Russ flaps his elbows like chicken wings and screams, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Ingrid shushes him. “Sorry,” he says. “Please continue.”
I keep reading. “ âThe winner of twenty thousand dollars will be announced at the conclusion of the taping. Please call Scrump Studios at the number below as soon as possible so that we can make further arrangements. I look forward to discussing with you what will happen on May fifth. You should feel proud of your accomplishment. More than two thousand entriesâfrom all over the worldâwere received.' ”
“Is it signed Polly Pinch?” asks Ingrid.
I scan the letter. “No. It's from Polly Pinch's personal and executive assistant, Mr. Spike Miller.”
Ingrid pulls the page away from my face and peers at me. “What does this mean, exactly?”
“It means our dessertâ”
“Scrumpy Delight might win twenty thousand dollars. We'll find out on May fifth.”
“And?” she says.
“And, it means I get to go to Boston and be on
Pinch of Love Live.
Her bottom lip quivers. “Does it mean I get to meet Polly Pinch?”
Garrett chews his lip.
“I've been good.” Ingrid tugs his arm as if she's ringing a huge heavy bell. “I've been doing my homework. And extra credit. And plus, you lifted the ban.”
you're a finalist?” Garrett says.
I show him the letter.
He glances it over, scraping his bottom lip with his front teeth as he reads. He looks unsure, as if he's wondering if it's a good idea, after all, to let his Polly-obsessed daughter meet her idol on live television.
“All right,” he says.
“Yes?” she says.
“On the condition that you say absolutely nothingâzeroâto Polly Pinch about her being your mother. Not a single word. Is that understood?”
“Why not?” she says.
“Because it wouldn't be appropriate.”
“Okay. I promise. But I'll get to cook with her?”
“You get to cook with Polly Pinch,” I say. “On live television.”
Russ leaps and touches his heels together.
“Snap!” Ingrid throws her arms up and wags her head from side to side. “Bring it in. Group hug. Come on. Let's hug it out.”
Russ and Garrett each put an arm around Ingrid, but I step back.
“Zell?” Russ says.
My nostrils quiver and my heart pounds as I hold back tears.
“Zell, what's wrong?” Ingrid says. “We
Nobody says anything for what seems like a long while.
I drop my head into my hands.
The tears spill, and my body jerks with ragged breaths. “How can I go on television? I write e-mails to my dead husband.” I peek through my fingers from Ingrid to Garrett to Russ. “I talk to my dog, who isn't around anymore. I listen to vinyl records. I'm crazy and depressed. I cry all the time. I go for days without wearing a braâ”
“Okay, TMI there, Zell,” Russ says. “TMIâ”
“âand this stupid apron. I wear it constantly, even when I'm not baking.”
“The sign of a true kitchen goddess.” Ingrid breaks free of Garrett and Russ and wraps her arms around my waist and smashes her cheek into my apron. She looks up at me and whispers, “You did it.”
I heave one last teary snuffle. “When no one's around, I talk like a pirate. Like a g.d.
Russ grins. “That's why we love you, Zell.” Then he's hugging me, too, and I'm smiling in spite of my tears. Garrett laughs, and Ingrid calls, “Ahoy, maties! Shiver me timbers!”
TREE BRANCHES SMASH against my bedroom window. The needles squeak against the glass.
I sleep. I wake. I think of Ahab. I drift and stir and sleep some more.
Wheeze. Wheeze. Wheeeeeeeeze.
I open my eyes, half expecting Ahab to groggily press a paw into my arm.
Wheeze. Bang, bang, bang.
Bang, bang, bang. Wheeeeeeeeze. The red numbers on the clock read 6:18.
GARRETT'S ON THE PORCH. He wears flannel pajama pants and a North Face jacket unzipped over a white undershirt. Red rims his eyes. He grits his teeth as the wind whirls.
“Is Ingrid here?” he asks.
“What? No. What are you talking about?”
“She slept over at Trudy's last night.”
