Tuesday morning, Dallas
Allison’s happy piping startled Ariel, who awoke wailing with fright. Laura held her and tried to soothe her, but then gladly released the baby into Gloria’s outstretched arms.
In the next couple of minutes all of them tumbled out of bed and went in different directions.
Gloria, her long nightgown flapping around her ankles, carried her younger granddaughter into the guest bedroom, changed her diaper and dressed her in a comfortable knit dress with matching pink socks and slippers. Cooing and making nonsense talk, she brought the calmed child downstairs, secured her in the highchair and tied a bib under her chin.
Will, his robe untied over pajamas, had already made coffee and set mugs on the table. His face, gray and sad, bore the creases and worry-lines of a string of sleepless nights.
Allison came in silently, her pale little face serious and obviously bewildered. Gloria again realized how tiny the child was, standing there on the cool tiles in her bare feet, her blonde hair backlit in the early morning sunshine.
“Why is Mama crying and crying and crying?” Allison asked, her chin trembling. “Why is Mama mad at me? Nana?”
“Aw, baby. Your mama isn’t mad at you!” Gloria soothed while folding the child in her arms. “Where is your daddy, honey? Is he with Mama?”
“We’re right here,” David said as they came to the table. He watched Laura sit down before he pulled up a chair for himself.
“Allison was right.” Laura wept openly, making no effort to stop or hide her tears. “I’m sick of not having Austin here with us. I’m so sick of this waiting and waiting and waiting and not knowing where he is,” she said between sobs. “I can’t stand it anymore. There has to be a way we can find him. Somebody, somewhere must know where he is!” She grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. “Unless he’s dead.”
At that, Allison cried out, and Ariel, in solidarity with her big sister, cried too.
“He’s not dead, Laura,” Will said sternly. “We cannot permit ourselves to start thinking that way. And it doesn’t help to scare these little girls.”
“Of course it doesn’t help. Nothing helps!” She threw her tissue on the floor and grabbed another. “I can’t believe we were all lying in bed having this lovely little family togetherness love-fest and my little boy is out there with that MONSTER!”
“A monster gots Austin?” Allison shrieked, terrified past crying. “Why can’t Daddy kill the monster and bring brudder to me?” She clung tightly to Gloria’s neck as her grandmother tried to calm her with kisses and nonsense noises.
“Great idea, Allie,” Laura said, “Or, here’s a better one: Daddy can bring the monster to me and I’ll kill the miserable pond scum with my bare hands!”
“What, Mother? You’re going to tell me to pray about it, right? And what good has that done so far? What about Bryan? Did praying keep him alive? It did not. And it won’t help Austin, either.” She dried her eyes on the sleeve of her robe. “I don’t care what the rest of you do. I’m going to drive to those stinking hills in Arkansas where they think he is and find my son myself!” She looked from one to the other, apparently cheered by their skeptical expressions. “Tell you what: I’ll pray when I’m driving around up there, and if he’s still alive, maybe I’ll get some vibes telling me where he is.”
“Don’t make a joke out of prayer!” Gloria said, appalled. “You said yourself that when you and David prayed together you felt better.”
“Sure, we felt better. For the moment. But it didn’t change anything, did it? I can’t believe I was so stupid yesterday—all nicey-nice, my little hands folded, praying like you and Suellen.” She snuffled resonantly. “What a couple of floaters!”
“Floaters?” Gloria asked, puzzled.
“Yes, floaters. You and Suellen.” She rubbed her nose on her sleeve. “Rich old ladies floating around all dreamy, like you think you look beatific or something. You don’t walk, you float.”
“That’s enough, Laura.” Will said. “Being mean to the people who love you the most isn’t going to make you feel better. Yes, this definitely is the time to pray—” There was no point in continuing because Laura fled upstairs, crying loudly all the way.
David remained as he was, seated dumbly in his chair. “What am I supposed to do?” he said as Will and Gloria both glared at him.
“Well, don’t stay there as stiff as the lumber under your backside. Go. Be with your wife and listen to her!” Will said, his voice reflecting how close to the end of his rope he felt.
