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 dancers 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 when 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 distancehow 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 femaleto 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 valueyou don't miss what you don't care aboutbut 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 smella mixture of vanilla and apples could bring her back as if she were standing a foot awayand then this disappeared, too. Not even Greta can find someone without that initial clue.
Copyright © 2005 by Jodi Picoult. Printed by permission. Excerpted from the book Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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