Vanishing Acts (Wsp Readers Club)

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9780743454544: Vanishing Acts (Wsp Readers Club)
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Vanishing Acts

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About the Author:

Jodi Picoult received an AB in creative writing from Princeton and a master’s degree in education from Harvard. The recipient of the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work, she is the author of twenty-six novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers House Rules, Handle With Care, Change of Heart, and My Sister’s Keeper, for which she received the American Library Association’s Margaret Alexander Edwards Award. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. Visit her website at JodiPicoult.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Vanishing Acts Prologue


I was six years old the first time I disappeared.

My father was working on a magic act for the annual Christmas show at the senior center, and his assistant, the receptionist who had a real gold tooth and false eyelashes as thick as spiders, got the flu. I was fully prepared to beg my father to be part of the act, but he asked, as if I were the one who would be doing him a favor.

Like I said, I was six, and I still believed that my father truly could pull coins out of my ear and find a bouquet of flowers in the folds of Mrs. Kleban’s chenille housecoat and make Mr. van Looen’s false teeth disappear. He did these little tricks all the time for the elderly folks who came to play bingo or do chair aerobics or watch old black-and-white movies with soundtracks that crackled like flame. I knew some parts of the act were fake—his fiddlehead mustache, for example, and the quarter with two heads—but I was one hundred percent sure that his magic wand had the ability to transport me into some limbo zone, until he saw fit to call me back.

On the night of the Christmas show, the residents of three different assisted-living communities in our town braved the cold and the snow to be bused to the senior center. They sat in a semicircle watching my father while I waited backstage. When he announced me—the Amazing Cordelia!—I stepped out wearing the sequined leotard I usually kept in my dress-up bin.

I learned a lot that night. For example, that part of being the magician’s assistant means coming face-to-face with illusion. That invisibility is really just knotting your body in a certain way and letting the black curtain fall over you. That people don’t vanish into thin air; that when you can’t find someone, it’s because you’ve been misdirected to look elsewhere.|Vanishing Acts Delia


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—forty thousand 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, New Hampshire, 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 downslope, 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 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 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 over-compensation. My mother died when I was four. 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.”

“Excuse me . . . ?”

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.

Now.

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; instead, we get 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’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 is—the 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 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 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.

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 eye...

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