“Tristan, I can’t play with you now.” Natalie bent down to look her three-year-old son in the eye. “I’ll bring your blocks and cars into the kitchen and you can play here while I’m busy.”
‘Busy’ meant baking three dozen cupcakes, icing the elephant-shaped cake, and then making two batches of cheese straws. She glanced at the crates of packets already filled with party favours on the counter. Why had she ever allowed Ken to talk her into this party-catering lark?
“You enjoy baking. Everyone oohs and aahs over your cakes. Besides, you’re very good at what you do.”
“For fun, Ken. I do enjoy putting things together for special people because I know them. But as a business…”
It began after she had catered for Irene’s fortieth birthday celebration up at the stables. Natalie had been anxious about everything because Irene was Ken’s manager. She had received glowing praise from the guests and Irene had thanked her in her short speech at the end of the evening – which is what had led Ken to persuade her to ‘go public’.
“Just think, you’ll be able to stay at home with Tristan and number two child until they are old enough for pre-school.”
Tristan built tall towers with the wooden blocks and then knocked them down until the blocks and cars were scattered all over the kitchen floor. Natalie tripped over them, spilling the powdered food colouring she had just mixed to the right shade of grey. “Pick these up!” She hadn’t meant to shout and immediately felt contrite at his pushed out lower lip, reddening cheeks and tear-filled eyes. Her own eyes were smarting too: time was running out.
“Let me help you,” she offered after wiping the grey mess from the floor. “Then I’ll put a plate of snacks together, pour you some juice and we’ll have a little picnic outside before I finish this elephant.”
The oven pinged loudly. Natalie put the cupcakes on a rack to cool, reached for the icing sugar and a bowl. She bent down to retrieve the box of icing nozzles from the bottom drawer, all the while revising her icing plans in her head. Sam, their dog, barked outside and set off the Hadeda Ibises perched in the tall Erythrina in their front garden. As Natalie mixed the different colours of icing, she became aware of the humming of the fridge and the distant barking of other dogs in the neighbourhood. Doves flew up in a flurry past her kitchen window. Everything was peaceful. Peaceful?
She looked up at the kitchen clock. Ten o’clock! When had she promised Tristan his snack? “Tristan!” She expected him to come bounding into the kitchen. He didn’t. “Tristan!” No sound in response. “Tristan!” Her voice had reached a shrill. I really don’t have time for this, she muttered under her breath. “Where are you Tristan? I’m coming to get you!” Natalie cocked her ears. Usually there would be muffled giggles by now that she would ignore while she ‘searched’ high and low in the most unlikely places, making loud comments such as, “Are you hiding under the cushion, Tristan?”
There was still no response. Even the fridge was silent. “Tristan?” Natalie’s heart began thumping. There was a ringing in her ears. She covered the bowls of icing with cling wrap and went out into the garden to call as loudly as she could, “Tristan!” Her voice seemed to be absorbed by the unmown grass and muffled by the trees. The sandpit was empty. The swing was obstinately still. “Tristan! Where are you?” Natalie’s legs felt like lead as she raced around the garden and then tore indoors to run through the house.
There was no sign of Tristan.
There was no sign of Sam.
Apart from her heavy breathing, there was no sound at all.
“Tristan, where are you?” Her whispering wasn’t going to find him. She reached for her cell phone and scrolled to the number of their neighbourhood security group.
Three-year-old Tristan Watkins is missing from 3 Monk Road. Please help me find him. It had taken her trembling fingers three tries to complete the message. Then she phoned her neighbour two doors down.
“Julie, Tristan’s gone. I think – I hope – Sam is with him.” She began to sob.
“I’ll be right over.”
Natalie and Julie walked quickly around the garden together and then more slowly along the pavement. They were joined by Mr. Reardon, the maid who worked for the Kidd family up the road, the Forsythe’s gardener, two students who happened to be passing, as well as Mrs. Roberts, who had been walking her dog. A chorus of “Tristan!” echoed through the neighbourhood. Curious people driving past stopped their cars and joined in the search.
Half an hour passed with no sign of either the little boy or the dog. Having read the message on their respective cell phones, other residents of the neighbourhood dropped what they were doing and swelled the ranks of the searchers. Natalie’s voice was so hoarse she could barely speak. She handed her phone to Julie when Ken called.
“There must be about thirty people out here, Ken. We’ll find them, don’t worry.” Julie handed back the phone, gave her a friend a reassuring hug and carried on shouting. “He can’t have gone far, Nats. Perhaps we should move up a street and then loop back.”
Time had lost its meaning as Natalie tramped doggedly on, her eyes scanning every hedge and bush; her heart telling her not to expect the worst.
“I don’t actually think my Mommy loves me anymore.”
“She said she would give me a snack. But … she didn’t.”
“Would you like me to come home with you and we can ask her for a snack?”
“I’m too tired. She might shout at me like she shouted about the blocks.”
“Would you like me to give you a ride on my shoulders?” The security officer tossed the truck keys towards his companion. “Then you will be high up and can show me where your house is.” He stretched his hand towards the mud-covered boy who had been building little dams next to the narrow stream that ran below the level of the road. The boy looked at him briefly and shook his head.
“I don’t know where I live.” He sounded miserable. “I asked Sam, but he doesn’t know where to go.”
“Come.” The security officer hoisted the little boy onto his broad shoulders and began walking up the steep hill towards Monk Road. His companion whistled for the dog splashing in the water some distance away.
Ken made his way through the crowd to hug Natalie. “I’m here Angel. We’ll find him.” Natalie could barely breathe. Her eyes were swollen from crying and her throat raw from shouting. Now that Ken was here, she could feel herself go weak at the knees.
“Perhaps we should call the hospital,” she whispered with a shudder as her worst fear at last found a voice.
“Perhaps.” Ken fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone. A roar of applause made him look up.
“He’s here Natalie! Look! He’s here!” Julie tugged at her friend.
“Tristan!” Natalie shrieked. “Tristan!” She ran down the street, her arms held wide. “Tristan! Oh Tristan, we’ve all been looking for you.” She looked up at her son’s smiling mud-stained face as the security officer came near.
“Mommy! Mommy! Look – Alan gave me a ride. All the way like a horsey-ride!”
She reached up to take Tristan from the man’s shoulders and hugged him tightly. “How can I thank you?” Her voice cracked and her tears ran freely.
“It’s all in a day’s work, ma’am.” The man smiled at her and ruffled Tristan’s mud-caked hair. “I know that your Mommy loves you very much, Tristan,” he said quietly and saluted them both.
Natalie held Tristan close and breathed in his little boy smell. She felt Ken’s arms wrap around them both.
When she looked up, the crowd had melted away, except for Julie who was holding Sam by his collar.