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In the book of condolences inside the entrance of Seneca Hill Drive Public School, on one of the rose-tinted pages, a student has written with the remarkable unsentimental clarity of the young: "R.I.P. Cecilia. Happy birthday."

There you pretty much have it, blunt as all get-out.

Not for the children any sugar-coating of the awful truth ("I wish you never died," another student wrote); not for them the tension of the unexpressed ("I sorry for what you been through"); not for them a minute's doubt ("I wish you a good second life," one girl wrote, or as another remarked a little sternly, "You, right now, are in one of the best hands, in heaven").

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Raymond Zhang and Sherry Xu are taking their cues from their late daughter's friends and contemporaries. There can be no finer compliment, nor a task more wretched and difficult.

This is what they did yesterday, the day Cecilia would have turned 10.

Some time in the early afternoon, Jack Jia, the family's neighbour from across the street and spokesman these many months, came out from the house into the rain to introduce Mr. Zhang.

Cecilia's father emerged with tears pouring down his cheeks, so naturally that they appeared to be just another regular feature of his face, as though it has always been thus.

He had in his hand a school assignment his daughter had written, entitled My Wishes With A Genie, and after a long struggle to find his voice, Mr. Zhang read it aloud without flinching.

The list reflected his little girl lost: studious, gentle, smart and generous.

Cecilia wished first for her "ideal classroom" to appear in her bedroom, then for "all the animals in the world to be my friends" and for all of her human friends to be able to visit them; for meat to be "produced without the killing of animals" (the Earth would not be overrun, she promised); for her "dreamlands to come true" and for an end to "wars in the world and that equality is everywhere."

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Mr. Zhang read every word faithfully, even the last one in Cecilia's neat printing, which was "Bye." Then he went back inside.

A little later, the family opened the doors of their home to the great throng of the members of the press assembled outside, who were led inside by yellow slicker-coated Toronto Police officers.

They did this, Mr. Jia said later, because they want people to know their child, and with the prayer that awareness may go some distance to ensuring that "this never happens in this city, this country, again."

You took your shoes off at the entrance, then found yourself in the front hall, and in a cave of cards -- cards with cats on them, for Cecilia loved cats and had two; hand-made cards from children with crosses on them and messages brilliant in their honesty, such as, "Dear Cecilia: If we could go back in time, we would have told you to sleep with your parents on the weekend."

A right turn took you into a combination living and dining room, where last year at this time, Cecilia was celebrating the big 9 with her mom and dad, giggling as she blew out her candles.

The room was cleared of furniture to make way for the crowds, and the overwhelming impression was of missing elements and a place just recently abandoned.

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There were pictures of Ceci everywhere: in grouped shots of the little family on various outings; some of her alone, that beautiful intelligent face framed by a field of white flowers, and, when she was younger, mugging shamelessly for the camera, the way a child does when she discovers that it pleases her parents to see her happy.

In all the pictures with her folks, Mr. Zhang, Ms. Xu or both of them are touching their little girl.

An arm is around her, a hand rests on a slim shoulder, her mom or dad is leaning into her.

In one, before a stately building I didn't recognize, Cecilia is in the middle, her parents flanking her, wearing a dress of pale pink, arms raised over her head in a ballet pose.

On the far wall of the long room, balloons fashioned into sausage-dog shapes are stuck near the top in a row; there's a table with more framed pictures, one where Cecilia has snowflakes caught in her eyelashes, and beneath the table, a massive pile of stuffed animals and a Barbie doll in its box, and beside it a fish tank, where four or five tiny ones hid behind a miniature twig when I was there.

On the piano is a tiny stuffed cat, and on another table, a birthday cake, decorated with the Hamtaro Hamsters, Japanese cartoon creatures Ceci loved.

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Group after group of reporters went through the house like this until, finally, there were no more.

At Seneca Hill school, just around the corner and up the street, the students who knew Cecilia before she moved into the gifted program, and those in the gifted Grade 4 class, were preparing to go to the house.

Cecilia's parents had invited them, and all of their daughter's friends and their own, for a private visit.

There are 30 in the regular Grade 4 class, and 28 in the gifted one, and principal Evelyne Chadband said that they are doing pretty well, resilient little beasts that they are.

Two social workers have been visiting the classes almost weekly, and have been, ever since Cecilia went missing last fall.

The children have become accustomed to seeing them.

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The Tree of Hope, put up when Cecilia disappeared, almost made it through three seasons.

First, it was decorated with leaves. Then the leaves were given to Ceci's parents, and snowflakes put up in their stead.

Not long ago, the snowflakes came down, and just last Friday, the day before a child's remains were found in a Mississauga park, one of the teachers was fretting aloud at the sight of the bare branches on the tree.

They were going to put up spring blossoms next.

The search of that site ended yesterday, but the investigation by Peel Regional Police and Toronto Police continues, as does that being run out of the Ontario coroner's office, where forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Gruspier is helping the pathologist.

That careful examination of Cecilia Zhang's remains will last at least the rest of this week.

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In her marvellous novel The Lovely Bones, written in the voice of a girl who was murdered, Alice Sebold describes how the child Susie, in the first weeks after her death, looks down upon Earth, her heart sore with longing as she sees her parents suffer so terribly.

She even visits, to smell her little brother's breath again, to be held by a boy she loved, to see her dad, who is in hospital, one last time.

"In the warm light of my father's love," Ms. Sebold wrote, "I had remained a girl with my whole life in front of me."

Cecilia Zhang would have felt something like that yesterday.

cblatchford@globeandmail.ca

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