Chapter 9—Saturday morning, Dallas
When Gloria opened the front door at 8:30 she saw Suellen walking back to her car, having deposited a box of warm bagels on the morning newspaper where she couldn’t miss it.
“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?”
“You’re up? I knew the kids would come in late and y’all might still be sleeping.”
“You know me. After about 7:00 the bed won’t have me anymore. I’m a moving a little more slowly than usual this morning, though. Come on in. I just made a fresh pot of coffee, and I need a best girl friend to share it with me.”
“What else? Would I serve ordinary coffee to you, my dear?”
“You’re on. Everybody else still in bed?”
“Yes, I hope they can rest now. We’ll be quiet.”
Gloria’s eyes were swollen, dark circles making her look years older than 58, her cheerful veneer so thin it had worn off by the time she shut the door behind them. In fact, part of the reason she was up was that she hadn’t been able to sleep most of the night anyway.
David and Laura had driven in about midnight, exhausted, bickering, each accusing the other of being an unfit parent. She couldn’t blame them for yelling incriminations at each other. Who wouldn’t?
The little girls, mercifully, barely stirred while being carried upstairs. After everyone else had gone to their rooms, she stood by their beds a while, thinking about how those tiny little bodies, barely bumps under their blankets, contained great big personalities, captivating so many hearts and dreams, and wondered if Austin safely slept, wherever he was.
She pulled Allison’s blanket up and snuggled it around the child’s shoulders, hoping, praying someone was doing the same thing for her grandson. He hated being cold.
I’m taking every thought captive, she reminded herself. I will not worry about him. God is able to keep him safe and bring him back to us.
I wonder if he has his curly lamb with him. Does he still keep it with him wherever he goes? “Lammie’s” long-playing music box tinkled out “Jesus Loves Me” until the most doubtful should be convinced.
By the time she’d crawled into bed, her tired head spinning with the words flying around all day, she couldn’t close her eyes. Just kept staring into the room, searching the darkness for something to anchor her mind so she could sleep.
“Were they able to tell you anything? Do you know how it happened?” Suellen called her back to the moment.
Gloria set steaming mugs of rich, strong coffee on the table, sliced bagels and retrieved cream cheese and jellies from the refrigerator before sitting down and filling Suellen in on what little information they had gleaned from the distraught young parents.
“The first order of business was to persuade them to stop yelling at each other. Each of them was so intent on justifying his or her own actions; we couldn’t get a sensible word out of either of them. Those two have always squabbled. I’d hoped they’d grow out of it, at least at a serious time like this.”
“So I’m guessing Will spoke about three words and the whole place fell into order, am I right?” Suellen had enough history with this family to know how it functioned. Will was the undisputed family axis around whom whole galaxies could spin, but only until a gentle word or two from him brought them out of whatever tizzy they’d managed to work themselves into.
“Of course. He took them into the family room, sat them down on the sofa together, and pulled his chair right in front of them in his standard come-now-let-us-reason-together position. He reminded them we all love each other and the only thing any of us care about right now is finding Austin.” “Then he prayed with them, thanking God for bringing them to our house safely. Of course we all started crying again, remembering that one of them might not be safe. Will told us hysterics were simply ‘not acceptable’ at a time like this and told us all to ‘stop emoting and start reasoning,’ was how he put it.” She smiled ruefully.
“The big hang-up is that they did leave the children alone in the van for a few minutes and neither one of them wanted to admit it, even to the police in Springfield, which may be why the authorities don’t seem to be very interested in the whole matter, at least that’s what it sounds like to me. Of course Will says I’m always making something out of nothing.” She frowned at her coffee mug and continued.
“The important thing is, they finally did tell the authorities, so now they’re pretty sure they know where they were when Austin disappeared. What we don’t know is what actually happened.”
For a moment she considered not telling Suellen about Will’s absurd idea, but she’d never been able to keep anything from her best friend.
“Will thinks someone may have taken him out of the van,” she said, almost in a whisper.
