome. As the little girl reaches up to pat the dog, I do a quick visual assessment. "Are you hurt?"
She shakes her head and glances at the cut over my eye. "You are."
Just then the Carroll police officer bursts into the clearing, panting. "I'll be damned," he wheezes. "You actually found her."
I always do. But it isn't my track record that keeps me in this business. It's not the adrenaline rush; it's not even the potential happy ending. It's because, when you get down to it, I'm the one who's lost.
I watch the reunion between mother and daughter from a distance -- how Holly melts into her mother's arms, how relief binds them like a seam. Even if she'd been a different race or dressed like a gypsy, I would have been able to pick this woman out of a crowd: she is the one who seems unraveled, half of a whole.
I can't imagine anything more terrifying than losing Sophie. When you're pregnant, you can think of nothing but having your own body to yourself again; yet after giving birth you realize that the biggest part of you is now somehow external -- subject to all sorts of dangers and disappearance -- so you spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how to keep her close enough for comfort. That's the strange thing about being a mother -- until you have a baby, you don't even realize how much you were missing one.
It doesn't matter if the subject Greta and I are searching for is old, young, male, or female -- to someone, that missing person is what Sophie is to me.
Part of my tight connection to Sophie, I know, is pure overcompensation. My mother died when I was three. When I was Sophie's age, I'd hear my father say things like, I lost my wife in a car accident, and it made no sense to me: if he knew where she was, why didn't he just go find her? It took me a lifetime to realize things don't get lost if they don't have value -- you don't miss what you don't care about -- but I was too young to have stored up a cache of memories of my mother. For a long time, all I had of her was a smell -- a mixture of vanilla and apples could bring her back as if she were standing a foot away -- and then this disappeared too. Not even Greta can find someone without that initial clue.
From where she is sitting beside me, Greta nuzzles my forehead, reminding me that I'm bleeding. I wonder if I'll need stitches; if this will launch my father into another tirade about why I should have become something relatively safer, like a bounty hunter or the leader of a bomb squad.
Someone hands me a gauze pad, which I press against the cut above my eye. When I glance up I see it's Fitz -- my best friend, who happens to be a reporter for the paper with the largest circulation in our state. "What does the other guy look like?" he asks.
"I got attacked by a tree."
"No kidding? I always heard their bark is worse than their bite."
Fitzwilliam MacMurray grew up in one of the houses beside mine; Eric Talcott lived in the other. My father used to call us Siamese triplets. I have a long history with both of them that includes drying slugs on the pavement with Morton's salt, dropping water balloons off the elementary school roof, and kidnapping the gym teacher's cat. As kids, we were a triumverate; as adults, we are still remarkably close. In fact, Fitz will be pulling double duty at my wedding -- as Eric's best man, and as my man-of-honor.
From this angle, Fitz is enormous. He's six-four, with a shock of red hair that makes him look like he's on fire. "I need a quote from you," he says.
I always knew Fitz would wind up writing; although I figured he'd be a poet or a storyteller. He would play with language the way other children played with stones and twigs; building structures for the rest of us to decorate with our imagination. "Make something up," I suggest.
He laughs. "Hey, I work for the New Hampshire Gazette, not the New York Times."
We both turn at the sound of a woman's voice. Holly Gardiner's mother is staring at me, her expression so full of words that for a moment, she can't choose the right one. "Thank you," she says finally. "Thank you so much."
"Thank Greta," I reply. "She did all the work."
The woman is on the verge of tears; the weight of the moment falling as heavy and sudden as rain. She grabs my hand and squeezes, a pulse of understanding between mothers, before she heads back to the rescue workers who are taking care of Holly.
There were times I missed my mother desperately while I was growing up -- when all the other kids at school had two parents at the Holiday Concert; when I got my period and had to sit down on the lip of the bathtub with my father to read the directions on the Tampax box; when I first kissed Eric and felt like I might burst out of my skin.
Fitz slings his arm over my shoulders. "It's not like you missed out," he says gently. "Your dad was better than most parents put together."
"I know," I reply, but I watch Holly Gardiner and her mother walk all the way back to their car, hand in hand, like two jewels on a delicate strand that might at any moment be broken.
That night Greta and I are the lead story on the evening news. In rural New Hampshire, we don't get broadcasts of gang wars and murders and serial rapists, but instead, barns that burn down and ribbon-cuttings at local hospitals and local heroes like me.
My father and I stand in the kitchen, getting dinner ready. "What's wrong with Sophie?" I ask, frowning as I peer into the living room, where she lays puddled on the carpet.
"She's tired," my father says.
