In a busy school cafeteria, a teenage girl is confronted by a classmate who questions her identity. He explains to the students who have crowded around that the girl bears an uncanny resemblance to his cousin, who was taken away by social services five years ago. Her parents abandoned her, fleeing the country after being accused of embezzling millions of dollars. The students are intrigued, but the girl shrugs off the attention as a case of mistaken identity.
As the days pass, however, the boy refuses to relent and even brings his parents in to back him up. But they are not the only adults involved. An FBI agent who has been working the case these past five years believes that whoever this girl is, she can serve as bait to help the FBI capture the fugitives. In this powerful novel that explores the possibility of mistaken identity, the evils of money and greed, and the heartfelt obligations of family and loyalty, Caroline B. Cooney has once again crafted a page-turner that will resonate with readers.
Release date: January 12, 2010
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Print pages: 208
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They Never Came Back
Caroline B. Cooney
It was the second week of summer school. The seven kids in Cathy Ferris's class were crowded around a table in the student center. Cathy opened her brown paper lunch bag to take out the sandwich she had made that morning. In the seat next to her, Ava began to frown. "Some boy from another class is staring at you, Cathy."
The attention of boys was always nice. Cathy finished the tiny act of sliding a peanut butter and banana sandwich out of its plastic bag.
Meg, sitting on the other side of Cathy, said, "Scary staring."
Cathy became aware that Graydon was upset, that Julianna was holding her breath, that Colton had set his soda can down without drinking from it, while Ethan's fork dangled in the air.
Cathy looked where they were looking.
The student center at Greenwich High was immense, with soaring ceilings, massive pillars and potted trees two stories high. Most tables, not needed for a summer school enrollment of sixty, were shoved close together at one side of the room. Fifty feet away from Cathy, a boy had risen to his feet. His eyes were glued to Cathy. He looked shocked, as if witnessing something terrible--as if Cathy were a car accident happening before his eyes.
He was tall and broad-shouldered and sturdy. His short hair was reddish blond. He looked like a jock having a meltdown. Slowly he pushed his chair out of his way and slowly moved across the open stone floor toward Cathy.
No one had ever stared at her like that. In the damp warmth of the poorly air-conditioned room, a chilly fear touched Cathy.
Even from this distance she could see that he was breathing hard, that he had lost color. Cathy found herself mirroring him. She too was shaking. Her class drew close, as if to protect her, and the cafeteria fell silent--sixty kids caught up in the boy's behavior. There was no sound except the faint squeak of his sneakers.
Cathy's fingers convulsed and crushed her brown paper lunch bag.
His eyes drilled into hers. She could not blink or move or think.
And then the boy was laughing. He turned into a happy little kid, clapping with delight. He bounced the rest of the way across the wide room. "Murielle!" he cried. "Murielle, is it you? It is you! Oh, wow!"
Cathy's mind was stuck. She couldn't take it anywhere.
"Murielle, it's me. Tommy. Where have you been?" His arms were out. He was expecting a hug, as if they were both small children on a playground.
She couldn't remember when anybody had been this glad to see her. What should she do? What should she say? It was hard even to move her lips. "I'm Cathy," she said, but he didn't hear. He actually knelt by her chair, as if expecting to fit her with a glass slipper. "You're Murielle," he said joyfully.
Joy--at seeing her. Cathy's heart skittered. Then she corrected herself. Joy at seeing Murielle.
Kids were now standing up for a better view. Graydon--the oldest in Cathy's class; he would be a senior in the fall--got up from their table, squatted beside the boy and said gently, "She isn't Murielle, Tommy. Her name is Cathy Ferris. She's in my Latin class."
Graydon was a serious student. No matter how much Cathy studied, he had studied more. He had learned a truly remarkable amount of Latin in ten days. Cathy was in awe of his intelligence. If Graydon said something, it was correct. But the boy Tommy brushed Graydon away, like hair in his eyes. "I know you're Murielle," he told her. His voice broke with emotion. "Have you been in Greenwich all along?"
Now kids crossed the room to gather around Cathy's table, so they wouldn't miss anything. Cathy felt as if she should have rehearsed. But what were her lines? "I don't live in Greenwich," she told him. She could not match his dancing eyes; his happy smile. "I live in Norwalk. My town is paying tuition so I can take the accelerated language course here this summer."
He shook his head, beaming at her. "You're Murielle."
Cathy's fingers pleated the lunch bag, spindling the brown paper. She asked the only reasonable question. "And who is Murielle?"
