When Michael Frazier's ex-wife, Erica, shows up on his doorstep, saying her ten-year-old daughter is missing-and he is the father-Michael, despite his skepticism about being the father, follows the elusive trail of the child he has always wanted.
David Bell is a bestselling and award-winning author whose work has been translated into multiple foreign languages. He’s currently an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he directs the MFA program. He received an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a PhD in American literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. His novels include Bring Her Home, Since She Went Away, Somebody I Used to Know, The Forgotten Girl, Never Come Back, The Hiding Place, and Cemetery Girl.
Bell puts a new twist on the missing-child theme in this fast-paced narrative that spans just 12 hours. A frantic Erica Frazier comes to her ex-husband, Michael, for help after her nine-year-old daughter, Felicity, goes missing. Erica now says the girl is also Michael's daughter. This is all news to Michael, divorced from Erica 10 years earlier and soon after married to Angela, with whom he's trying to have a child. Still, he joins Erica in questioning Felicity's music teacher, a single man who has been acting suspiciously. Meanwhile, police detectives Jim Twitchell and Erin Griffin want to talk to both Erica and Michael. Other factors swirl into the mix: an infant girl kidnapped near Erica's home at about the time Felicity was born; guilt surrounding the accidental death of Michael's six-year-old sister, Robyn, decades earlier; and suspicions about Erica's account of how her daughter went missing. Despite a somewhat hasty wrap-up in an epilogue, this is another solid page-turner from the reliable Bell. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Tuesday, 8:16 p.m.
The doorbell rang shortly after eight o'clock.
The doorbell almost never rang. Certainly not so late in the evening.
From the kitchen, Michael heard the scrape of silverware against plates, the opening and closing of the refrigerator as Angela put the leftovers away in preparation for Michael doing the dishes. It was their usual, long-agreed-upon routine for nights when she cooked.
Then the doorbell rang. At first the sound was so small, so distant and surprising, that Michael decided he'd imagined it. An auditory hallucination. Maybe two glasses clanked against each other in the kitchen, and he just thought it was the doorbell.
But then the bell rang again. Two times in a row. An insistent ringing, a sound that said someone outside meant business about getting their attention.
Angela appeared in the kitchen doorway. Her hair was pulled back off her face, and she held her hands away from her body as though they were wet or dirty.
"Who is that?" she asked.
"I'm not expecting anyone."
"Can you get it? My hands are dirty."
"I've got it," Michael said. He looked at his watch. Eight sixteen. "Probably a kid selling something."
"A determined kid, apparently," Angela said as the bell chimed again. She smiled. "They must know who they're dealing with."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Michael held back a laugh as he said it. He knew exactly what Angela meant.
"They know you're an easy mark," she said. "You always buy from them. Candy bars, magazines. They love you."
"Should you go answer, then?" he asked. "You can be the bad cop, and I'll watch baseball."
"I don't mind what you do," she said, smiling wider. "I like that these kids know how to push your buttons."
"Admit it. You don't mind eating the chocolate I buy."
Michael started for the door.
"Hey," Angela said, stopping him. "Did you call your sister yet?"
"Don't forget, okay? This is a big deal. Lynn's coming up on five years cancer free."
"I know, I know. You sent flowers, right?"
"Yes. But you still need to call. It will mean a lot to her."
"I will. I promise."
Michael felt light as he walked to the front of the house. He looked forward to watching some of a baseball game or maybe reading a book. He felt encouraged as he reflected on the continued good news about Lynn's health. Next week, he and Angela were going away, a trip to St. Simons Island, just the two of them. Summer was good. Languid. Less work. If they relaxed more, if they got the time away, maybe they'd finally have luck in their ongoing struggle to have a child.
If not, he wasn't sure how things would play out. He and Angela were both feeling the strain, the weight it was adding to their marriage. He hated that sex had become a chore, a duty to be performed with the specific goal of producing a baby. Michael so wanted to get back to normal.
Michael entered the foyer and opened the front door. The sun was dropping, the horizon orange and hazy with the heat that brushed across his face. Someone was grilling, the rich odor of sizzling meat reaching his nostrils.
It took him a moment to comprehend the reality of the figure on his porch. She paced from one side to the other, a cigarette in her mouth, arms crossed.
He couldn't find the words. He didn't know the words.
So he just said, "What the hell?"
She stopped pacing, removed the cigarette. She looked scared, haunted. Her eyes wide and flaring. "I need you, Michael. I need your help."
"I don't understand. Why are you even here?"
She took a step toward him, gesturing with the hand that held the burning cigarette. Michael caught a whiff of the smoke, leaned back as the cigarette came closer to his body.