Trudy just called, he says. Ingrid wasn't in her bed this morning. Trudy couldn't find her anywhere in the houseânot in the kitchen, or the Barn, or the basement, or the attic. She looked outside, too, behind the shed, in the goat pen. No sign of her.
I glance outside at the gray sky. Snowflakes swirl everywhere, a freak spring storm. “She's not here, Garrett.”
He closes his eyes. “Come with me to Trudy's?”
I tuck my pajama pants into my boots and zip my coat over Nick's T-shirt from The Trip. I ride shotgun in Garrett's pickup.
He steers with one hand up Route 331. With the other hand he holds his cell phone and speaks calmly to the 911 operator. “Yes.âNo.âI'm not sure.âNo.âNo.âHer step-grandmother. My father's second wife.âThere's no way in hell.âI'm on my way there now.âYes.âThank you.” He gives Trudy's address and hangs up.
Past Wippamunk Farms. Past Wippamunk Antiques and its picket fence. New snow whitewashes dirty old snow.
We gain elevation. My ears pop. Past Prince of Peace Church and the gap in the tree line where central and eastern Mass meet is a green and white lumpy carpet below us. Here the wind heaves like a supernatural force against the windshield. The truck veers over the center line.
that?” says Garrett as he corrects the wheel. He snaps off the radio when a disc jockey announces sudden and localized blizzardlike conditions west of 495.
” I say, as if to scold the weather.
The truck fishtails a couple of times. Garrett grits his teeth and bangs on the steering wheel. “Come on, two-wheel drive,” he mutters. “Come on.”
Above the road the blinking red light swings from its pole. Sirens blast behind us; two Wippamunk police cruisers pass and continue up the hill.
Garrett crawls through the intersection. “I bet they're going where we're going.”
I help myself to a piece of hardened gum stashed in the glove compartment. I unwrap a piece for Garrett and hand it to him. His mouth works around the gum.
“I'll kill him,” he says.
“We'll find her. She probably just wandered off. There's no reason to believe anyone'sâ” I trail off. I chew my gum and look absently out the window. The smell of spearmint fills my nose. Where the hell could she be?
“There won't be any footprints,” Garrett says.
“What do you mean?”
“Because of the snow. Her footprints will be all filled in.”
“We'll find her.”
At the abandoned orphanage more sirens blare behind us. This time a cherry red Bronco that says WIPPAMUNK FIRE passes. The striped Muffinry van follows. A single yellow beacon swirls from the van roof.
“The Muffin Man?” says Garrett.
“The whole town's gonna get up for this, Garrett,” I say. “You'll see.”
CHIEF KENT ORGANIZES SIXTY-THREE GRIM-FACED VOLUNTEERS on Trudy's front lawn. Some volunteers adjust walkie-talkies; others test batteries in flashlights. Some strap on snowshoes; others shoulder backpacks. One woman wears tan Carhartt coveralls. One man assembles collapsible hiking poles. Their cars and SUVs are tilted in muddy ditches along Route 331.
EJ distributes color photocopies of a picture of Ingrid. The photograph shows her in her big hat. The red yarns skim her eyebrows and accentuate her green eyes. She smiles. One front tooth is bigger than the other.
Garrett and Trudy hug on the front porch. The edges of a butterfly bandage on Trudy's brow ruffle in the breeze.
Officer Frances approaches them. “The house appears secure,” she says. “There are no signs of forced entry.” She asks questions while another officer scribbles Trudy's mostly monosyllabic answers into a notebook.
“What about the mountain lion?” asks Trudy. “The neighbors said they saw one.”
France puts a hand on her shoulder and says the last mountain lion in the state of Massachusetts was extirpatedâshe actually uses that wordâin the 1800s. “They're probably seeing a bobcat,” says France. “Bobcats're a lot bigger than you'd think.”