Tommy sank back on his heels. His smile faded.
Graydon stood up, extended a hand and pulled Tommy to his feet. Keeping a hand on Tommy's shoulder, as if to remind Tommy that he was among friends, Graydon said to the crowd, "Murielle was his cousin. She disappeared years ago."
There was a collective gasp of horror. "Disappeared" was a hideous word. Sixty kids stared at Tommy, whose cousin had disappeared, and then all sixty pairs of eyes turned on Cathy, who looked so much like that cousin.
Tommy sagged, looking as beaten as a kid who thought he had won the big basketball game, only to lose in the last two seconds. "It was five years ago," said Tommy, still staring, his delight replaced by a dazed disappointment. "She was ten. I thought you were--" he broke off. He sighed. Then he rallied. "I'm sorry," he said to Cathy, his voice almost normal. "I don't usually attack people in public places. I was just so sure that you were Murielle."
He was still sure; she could read it in his face. "It's okay," she said lamely.
The spectators didn't give up so easily. "What happened to your cousin, Tommy?" demanded Ava. "Was she kidnapped here in Greenwich? I don't remember a kidnapping. But five years ago I was only nine. Maybe I missed it."
Ava's loud voice woke Tommy from his hypnotized stare. He seemed unnerved to find himself in a sea of _witnesses. Most of these kids were from Greenwich, but a dozen from area towns, like Cathy, were paying tuition to attend the summer school. They were all attempting to master an entire year of a foreign language in six weeks. Monday through Friday, they had three hours of class before lunch, three hours after lunch, and at least three hours of homework. Weekends were homework around the clock. The kids in this program wanted to display exceptional academic ability, which might catapult them into a top college. Cathy was slightly surprised to find herself in this group.
She had found the Latin class online. There were subjects she researched regularly and up had popped this unusual summer school. The guidance office at Norwalk High did all the work of getting her accepted and finding the funds. The remaining problem had been transportation, since her parents worked and could not drive her back and forth. A car pool was arranged with another commuting student. Spencer Tartaglia lived in Wilton, even farther from Greenwich than Norwalk, and his mother agreed to pick Cathy up at the Merritt Parkway exit.
Spencer had a mop of messy curls that made him easy to spot in a well-trimmed group. He was standing at the back of the lunch crowd, as fascinated as everybody. This would make much more interesting car conversation than his Arabic or Cathy's Latin.
Tommy was clearly not happy talking about his cousin's disappearance. But he had little choice. Questions were coming like pellets from a shotgun. He took a deep breath and launched himself. "Murielle was not kidnapped. My aunt and uncle, Murielle's parents, ripped off clients at their brokerage firm. Investors and pension funds lost huge amounts of money, and my aunt and uncle got away with at least ten million dollars, and maybe ten times that. Not their own money, either." His face reddened with shame. Cathy thought of all the banking and brokerage moguls to appear in the news over the last few years; people who had presented a trustworthy face but had privately jeered at their clients, and stolen every dollar in sight.
"It was a big deal at the time," said Tommy. "Lots of media coverage. My aunt and uncle fled the country so they wouldn't face trial, but their daughter, my little cousin Murielle, got left behind."
Every child's worst nightmare. Alone in the house without Mommy and Daddy. Running from one empty room to another.
Cathy remembered being ten years old. It was a fragile age. Ten-year-olds had to have grown-ups.
"My parents wanted her to live with us," said the boy, "but Murielle got put in foster care and vanished into the system. We went to court to get her back."
They had gone to court? Had lawyers? Faced a judge?
"But we failed," he said, as if he were still puzzled by that; still could not believe the court's decision.
"Failed" was as frightening as "left behind" or "disappeared." The sixty kids in this room had never failed. It was an alien concept.
"Murielle's probably okay," said Tommy. His voice dwindled. He was talking more to himself than to the crowd. "Or at least okay-ish, but she's lost to us."
His pain swamped Cathy. It was easier to look at her classmates. Ava, Meg, Graydon, Ethan and Colton were transfixed by Tommy. But Julianna was watching Cathy. An expression of pure loathing crossed her face.
Cathy was jolted. It can't be me she despises. It has to be Murielle. But who could despise a ten-year-old? Especially a ten-year-old nobody's seen in five years?
"I remember that, Tommy!" cried somebody. "Your aunt and uncle--weren't they hedge fund manipulators or something? Lyman was their name. Rory and Cade Lyman. Didn't they catch a plane about five minutes before they were going to be arrested, and now they're safe in France or Namibia or Singapore?"
