No two ways about it. Dying was a bitch. There would always be too many important things—good things—left undone.
Madeline Williams wept for all the books she’d never read, all the music she’d never hear, all the sunsets she’d never see. The grandchildren she’d never hold. On a bad day, she made lists of all the nevers.
Today had been a particularly bad day.
She shifted her tired shoulders and eased her head back upon the pillows she’d stacked behind her on the bed she’d slept in almost every night for the past twenty-nine years. It was just past four on a Tuesday afternoon, but already her eyes were closing in spite of her wanting to stay awake long enough to watch the sun drift down behind the row of evergreens that ran along the far edge of her property. She remembered the day her ex-husband, Greg, planted them the year they moved into this sweet Cape Cod on Higham Road. They’d put in gardens and shrubs and had taken such joy in the shared work. But things had changed over the past decade, and when he left her, he left for good, leaving behind the house and the gardens and the joy as well.
Divorce was a bitch, too.
She wondered if he ever looked back. Most days it seemed all she did was look back.
One of the things she hated most about the disease that was siphoning away her life was the way it kept nibbling at the precious time she had left. It seemed that every day, she lost a little more to her body’s demands for sleep. It was the medication, it was the treatment, it was the disease. She knew all that. She just hated that it was happening to her, and happening so quickly. She’d hoped for more time.
Yesterday her daughter, Lisa, left work at noon to hit the bookstore and pick up the long-awaited new release from Maddy’s favorite author, and had hurried over with it as a surprise. It was a book she had long anticipated, but she’d not been able to get past the first page. The chemical fog in her brain had seemed to absorb the meaning of the words, and the ever-present fatigue had gotten the best of her. Before she’d realized what was happening, she’d fallen asleep, the book on her chest.
Maddy hated knowing that she wouldn’t live to finish it. In frustration, she’d hurled the book to the floor.
There was one thing she’d sworn she’d do before she died, and it was weighing heavily on her mind today. Her greatest fear was that she’d fail in that, too. The energy it took to dispose of the book left her weak, and she closed her eyes, letting exhaustion take her to that dark place where these frightening truths could not follow. But they’d still be there tomorrow when she woke up, and they’d be there the day after as well—would be there, she knew, until the end, which, if the doctors were to be believed, wouldn’t be all that long now.
She slipped into sleep, the promise of death so close she felt its breath, even as it stole hers. It was, they said, only a matter of time.
She awoke in a dark room, the only light that of the night-light Lisa had plugged into an outlet outside Madeline’s bedroom door. With great effort, Madeline pushed herself up and reached for the clock on her bedside table. It was twenty minutes after eight. She’d slept for four hours.
She pulled the covers aside and sat on the edge of the bed in the pink cotton nightshirt that Lisa bought for her last Mother’s Day. She dangled her short legs over the side of the bed for a moment before making her way slowly to the bathroom. She’d just closed the door when she heard Lisa outside the bathroom door.
“Mom, are you all right?” Lisa stood in Madeline’s bedroom, anxiously awaiting an answer.
“Yes, fine, sweetheart. I just got up and needed to use the bathroom.”
“Are you sick? Do you want me to come in and help you?”
“No, baby. I just needed to go to the bathroom.” Maddy fought the sharp edge in her voice. These last few days, she’d been short-tempered, and it hurt her as much as she knew it hurt Lisa. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Madeline finished up, flushed, washed her hands, and pulled open the door. Lisa sat on the end of the queen-sized bed looking nervous and scared.
“Do you think you can eat something?” Lisa asked.
“In a while,” Madeline smiled to reassure her. The last thing she wanted was food, but she was hoping that, in another hour or so, she’d feel like eating. “I just woke up, and you know I never like to eat right away.”
“Carolyn called a while ago to see how you’re feeling today,” Lisa said.
“I’ll give her a call in the morning.” Maddy knew her lifelong best friend checked in at least once a day, every day. It was breaking her heart to know that Carolyn was having such a hard time facing the inevitable. Right now, though, as much as she appreciated her friend’s love and concern, she lacked the strength to deal with anyone else’s sadness. It was all she could do to cope with her own.
Maddy stood in front of her dresser, wondering who the sick old woman was who looked back at her from the mirror. If she’d been vain, which she was not, she would have been more upset at the sight of her reflection. Mostly, these days she was resigned to her appearance. She knew the woman the mirror had reflected once upon a time was long gone, and would never be back.
“I had a thought.” Maddy turned to her daughter. “I woke up with something very important on my mind.”
“Do you remember what it was?”
“Don’t interrupt, I’m liable to lose it.” Madeline tried to make a joke. She opened the top drawer of her dresser and moved several things around. “Ah, here it is. I can’t believe that after twelve years, it’s still where I put it.”
She handed Lisa a card.
“What is this?” Lisa frowned.
“What does it look like?” Madeline sat next to her on the side of the bed. Her body was already craving sleep again.
“John Mancini, Special Agent, FBI.” Lisa read the faded business card, then looked up at her mother. “This is the agent who investigated . . . when Chris . . . ?”
Madeline nodded, and despite her best intentions to go downstairs and watch TV with Lisa, she slid back into the bed and pulled the covers around her.
“I want you to go to him, Lisa. I want you to ask him—beg him, if you have to—to go to the prison and ask the monster where he buried my son.” Madeline’s eyes suddenly filled with tears.
“Mom, he might not even be in the FBI anymore.” Lisa held the card between her thumb and forefinger.
“Shouldn’t be too hard to find out. You call the FBI and you ask.” Madeline reached for her water bottle but it was just out of her range. Lisa shot up and handed it to her.
“What makes you think he’d do something like this? He might not have time, you don’t know what other things he’s working on . . .”
“Then he can look you in the eye and tell you no,” Madeline said simply. “It’s the last thing I will ever ask of anyone, Lisa.”
“Mom, you can ask anything of me, and I’m more than happy to do whatever . . .”
“No, you don’t understand.” Madeline removed the lid from the bottle and took a few sips. “There is nothing that I want except to bury my son. I want them to find Chrissy and bring him back, whatever is left of him, and bury him properly next to me. That’s all I want, Lis.” Madeline reached out and took her daughter’s hand. “Can you try for me, please?”
“Of course, Mom.” Lisa leaned over and kissed her mother’s pale cheek. “First thing in the morning. I’ll find him.”
“Thank you, baby.” Madeline lay back against the pillow and smiled. “I can’t leave him out there, you know? I just can’t leave this world, knowing that my little boy is still out there all alone somewhere.”
“I understand, Mom.” Lisa smoothed the blankets out over Maddy’s wasted form and kissed her forehead. “I’ll call, I promise. First thing in the morning . . .”
Excerpted from Forgotten by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2008 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.