by Rodman Philbrick Writing as Chris Jordan
Published by Mira (July 1, 2006)
When caterer Kate Bickford's 11-year-old son, Tomas, vanishes after his Little League game in Fairfax, Conn., she races home, hoping to find him. Instead, she discovers a mother's worst nightmare.
[MIRA Publisher site]
Chapter 1. Fairfax, Connecticut
On a perfect day in the month of June, in a lovely field of green, my life starts falling apart. At five minutes after four in the afternoon, to be exact.
At ten of four things are still fine and dandy. I'm watching eagerly as the handsome boy with the aluminum bat steps out of the batter's box and re-adjusts his gloves, just like A-Rod, his big league hero. I lean forward in the dugout, but resist the impulse to shout encouragement. My son, tall and lanky for his eleven years, doesn't mind the fact that his mom is an assistant Little League manager, but he has asked me not to shout from the sidelines like so many of the other parents. Parents who are, like, hideously uncool. His phrase. Tomas 'Tommy' Bickford. My perfect, precious, truly gifted son. My amazing, maddening child. Amazing because he seems to be changing every day, sometimes from minute to minute. Maddening for the same reason, because I never know if he's going to be my sweet little boy, goofy and affectionate, or if he'll diss me with his soon-to-be-teen-stud coolness. Tommy can toggle between the two identities in the space of a heartbeat, and every time it happens it hits me like a soft blow to the belly.
At eleven he's such a guy. And somehow I never imagined my son would be, well, a guy guy. What did I expect him to be? Did I think he'd stay my baby boy forever? Clinging to my apron strings? And I do wear aprons. Aprons inscribed with the logo for my catering company. I also make cookies. A thousand or so a day, for the upscale delis and restaurants in my neck of the Connecticut woods.
I like to think of myself as a warmer version of Martha Stewart. Warmer and a lot less wealthy. But doing okay in my own small way. Katherine Bickford Catering books over two hundred events a year. Peanuts compared to the really huge commercial catering firms, but more than enough to keep my twelve employees very busy indeed. Average event, eighty-five plates. Average charge per plate, sixty-two dollars. Do the math and you'll discover that adds up to more than a million dollars gross. A million bucks! Of course we showed a whole lot less than a million in profit, but still. And I really did start the business in my own kitchen. With a small, frightened four-year-old boy 'helping' me sift the flour.
We've both come so far in the last seven years that it sometimes takes my breath away. Especially when I admit to myself that when we started out I was even more terrified than the four-year old. Terrified of suddenly having to raise a child on my own. Terrified I would never get over the grief of losing Ted, the love of my life, my sweet husband. Terrified that I would simply vanish into the black hole of despair if I stopped moving or stopped mothering for even a minute.
Even now, seven years later, just thinking his name gives me a Ted-sized pang of melancholy. Like a low, mournful note on a cello, quietly sounding in the deepest part of me. But the anxious fear is gone. Over time the grief has become regret, for all the things poor Ted has missed. Tommy on his first bicycle - don't touch me Mom, I can do it all by myself! Tommy on his way to first grade, fiercely insisting that he not be accompanied into the school - the bravest kid in all the world that day.
Amazing boy. For the first month or so after Ted died, he came to our bed - my suddenly lonesome bed - and slept at my side in a fetal position, reaching out in his sleep as if he thought I, too, might vanish from his life. And then one day at breakfast he quietly announced that he was 'too big' to sleep in his Mommy's bed. Hit me two ways, that one. Fierce pride that at four he had such a strong sense of self. And regret that he didn't seem to need me quite as much as I needed him. At least while he slept.
How many hours did I stand in Tommy's bedroom door that first year after Ted passed, watching him sleep? More than I care to admit. And yet just watching him helped me. As watching him now helps remind me of who I am. My first and most important identity: Tommy Bickford's mom. Proud to be, even if he doesn't want me shouting his name from the dugout.
What the hell, let him deal with it.
"Come on Tommy! Clean stroke! Good at-bat!"
Stepping back into the batter's box he shoots me a glare. Also a grin, like he knows Mom can't help herself.
The pitcher, a husky kid who looks like he's been taking steroids - hasn't, I'm sure, but he has that beefy look - peers in for the sign, flings back his arm, and delivers the ball. Not exactly a fastball - I'm guessing 70 MPH or so on his dad's radar gun - but straight and true and heading right for the catcher's mitt.
Tommy steps into the pitch with his bat level, swinging slightly up and bonk! he's made contact. The ball carries over the shortstop's outstretched glove and rolls all the way out to where the left fielder waits - she's afraid to charge the ball, that one - and scoops it up. Drops the ball, gets it again, makes a wobbly throw to the cut-off. Cut-off drops the ball but keeps it in front of him, very good. By which time Tommy is sliding into second - an unnecessary act of daring, but the boy loves to get his uniform dirty - and the winning run has crossed the plate.
Pandemonium. Our players throw their gloves in the air, letting out war whoops and girlish cheers, and Fred Corso, our bull-necked manager - he's also the Fairfax County Sheriff - punches his fist in the air and then strides out of our cinderblock dugout.
"Yes! Way to go Tomas! Good hit, son!"
I keep forgetting, Tommy wants to be called Tomas now. Probably hasn't reminded me more than a million times in the last two weeks, but good old Fred has remembered. Feeling a little chastened, and resisting the impulse to run out on the field and give my boy a hug, I remind his excited teammates that it's time to line up and shake hands. Congratulate the opposing team - the Fairfax Red Sox - on a game well played.
We're trying to instill sportsmanship and doing a pretty fair job of it, if I do say so myself. The losers look sheepish, slapping five without much enthusiasm, but everyone is polite and they get the job done.
I catch Tommy from behind and lift the hat off his head. Give his raven-black hair a scoodge - his word - and face him grinning. "Nice going, Tommy! You really smacked it!"
"Thanks, Mom." But he's already backing away, afraid I'll spoil his moment of manly triumph with a kiss. Then he stops, sidles next to me, looking deeply serious. "You know what, Mom?"
"I think I deserve an ice cream sundae."
I fork out the necessary money and he runs off to the snack trailer, which is parked next to the field for the games. Run by Karen Gavner and her husband Jake, who have twin girls on the team. Not especially gifted athletes, but good kids. Connecticut blondes, both of 'em, and studying to be heartbreakers. I've seen the way they look at Tommy, but if he's discovered girls he hasn't let me know about it. Which he might not, come to think of it.
"Meet me at the van!" I shout at his back.
He acknowledges with a bob of his head and then vanishes into the milling crowd of parents and players, high-fiving as he goes.
And that's the last I see of him.