She takes an occasional nap after I pick her up from kindergarten, but today -- when I was on a search - my father had to bring her back to the senior center with him until closing time. Still, there's more to it -- when I came home, she wasn't at the door waiting to tell me all the important things: who swung the highest at recess, which book Mrs. Easley read to them, whether snack was carrots and cheese cubes for the third day in a row.
"Did you take her temperature?" I ask.
"Is it missing?" He grins at me when I roll my eyes. "She'll be her old self by dessert," he predicts. "Kids bounce back fast."
At nearly sixty, my father is good-looking -- ageless, almost, with his salt-and-pepper hair and runner's build. Although there were any number of women who would have thrown themselves at a man like Andrew Hopkins, he only dated sporadically, and he never remarried. He used to say that life was all about a boy finding the perfect girl; he was lucky enough to have been handed his in a labor and delivery room.
He moves to the stove, adding half-and-half to the crushed tomatoes -- a homemade recipe trick one of the seniors taught him that turned out to be surprisingly good, unlike their tips for helping Sophie avoid croup (tie a black cord around her neck) or curing an earache (put olive oil and pepper on a cotton ball and stuff into the ear). "When's Eric getting here?" he asks. "I can't keep this cooking much longer."
He was supposed to arrive a half hour ago, but there has been no phone call to say he's running late; and he isn't answering his cell. I don't know where he is, but there are plenty of places I am imagining him: Murphy's Bar on Main Street; Callahan's on North Park; off the road in a ditch somewhere.
Sophie comes into the kitchen. "Hey," I say, my anxiety about Eric disappearing in the wide sunny wake of our daughter. "Want to help?" I hold up the green beans; she likes the brisk sound they make when they snap.
She shrugs and sits down with her back against the refrigerator.
"How was school today?" I prompt.
Her small face darkens like the thunderstorms we get in July -- sudden and fierce before they pass. Then, just as quickly, she looks up at me. "Jennica has warts," Sophie announces.
"That's too bad," I reply, trying to remember which one Jennica is -- the classmate with the platinum braids, or maybe the one whose father owns the gourmet coffee shop in town.
"I want warts."
"No, you don't." Headlights flash past the window, but don't turn into our driveway. I focus on Sophie, trying to remember if warts are contagious, or if that's an old wive's tale.
"But they're green," Sophie whines. "And really soft and on the tag it says the name."
Warts, apparently, is the hot new Beanie Baby. "Maybe for your birthday."
"I bet you'll forget that, too," Sophie accuses, and she runs out of the kitchen and upstairs.
All of a sudden I can see the red circle on my calendar -- the parent-child tea in her kindergarten class started at one o'clock, when I was halfway up a mountain searching for Holly Gardiner.
When I was a kid and there was some mother-daughter event in my elementary school, I wouldn't tell my father about them. Instead, I'd fake sick, staying home for the day so that I didn't have to watch everyone else's mother come through the door and know that my own was never going to arrive.
I find Sophie lying on her bed. "Baby," I say. "I'm really sorry."
She looks up at me. "When you're with them," she asks, a slice through the heart, "do you ever think about me?"
In response I pick her up and settle her on my lap. "I think about you even when I'm sleeping," I say.
It is hard to believe now, with this small body dovetailing against mine, but when I found out I was pregnant I considered not keeping the baby. I wasn't married, and Eric was having enough trouble without tossing in any added responsibility. In the end, though, I couldn't go through with it. I wanted to be the kind of mother who couldn't be separated from a child without putting up a fierce fight. I like to believe my own mother had been that way.
Parenting Sophie -- with and without Eric, depending on the year -- has been much harder than I ever expected. Whatever I do right I chalk up to my father's example. Whatever I do wrong I blame squarely on fate.
The door to the bedroom opens, and Eric walks in. For that half-second, before all the memories crowd in, he takes my breath away. Sophie has my dark hair and freckles, but thankfully, that's about all. She's got Eric's lean build and his high cheekbones, his easy smile and his unsettling eyes -- the feverish blue of a glacier. "Sorry I'm late." He drops a kiss on the crown of my head and I breathe in, trying to smell the telltale alcohol on his breathe. He hoists Sophie into his arms.
I can't make out the sourness of whisky, or the grainy yeast of beer, but that means nothing. Even in high school, Eric knew a hundred ways to remove the red flags of alcohol consumption. "Where were you?" I ask.
"Meeting a friend in the Amazon." He pulls a Beanie Baby frog out of his back pocket.
Sophie squeals and grabs it, hugs Eric so tight I think she might cut off his circulation. "She double-teamed us," I say, shaking my head. "She's a con artist."
"Just hedging her bets." He puts Sophie down on the floor, and she immediately runs downstairs to show her grandfather.