Tommy shrugged. "Nobody knows where they are. If federal prosecutors could figure out my aunt and uncle's location, they'd be extradited. Well, from France, anyway. I don't know about those other two countries, whether they have a treaty with the U.S. or not."
There was a rustle as people whipped out BlackBerrys and cell phones to Google the name Lyman.
"Tommy," said Ava, in her platoon sergeant voice, "do you have a photograph of Murielle? Let's compare it to Cathy and see if we see this resemblance."
Cathy had to end this. "I'm taking Latin," she said to Tommy, as if they were getting acquainted under normal circumstances. "What language are you taking?"
He couldn't change the subject along with her. He was blank. Somebody answered for him. "He's taking Chinese."
"When I signed up for summer school, Chinese sounded too hard. I wanted a language that uses an alphabet." She was babbling. "Preferably the alphabet I _already know."
"Cathy!" said Ava. "You are somebody's double--and you want to talk about a dead language?"
Everybody laughed. Even Tommy laughed.
Cathy actually felt double, as if she were a paper doll waiting to be unfolded.
"There's no such thing as a double," somebody said. "Except identical twins. Anybody else is just similar."
Julianna slid to the back of the crowd where Cathy could no longer see her. Cathy felt like crying. The four girls in Latin had become friends in an hour, one of the unexpected delights of the summer. She loved being with Meg and Ava and Julianna. Surely she wasn't losing Julianna's friendship because of this!
"How do you spell 'Murielle'?" Ava asked Tommy. "I never heard it before."
Cathy was pretty sure that Ava did not care how "Murielle" was spelled; she wanted to keep on talking to Tommy. And who wouldn't? He was adorable, the perfect combination of big hunk and little kid.
"Usually it's pronounced Muriel," said Tommy. "But my aunt Rory and my uncle Cade said Murielle."
A little murmur ran through the group, everybody trying out the name Murielle.
"I've got information on Rory and Cade Lyman," called Meg, triumphantly waving her cell. "Listen to this," she said, looking back at the information on her tiny screen. "Those two made it to England, and after that, no trace of them was ever found, and they never came back for their kid."
"Don't go there," said Tommy wearily. "It's history."
Too late. It was now a current event. All around her, kids were texting. Cathy felt as if she were literally a news item, flung from mouth to mouth, phone to phone.
Ava said, "What kind of parents decide that money and freedom matter more than their little girl? What did they do--sit over dinner and draw up a list? Weigh the advantages? Say to each other--'Okay then: we keep the money, we bail on the kid.'"
Cathy looked down at her crushed brown paper bag. Then she shook it out and dropped the uneaten sandwich back inside. Blindly, she looked around for a trash can.
From the top of a massive curving concrete stair--one Cinderella might descend if she were a mud wrestler--came a shout. "People! Didn't you hear the bell? Time for class. Let's go, here! We're on a tight schedule."
This was a group that never willingly missed a minute of class. Immediately they were heading for their separate rooms. The Latin students waited for each other. Meg was saying, "I'm texting my dad. He's an attorney in town and he'll remember the details."
Tommy was still watching Cathy. She smiled awkwardly.
Tommy blew out his breath in a noisy huff. "The resemblance is really strong when you smile. My aunt Rory had that smile."
Cathy shut down the smile and stood there helplessly until his Chinese class dragged him off.
The kids taking Arabic, German and Latin had almost forgotten that Chinese was also being offered, because in the beginning the Chinese class had prepared their own meals as a conversational and cultural exercise. They did not come to the student center for lunch. It turned out that school insurance did not cover kids using hot stoves and smoking oil, so now they were eating with everybody else. That was why Tommy had not laid eyes on Cathy until today.
"Wow," summarized Spencer, her ride. He took the lunch bag out of her hand and threw it away for her. "You okay?" His smile was quizzical. He too was wondering if she could be Murielle Lyman.
"Just a little shaken," she said. With Tommy gone, she could let her real smile out.
Spencer grinned back. "Text me if you need to," he said. They were easy with each other, after a week and a half of carpooling. It was nice to have an ally.
At the top of the cast concrete stairs, Meg and Ava waited. No Julianna. What was going on with Julianna?
When she had caught up to them, Ava said, "Guess what? While you were fiddling with your lunch, Tommy took pictures of you on his cell phone."
"Oh?" said Cathy.
"Only one reason to do that. He still thinks you're Murielle," said Ava. "He's going to forward those pictures and get a second opinion."
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