She dropped it on the porch. The ash sparked as it hit the ground.
"I just need your help, Michael."
"You need to back up, Erica. You need to-you need to leave."
"Michael. My daughter. Someone kidnapped my daughter this morning."
"What is it, Michael?" Angela called from the kitchen. "Chocolate? Magazines?"
"I've got it," Michael said, his voice hollow and barely audible.
Michael moved onto the porch, pulling the door shut behind him. Erica stepped back, allowing Michael room. She started digging in the pocket of her jeans, which were dark and fitted, and brought out more cigarettes. While she shook one loose from the pack and flicked her thumb against the lighter, Michael took her in, observing the changes ten years had etched on his ex-wife. Some lines had formed around her eyes, some skin hung looser beneath her chin, but her shoulder-length hair showed no gray, and the cut looked more stylish and professional than the messy ponytail she had preferred in college. Michael noticed the gray Apple Watch on her wrist, the smartphone tucked in her pocket.
She looked like a grown-up. An adult. And the difference was striking.
She took a long drag on the cigarette and blew the smoke away from Michael. "You never liked this habit. I'd given it up until about twelve hours ago."
"What do you mean, your daughter?" Michael asked. "You have a daughter? How old is she?"
Erica's hand shook as she held the cigarette between her index and middle fingers. "Felicity. That's her name. Felicity."
"Your favorite show," Michael said, remembering. Erica coming to his dorm room after class, sprawling across his bed, her shoes kicked off, catching reruns of Felicity. She loved to analyze and debate the character's choices of men, wailed in distress when an episode played in which Keri Russell's hair was cut short.
Michael remembered it all. The late nights with friends in college. The drinking and the partying. Their histrionic fighting and the ensuing make-up sex.
The day of their wedding. And also the day a year later when he left.
All of it so long ago. When he looked back on that time, he thought they had both acted like children.
"None of this makes sense, Erica. I haven't seen you in ten years. I'm married."
"You know? You can't just show up at my door like this."
"There's a man." She started pacing again, lifting the cigarette to her mouth, the tip glowing the same color as the sky while she dragged. "He's a music teacher at her school. He's odd. I think he liked her. Felicity. In an unhealthy way-you know? This man knows something."
Her words became more and more clipped, her gestures more frantic as she spoke. Ash fell off the cigarette and hit the concrete porch. Even when things had been at their best between them-many days in college, the early months of their marriage-Erica tended toward exaggeration. She had always managed to turn even the smallest misunderstanding-either with him or with someone else-into an operatic blowup.
Michael reached out, placed a hand on her arm. "Stop, Erica. Just stop and slow down."
She did. She looked at his hand where it held her arm near the crook of the elbow, his skin touching her skin for the first time in a decade.
Michael let go. But he said, "If someone you know is in trouble, you need to call the police. They can figure it out. I have to work tomorrow."
Erica paused for a moment. She dropped the cigarette, ground it under her sneaker, a new running shoe, and scuffed her foot, leaving a smear of dark ash across the concrete. Erica had run cross-country in high school, jogged three to five miles a day in college, even on mornings after late nights of partying. She'd always been energetic, almost frantic when she did anything-walking, studying, talking, having sex. She looked at Michael as if he didn't understand something fundamental. "The police are looking. They've been looking all day. Do you know what happens if they don't find someone right away? Do you know what happens to the missing person? The child?"
"I've been talking to the police constantly, answering questions about me and my finances and my personal life and everyone I've ever known. Including you."
"Everyone. Everything about my life. They look into everything when a child disappears. I've had to answer the most embarrassing questions. The most personal questions."
Michael took a step back. He reached behind him, his hand fumbling for the doorknob. Baseball, he thought. A good book. Michael craved those things. And needed to get back to them.
To his real life. Not somebody else's.
He saw a wasp's nest in the corner of the porch, where a support post met the roof. He had been supposed to knock the nest down the weekend before, but he hadn't, even though a wasp had managed to get inside and zip around the kitchen, throwing itself against the window above the sink until Angela swatted it with a magazine. The nest was bigger now. More wasps stirred, floated above their honeycombed dwelling. The odor of the cooking meat grew stronger as the wind shifted. The sky was transitioning from the day's blue to the evening's purple.
"You should go talk to them," he said. "The police. Go back to them. Listen to them. Tell them whatever they want to know. You were never one to keep secrets, so tell them anything that might help. I'm just a guy you don't know anymore. I can't help you."