“She won’t listen to reason. I’ve tried to explain that the authorities are doing everything possible to find Austin—“
“No! Don’t explain anything to her,” Will interrupted, “Listen to her. Hear her. Now go.”
“All right, I’ll go. But I don’t know what you think I can do. I’m supposed to comfort Laura, to listen to your daughter-the-crazy-woman. What about me? He’s my son, too, you know. I’m as worried as she is.” He stood there obviously waiting for them to say something but was greeted with more of the same stony glare.
“I could stand a little comforting myself, you know.” He turned and thumped disgustedly up the stairs.
Will and Gloria looked at each other across the table. “Now what?” Will asked.
Gloria sighed. “I don’t know what. Feed these babies, I guess.” She heaved her body up from the table, feeling older and wearier than she could ever remember being, and seated the unnaturally quiet four-year-old in a booster chair. “A person could get nosebleeds around here from the change in altitude. One minute I’m in my warm bed with my grandchildren, and the next thing I know, everything seems to be crumbling to dust. I could almost hear our world splinter into pieces and fall to the ground.”
She busied herself pouring juice in spill-proof cups for Allison and Ariel, and gave them each a plastic bowl of Cheerios. “You can eat these with your fingers, sweetie,” she said to the older child. “Shall we thank Jesus for our food?”
Allison nodded and folded her hands. Ariel, watched quietly and folded her hands in front of her, too.
“Thank you Jesus for this food, and please make monster let Austin come to Nana’s house, aMEN!” Allison delivered the prayer with conviction and volume.
“Can we go to store and buy Cap’n Crunch for breakfast, Papa?” she asked.
“Cap’n Crunch?” He looked over at Gloria. “Do they still make that stuff?”
“We are having Cheerios today, Allison,” Gloria told her firmly. “Now drink your juice and eat your cereal while Papa and I have a talk.”
She turned to her husband. “I think Laura’s spiritual condition is one more example of how I’ve deluded myself. I presumed her faith was solid because I wanted it to be true, to be real. What are we going to do, Will? What can we say to our daughter to help her understand: God is faithful and good, no matter how it looks at the moment? What can we say when we’re so scared ourselves.”
“I don’t know that we can say anything. Laura’s a good girl, Glory. She’s young, is all, and she doesn’t have as many years of experience with the Lord as we have. She’s a believer, of course. It’s the only life she’s ever known.”
He drew his hand over his face as if he could wipe away his fatigue. “Is her faith as firmly planted as ours? Has it become organic with her, or is it an intellectual choice, like being a Democrat or Republican? Or is the Christian life, the language of a Christian a learned behavior, like knowing how to play the piano?
“Does anything we say to her make any difference? I don’t think so. I believe she’ll have to come to understanding by herself, somehow.” He paused, staring at the last few drops of coffee in his mug. “Not by herself. With the help of the Holy Spirit. We can’t make it happen for her and more than we made it happen for ourselves, not by sheer determination but by years of God making Himself known to us. We need the Holy Spirit for ourselves.”
“I don’t know how to pray about this anymore, either,” Will continued. “Or what is real. Is this real, do you know Gloria? This despair we all are feeling? Or was the peace we felt a few hours ago real?”
Gloria remained still. She stood up to refill Allison’s juice cup and poured more cereal on the baby’s highchair tray, even though she knew it was landing, one O at a time, on the floor to be licked up by Sassy, the ever vigilant toy poodle. After returning the juice carton to the refrigerator, she stood looking out of the window, praying with her heart, silent tears slipping unheeded down her cheeks.
She heard raised voices upstairs, and the little girls giggling as they hung out of their chairs dropping Cheerios on Sassy.
With a slow fluttering of wings, a mourning dove drifted to a low branch, landing inches from the window where Gloria stood pondering. Head bobbing ever so slightly, the dove, surely a female, looked Gloria directly in the eye and cooed softly.
All sound faded then, and her memory carried her back to that awful morning when she stood at this same window, sobbing out her anguish.