Dennis, in his threadbare jacket, weaves among the crowd, taking notes. I remember Nick's e-mailsâhe wrote that he should remain unbiased in New Orleans, an observer, but he couldn't help feeling like he
somehow, to the scenes he photographed. I wonder if Dennis feels this way now. Inextricable from his surroundings, from these people. Connected.
Chief Kent mounts the front-porch steps, half a body length above the crowd. “Ingrid Knox is four feet, five inches tall and weighs sixty-eight pounds,” he says.
“We can't hear you,” a volunteer shouts from the back of the crowd.
EJ trots to the Bronco and retrieves a megaphone, which he passes to Chief Kent. Chief studies it, clicks it on, and holds it to his mouth. The megaphone amplifies the wail of the wind as well as his gravelly old voice.
I shrug my shoulders against the cold. I feel an odd little pinprick sensation, deep in my chestâthe same one I felt the night Ingrid, Garrett, and I got stranded at Tunkamog Lake Cabins. After a few seconds, the sensation fades, and I listen as Chief Kent addresses the crowd.
“Ingrid Knox is four feet, five inches tall and weighs sixty-eight pounds. She has long auburn hair and light brown skin and green eyes and freckles. She was last seen around nine P.M. last night in this house and was wearing pink pajamas, and her hair was in two French braids. Like many of us, she knows these woods well. But snow and wind can be disorienting and frightening, especially for a nine-year-old child.”
A volunteer asks about setting up an incident command center.
“That'll be up to the state police,” says Chief. And just then two Massachusetts police cars pull up Trudy's driveway. The troopers immediately start discussing business with some of the local cops.
Another volunteer asks about an Amber Alert, and another yells, “What about the K-9 unit?”
“Look, these are reasonable questions. But let's not get ahead of ourselves,” says Chief. “Let's not panic. Munkers aren't panickers. Am I right?”
“Right,” the crowd murmurs.
Chief passes the megaphone to the local police chief, a compact, muscular man with a trim white beard. The police chief gives more instructionsâdon't touch anything that looks like it could be important, don't wander off alone, and so on.
The volunteers disband in groups of two and three. Dennis and a Wippamunk police officer pair off and enter the woods behind the shed. France and Chief take a route diagonal from the house, across the road. EJ and the police chief head for the north side of the mountain. The state troopers stay behind.
I stand alone on the frozen lawn, where the snow falls thickly. After a while I approach Garrett, still on the porch.
“They made me stay behind,” he says. “How am I supposed to stay here and wait?”
Trudy opens the front door. “Come inside and warm up,” she says. “Both of you.”
He and I sit in the living room, and eventually Trudy joins us, her arms full of wood. She piles some logs into the stove, and soon the wood is snapping and the room is warm and the smell of wood fire fills the house.
She goes into the kitchen and returns with a tray of fairy mugs. We each take a mug and blow on our hot chocolate. Nobody really says much.
After a while the door knocker clanks.
“Thank you for coming, Father,” Trudy says as Father Chet steps inside. He shakes the snow off his jacket. He perches on the edge of the rocking chair next to the stove.
A minute after Father Chet arrives, Pastor Sheila knocks. She enters without saying a word and envelops Trudy in a giant hug. Pastor Sheila's glasses fog up immediately in the stove-warmed living room. Her crazy frizzy red-to-silver hair glistens with snowflakes.
She and Father Chet conduct a sort of group prayer. Next to me on the couch, Garrett bows his head and interlaces his fingers at his heart; Trudy, eyes closed, nods occasionally.
I hold my mug on my lap and stare into my warped reflection in the hot chocolate. Their words are about thankfulness and being shown the way, gathering together and community, the beauty and curse of nature and wildness, and children as God's creations. The words make me feel good, like I belong. Like this will all end okay. And I think about Nick's e-mails, and how he grew accustomed to the group prayers on The Trip. I see what he meant. There's some comfort in the idea of every person in a room concentrating on the same thoughts, connected by the same meditations. I find myself trying to remember the last time I was in a church. Gail and Terry's wedding, maybe.