Dr. Daniel Cleaver was washing his hands at the sink in the corner of his office for the last time on what had been a very long and strenuous working day. Mrs. Hodgson had come rushing in after hours because her daughter's nose was bleeding again. Luckily he had succeeded in stopping the nosebleed quickly and had just seen off mother and daughter, hoping that no other emergency would arise and he could go home now. He was looking forward to a quiet dinner with his wife and Mick, and maybe he would make it home in time to give Jess and Janie their goodnight kisses and read them a bedtime story.
He dried his hands, pushed his glasses onto his forehead and rubbed his tired eyes for a moment before he cast one final glance around the room. He groaned when he heard a low but steady banging on the front door. Another patient. Just what he needed now. This had better be urgent, or the ever-friendly Dr. Cleaver would show his irritable side for once.
He unlocked the door and opened it, wondering for a moment if he had been mistaken when he saw no one. Then he dropped his gaze to find a very upset five-year-old on the doorstep, cheeks streaked with tears, hazel braids half dissolved, panting heavily.
"Jessica!" he exclaimed, squatting down to face her. "What are you doing here? Have you come here all on your own?"
"Daddy, come quick! Mommy won't stop crying, she's just sitting there and makes strange noises, and Janie is crying, too, and Mick … Mick …" She couldn't go on. Big tears were streaming over her round pink cheeks again, and she sobbed heartbreakingly.
"What is it with Mick, love? Where is he? What has happened? Is he hurt?"
"He's gone, Daddy! He's gone away and he won't come back!"
Dan shook his head and said reassuringly, "He will come back, I'm sure. Now let's go home and find out what really happened." He picked Jess up and walked the short way to the house as fast as he could without running. He wasn't an athletic man and wouldn't have lasted a minute if he had started running with the child in his arms.
When he pushed open the front door, he found Alice still sitting on the stairs, gasping for air between fits of racking sobs. She hardly seemed to notice his arrival. He sat next to her, touched her shoulder gingerly and asked, "Hush, Alice, calm down. Tell me what happened."
She held a crumpled paper out to him without a word, staring at him with puffy eyes so red that their original colour was barely distinguishable. He scanned the scribbled message and said slowly, "We will find him, Alice. He'll come back."
"Dan", she whispered in a choked voice, "I struck him. He'll never forgive me. I'll never forgive myself."
"Don't say that, Alice. Every kid gets slapped once in a while. Most of them actually deserve it, and they get over it eventually."
"It wasn't just a slap, Dan. He was bleeding. I must have caught his lip with my ring." This set off another round of wild sobs.
Dan patted her back helplessly and said, "That's bad, and I can imagine you feel awful about it, but I'm sure you didn't do it on purpose. Please try to calm yourself. Let's be practical now. He says he's going to Maine. I'm sure that means he'll be on his way to his grandparents. Let's phone them and tell them to let us know when he arrives. I'll go there and get him. My father can cover for me in the practice while I'm away."
Alice took a deep, ragged breath. She wasn't sure if she admired him for staying so cool in this situation or if she hated him for showing so little empathy for her agony over what she had done to her son and her fear that she might have driven him away for good.
"My parents haven't got a telephone", she sighed. "You know what my father is like. He doesn't think much of what he calls 'newfangled nonsense'. I've always said they should get a phone, but …"
"Well then, do you have a number for any of their neighbours or anyone else in the village?"
"I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I don't know … there might be … but I don't think … perhaps in my …" Alice realized that she was babbling like an idiot and pulled herself together. "I think I might have the number of the Phillipses somewhere." With knees that felt like jelly, she rose from the stairs and went over to her desk in the corner of the living-room.
It seemed ages that she had been sitting there, writing the to-do list that had been the most important thing on her mind just a few hours ago.
She avoided looking at the sofa with the squished cushions or at the armchair where she had left her twisted, tear-drenched lace handkerchief. Her heart was heavy enough without those reminders of what she had done.