Erica stared him down. While she did, her eyes filled with tears. She bowed her head, an exaggerated gesture like she was praying. The movement took him right back to their college days, to times she was upset and times they fought. In both the past and the present, the gesture reached something in Michael, summoning empathy and concern for the person before him. Erica could look so vulnerable at times, she seemed always to feel more deeply than anyone else. It hurt to look at her when she was in pain or distress.
And then she glanced up again, the tear-filled eyes meeting his. Her chin quivered.
"You have to help me, Michael. You have no real choice."
Her tone of voice had shifted. Gone was the manic edge, the revved-up energy. Erica sounded shaken, scared.
She spoke again, her voice just above a whisper.
"She's yours, Michael. Felicity is your daughter, and I need your help getting her back."
"That's not possible-"
The door opened behind Michael. His hand still rested on the knob as it moved, so he let go. It was Angela. She took in the scene with her lips parted, struggling to find something to say just as Michael had moments earlier.
Finally, Angela said, "Is something wrong, Michael?"
Erica stood with her hands on her hips, her chin thrust forward in a defiant posture. But she still had tears in her eyes.
Michael looked between the two of them, feeling a strange surge of embarrassment. He and Angela had once run into his high school girlfriend, Kayla McKee, whom he'd dated all during senior year. Michael had felt awkward then, fumbled through introductions in the middle of the grocery store, but Angela laughed about it on the way home, pointing out that Kayla had three kids in tow and another on the way. "She's a breeder," she'd said. "You could have had a whole litter with her by now."
That was before their trouble having a child had grown more desperate. But Angela always talked freely of her former boyfriends and lovers, mentioned them as casually as she mentioned a piece of clothing or a pair of shoes from her past.
But she didn't laugh on the porch, not when she saw Erica.
"Angela," Michael said, "this is . . . Erica. My . . . I don't think you've ever met."
"Hi," Angela said, nodding at Erica, her voice clipped. "It's nice to meet you. We thought it was kids selling something."
"I'm sorry, but I need to talk to him," Erica said. "It's important."
"Michael, is everything okay?" Angela asked, hands on hips in an unconscious imitation of Erica's posture.
"Can you just go back inside for a minute?" Michael asked. "I'm going to figure this out, and then I'll be right in. I promise."
"It's getting late," Angela said. She took one more long look, running her eyes the length of Erica's body. Then turned to go back through the still-open door.
Michael knew what Angela meant. She was ovulating. They needed to try. That night. And likely again the next morning. They had a plan.
"I know you don't like me," Erica said to Angela. "You've made that very clear."
Angela kept going, closing the door as she went inside.
Erica's words stood out. They sounded like they referred to something more than the moment on the porch or the predictable distrust between two women who had dated-and then married-the same man. Michael started to ask about her words but stopped himself. He had more important things to figure out.
He remembered what she'd said just before Angela came outside.
She's yours, Michael. Felicity is your daughter.
"Erica," he said, "I don't know what you're talking about or why you're saying it, but we don't have any children together. You know that. I'm not sure why you're showing up here, trying to throw my life into chaos."
Erica maintained her defiant posture. "We were having sex up until the end, Michael. Up until you left me. We weren't always careful. You'd reach for me in the middle of the night. I don't think either one of us was fully aware of what we were doing."
"She's ten years old?"
"And you never told me about her? Come on, Erica. That's crazy."
"Don't do that, Michael. We're not married, but you still can't just act like I'm overreacting or hysterical. You've always done that, and it's never been fair."
Erica started fumbling in her pockets again. Michael thought she was reaching for another cigarette, but instead she brought out her shiny iPhone. She scrolled through, her finger swiping quickly, and then she turned the screen so Michael could see it.
A photo of a child. She was blond, like almost all the women in his family. Her cheeks were rosy, and in the photo, she stood in front of what looked like a barn, the red wooden boards cracked and peeling. A beautiful kid, yes.
"Don't you see it, Michael?" Erica asked. "The resemblance."
"She's blond. Lots of people in the world are blond. They're not all my kids. None of them are my kids."
"Look closer. Zoom in."
"Erica, I can't even . . . I mean, we've been trying for two years, and the doctor says I may not be able to father a child. So how could this girl-"
Michael did as he was told. He remembered Erica's determination, her iorn will once something entered her mind. He used his thumb and forefinger to zoom in on the girl's face, the picture clear even as the light faded from the day. The action didn't reveal any more to his eyes. He still saw a cute blonde girl on an outing to the country, her cheeks flushed from a long run or the cold wind.
"I don't get it, Erica. A photo doesn't prove anything."
"Robyn," Erica said. "Doesn't she look a lot like Robyn?"