"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-lookingageless, 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 tomatoesa 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's 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 crisp 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 isthe classmate with the platinum braids, or 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 wives' 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 calendarthe 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 a mother-daughter event in my elementary school, I wouldn't tell my father about it. 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.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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