“God!” She had cried. “I cannot do this! I cannot watch them lower my son’s body into the ground.” She could still smell the damp earth as she had that day, standing near the dark hole workmen had dug that morning. Strangers, with cold, hard machinery had made a shadowy hollow for her child, and strangers would cover over with dirt the small white casket let down there.
The morning of Bryan’s funeral, just as now, a dove had appeared, and with its cooing, in a way she couldn’t have explained, she had heard the voice of Father saying again, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Nothing new. Nothing she hadn’t known before. And yet a renewed sense of God’s presence, of His affirmation: she truly could not go through those hours—not alone—without His strength.
Overwhelmed with the sense of His nearness, she knew that even though everything was under His control, He shared her sorrow.
Bear with the failings of the weak.
The words popped into her mind; she didn’t know chapter and verse, but she knew they were from the Bible. She knew what she had to do.
After a few minutes, she sat down again and turned back to Will, drew a deep breath and smiled.
“It’s all real, my dearest friend. The good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet, it’s all real. And because God is real, Laura will know that in a deeper way, too, someday. Someday we’ll know, at least I think we will, the purpose for all this suffering, but for right now, we know Whose we are, and whatever knothole we’re being pulled through, He’s with us. He has been with us in the past, and He is now, and that is enough.”
She looked at her husband; his beloved, tired face turned to her, love emanating from every crease, and thanked God for this moment.
“And if Laura comes downstairs determined to search for Austin?” he asked.
“I’d like to go with her. Oh, I know it’s an insane idea. Undignified.”
She laughed at Will’s puzzled look. “Dignified! Can you imagine? At a time like this, Suellen said we were both too dignified. Well, I’m determined to go on this crazy trip with Laura, and show her how undignified I can be.”
He stood then, next to her chair, and pressed her head against his side. “What a wife He gave me! I think I knew that’s what you were going to say. David and I will stay here at “central command” and keep trying everything we know how to do. We’ll take good care of the little girls. It will probably do them good, too, to be away from all the ‘feelings’.” He winked at her when he said ‘feelings’ and then stepped back, leaned over, and taking her face in both of his hands, kissed her on her forehead.
“Will, how have you put up with this pretentious old broad all these years?”
He just smiled. “I suppose it’s crazy to let you go. We men ought to do this. But somehow I feel you and your daughter’s hearts will lead you. And whatever you find, or don’t find, stay in touch, and after a couple of days, we’ll drive there to meet you.”
He shook his head, not believing what he had just said. “Mother and daughter detective team, right, Glory-girl? And I’ll be your loyal house-husband, making sure you have enough money for gas and food along the way.”
“And bribes, don’t forget!”
He stifled a laugh. David and Laura had come back downstairs and from the atmosphere they brought with them, they probably wouldn’t have appreciated the humor.
Laura, obviously dressed for traveling, set her overnight bag at the bottom of the stairs.
“I’m going. David finally agreed to it, and he says he’ll take care of the girls. I didn’t want the two of you to have the work and responsibility of caring for them.” The angle of her chin served as a warning against any opposing comments.
“Your mother is going with you, honey, and I think you should take my Mountaineer. Its four-wheel drive might come in handy up in those hills.”
“Are you making fun of me?” Laura narrowed her eyes at her father.
“No, Laura. I really do want to go with you, if I may,” Gloria said. “Your dad agrees, and he’ll help David with the babies. I have just one request.”
Laura and David rolled their eyes, but Gloria continued calmly. “Let’s not go until tomorrow morning. Please come with me to the prayer meeting at the Kelly’s house this evening. We’ll pray for Austin, and for Will and David here with the girls, for our trip, and that God will show us where to go.”
She took a deep breath. “We could also pray for this Jake who might be the man Austin is with.”
Gloria started out bravely enough, but this last she mumbled through quickly, with her back to the rest of them.
Laura must have heard it, though. “Okay, fine. We’ll all sleep tonight, I hope, and then we’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning. And I’ll pray for the trucker all right. He’d better be ready to meet God if I get my hands on him!”