I go into his arms, hooking my thumbs hook into the back pockets of his jeans. Under my ear, his heart keeps time for me. I'm sorry I doubted you. "Do I get a toad, too?" I ask.
"You already had one. You kissed him, and got me instead. Remember?" To illustrate, he trails his lips from the tiny divot at the base of my neck - a sledding scar from when I was two -- all the way up to my mouth. I taste coffee and hope and, thank God, nothing else.
We stand in our daughter's room for a few minutes like that, even after the kiss is finished, just leaning against each other in between the quiet places. I have always loved him him. Warts and all.
When we were little, Eric and Fitz and I invented a language. I've forgotten most of it, with the exception of a few words: valyango, which meant pirate; palapala, which meant rain; and ruskifer, which had no translation to English, but that described the dimpled bottom of a woven basket, all the reeds coming together from one joint spot, and that we sometimes used to explain our friendship. This was back in the days before playtime had all the contractual scheduling of an arranged marriage, and most mornings, one of us would show up at the house of another and we'd swing by to pick up the third. In the winter, we would dig snow forts with complicated burrows and tunnels, complete with three sculpted thrones where we'd sit and suck on icicles until we could no longer feel our fingers and toes. In the spring, we ate sugar-on-snow that Fitz's dad made us when he boiled down his own maple syrup, the three of us dueling with forks to get the sweetest, longest strands. In the fall, we would climb the fence into the back acreage of McNab's Orchards and eat Macouns and Cortlands and Jonagolds whose skin was as warm as our own. In the summer, we wrote secret predictions about our futures by the faint light of trapped fireflies, and hid them in the hollow knot of an old maple tree -- a time capsule, for when we grew up.
We had our roles: Fitz was the dreamer; I was the practical tactician. Eric, on the other hand, was the front man: the one who could charm adults or other kids with equal ease. Eric always knew exactly what to say when you dropped your hot lunch tray by accident and the whole cafeteria was staring at you or when the teacher called on you and you'd been writing up your Christmas list. Being part of his entourage was like the sun coming through a plate glass window: it was golden, something to lift your face toward.
It was when we came home the summer after freshman year in college that things began to change. We were all chafing under our parents' rules and roofs, but Eric rubbed himself raw, lightening up only when we three would go out at night. Eric would always suggest a bar -- and he knew the ones that didn't card minors. Afterward, when Fitz was gone, Eric and I would spread an old quilt on the far shore of the town lake and undress each other, swatting away mosquitoes from the pieces of each other we'd laid claim to. But every time I kissed him, there was liquor on his breath -- and I've always hated the smell of alcohol. It's a weird quirk -- but no stranger than those people who can't stand the scent of gas, I suppose, and have to hold their breath while they fill up their cars. At any rate, I'd kiss Eric and inhale that fermenting, bitter smell and roll away from him. He'd call me a prude, and I started to think maybe I was one; because it was easier than admitting what was really driving us apart.
Sometimes we find ourselves walking through our lives blindfolded, and we try to deny that we're the ones who securely tied the knot. It was this way for Fitz and me, the decade after high school. If Eric told us that he only had a beer every now and then, we believed him. If his hands shook when he was sober, we turned away. If I mentioned his drinking, it became my problem, not his. And yet, in spite of all this, I still couldn't end our relationship. All of my memories were laced with him; to extract them would mean losing the flavor of my childhood.
The day I found out I was pregnant, Eric drove his car off the road, through a flimsy guard rail, and into a local farmer's cornfield. When he called me to tell me what had happened -- blaming it on a woodchuck that ran across the road -- I hung up the phone and drove to Fitz's apartment. I think we have a problem, I said to him, as if it was the three of us, which -- in reality -- it was.
Fitz had listened to me speak a truth we'd taken great pains never to utter out loud; plus a newer, magnificent, frightening one. I can't do this alone, I told him.
He had looked at my belly, still flat. You aren't.
There was no denying Eric's magnetism; there never would be. But that afternoon I realized that, united, Fitz and I were a force to be reckoned with as well. And when I left his apartment armed with the knowledge of what I was going to have to say to Eric; I remembered what I had written down during that backlit summer when I was trying to guess the rest of my life. I'd been embarrassed setting the words to paper; had folded it three times so Fitz and Eric wouldn't see. Me -- a tomboy who spent hours in the company of boys pretending to be a swashbuckling privateer, or an archeologist searching for relics, a girl who had been the damsel in distress only once, and even then had rescued herself -- I had written only a single wild wish. One day, I'd written, I will be a mother.
Excerpted from VANISHING ACTS © Copyright 2011 by Jodi Picoult. Reprinted with permission by Washington Square Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.