“You mean kidnapped him?” Suellen asked, astonished. “Does Will really think that’s what happened? When I think of kidnapping, I think of the child of a very wealthy family kidnapped and held until a ransom is paid. Surely that doesn’t apply here.” She shook her head. “David and Laura are comfortable financially, sure, but I don’t think of them as wealthy. And even if they were rich, kidnapping implies premeditation. How could a would-be kidnapper know the child would be at that place, hundreds of miles from his home, at that time? No, kidnapping doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Right. And how could he demand a ransom? How would he even know where they live? How would he call, or where would he send a ransom note?” She’d gone over these questions in her mind all night, and the only answer she could come up with was one she couldn’t bear to contemplate.
Suellen ran her hands through her shiny chin-length brunette pageboy and shook her hair loose as if clearing it of an unpleasant possibility. “How do they know Austin didn’t simply climb out of the van to go to the bathroom?” Suellen knew Austin from the Page family’s visit to Dallas, and would have had a hard time picturing the boy in any kind of victim role. “Maybe he climbed out of the van himself and they left before they noticed. I hear about that happening all the time. Usually it’s a husband leaving his wife and it is a big joke when they tell it later.”
“Since when is leaving your wife a big joke?” Will walked in and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Good morning, Suellen. Are you responsible for these bagels?”
“I have to pass Einstein’s on my way here, anyway, and hoped y’all might be good for a cup of coffee and an update. You look terrible!” Suellen said. “Did you sleep at all?”
“Not much. None of us did, but I trust we made some progress. I heard what you asked, Suellen, and that’s exactly what David and Laura first thought; they’d left Austin and he was still there waiting for them. They even imagined how mad he’d be—he’s not accustomed to being ignored.”
He and Gloria exchanged glances; they were well aware of Austin’s ability to keep himself at the center of attention.
“Laura charged the gifts she bought there on her Visa, and the receipt showed the phone number, so before contacting the Missouri highway patrol, they called back to the Illinois truck stop to find out if anybody there had seen a little boy wandering around looking for his parents.”
“Nobody had seen him?”
“No. Not only that, but the night manager gave them a piece of his mind for ‘misplacing their own child,’ in his words, which wasn’t too helpful, given their frame of mind.”
Gloria’s shoulders slumped wearily as she remembered how utterly shattered her daughter had been when they’d arrived last night. She and Will encouraged them to re-direct their anxiety and anger away from each other and toward finding something that might lead them to Austin.
“Will, did you have the impression either the Missouri or Illinois highway patrol was taking this seriously? From what the kids said, they were more concerned with scolding them than in finding their son.”
“Oh, I still think you may be reading too much into it. Remember, both Laura and David were awfully defensive. Still are. In a little while I’m going to call one of the numbers David gave me and find out what, if anything, the patrol might have come up with. They said they’d call if anything turned up, but I want to keep their feet to the fire.”
Sounds of waking babies drifted down to the kitchen. Suellen said she’d wait and say hello but then had to go on her way to church. She usually found an excuse to make herself scarce when small children entered the picture.
“Before I go, though, I want you to know y’all don’t have to concern yourself about what to feed everybody. You have enough to think about. When I told the women from church about what y’all are going through, they immediately began calling the prayer chain, and Dottie, Pastor Frank’s wife, put together a meal schedule. Someone will deliver dinner by 5:30 every evening until this predicament is solved.”
She acknowledged Gloria’s gesture of protest with a nod, but went on.
“I know you are new to our Body, and that you are much more comfortable baking cookies than receiving them, but we need to reach out to you as much as you need to be loved and enfolded in fellowship right now. We love the Lord and want to serve His people. It’s why we exist, and most of us already know and love you both.”
“That’s wonderful, Sue, thank you.” Gloria hugged her. “What a remarkable church. I can’t believe such a small group can accomplish all that they do. We are so glad we made the decision to join. It feels like we’ve come home.” The Stoners had only recently become members of Maranatha after years of attending a large church where they had felt increasingly unconnected.
General mayhem followed the entrance of the Pages, and Suellen made her exit.
Will stood up. “David, I’m going into the den to make some phone calls and see if we can light a fire under the highway patrol and get them involved in helping us. Join me when you’re ready.”
David followed him out of the room.