5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Kelly Home in Dallas
Irritated with Laura and her attitude—still nasty despite the tender little scene with her mother, apprehensive about the prayer meeting and anxious concerning five o’clock traffic, David gratefully accepted Will’s offer to drive. His father-in-law skillfully wove his way through neighborhood streets, crossing Park at a traffic signal, avoiding Preston—a commuter’s nightmare this time of day—and delivered them all to the parking area behind the Kelly garage as they had pre-arranged.
Entering through the back door, they walked through the utility room and the kitchen, already fussy-full of women, some of them easily falling into Laura’s “floater” category.
One in particular caught David’s eye, a frowzy over-permed matron whose hair could never naturally have been that particular shade of burgundy. When she spied Gloria and Laura, she came at them a-cooing, sowing kisses to the air around their heads.
“Oh you poor, poor dears, you must be distraught, bless your hearts! Why, I just believe that tonight we’ll see our precious little Austin, amen, brought to us as on the wings of an angel, bless your hearts. Remember the apostles in prison, amen, who were delivered by their songs in the night, bless your hearts, just so will our dear little Austin, amen, come to us as we praise.”
Gloria embraced her and patted her awkwardly. Laura drew back just in time, but David, with sleep deprived slowness and feeling like a stalled tugboat in the path of a cruise ship, submitted to a warm hug. After extricating himself he looked hopefully at Will, beseeching him with his eyes to permit a hasty exit, but Will winked and jerked his head toward the front of the house and the sound of singing, Gloria and Laura having already disappeared in that direction.
“So glad y’all could come early,” Suellen whispered as they passed her in the hallway. “We decided to spend some time ministering to the Lord until everyone arrives. Y’all make yourselves comfortable—you too, Will,” she said answering his questioning look. “Stephen is manning the front door.”
Grateful to find a chair near where he stood, David sat, aware that he couldn’t have remained standing if he’d wanted to. Never in his entire life had he run into anything even remotely like this. He looked at the people around him.
Nobody looked at him.
All eyes were closed.
Tears streamed down several faces, but through smiles.
He felt good.
Scared. That was it. Terrified.
What had he gotten himself into? Had he stumbled into some kind of cult, something weird?
He looked over at Will whose chest rose and fell in a great sigh before he bowed his head. Low. Almost on his knees.
Where was Laura? Never mind. He couldn’t look at her. If she looked scared he didn’t want to know about it and if she was laughing he sure didn’t need to see that. From where he sat he couldn’t see Gloria, either. This afternoon, when he’d found her sitting at the table with her Bible he had felt safe with her—even drawn to her, and she was the one who insisted that they come here; she must have known it would be like this.
What am I doing here, he asked himself. This is nuts. Austin. That’s it. We’re here to pray for Austin. Oh no. He knew this would happen. A great sob rumbled up from deep in his chest and flew out from him.
“Uhunh!” He looked around. People, one at a time or by twos and threes had been entering quietly; there must have been at least 40 people in the Kelly’s gracious living room, but nobody seemed to notice him.
Quietly, smoothly, as if it had been programmed, first one and then another, and then all of them slid from their chairs and knelt, a few still singing, most with their eyes closed, still weeping silent tears. Without really planning to, David followed suit, talking to himself inside his own head.
This is it. This is the true thing, he marveled. Now I know what I’ve been missing.
David had attended church, off and on, all of his life. His parents were members of a church but seldom went. Grandma Page sometimes hauled him along to her “testimony meetings,” she called them, and he enjoyed them as entertainment. Come to think of it, he always felt good there, the way he did now. She always told him that real children of God loved. That’s what they did. It didn’t matter who you were or how old you were or what you had done, God loved you and His children did, too.
In a warm suffusion of insight David realized that if Grandma was right, and he had no reason to doubt her, these people loved him and they wouldn’t ridicule him for his loud obnoxious sob, which, he noticed absently, clinically, was still happening every once in a while.
Not only that, God was here, God loved him, and maybe God could do something about Austin.
Maybe? If He couldn’t, He wasn’t God, was He?
But would He? David and Laura hadn’t exactly been pure-of-heart children-of-God types themselves of late. Loved Him? God? But God was, is…like, supernatural, right?
Oh man! No wonder he could hear the beating of his own heart.
He bent low, his head on his folded hands on the floor, and let it all go. Praying aloud he repented for being so angry at Laura, and for leaving the children unattended, and for deliberately resisting anything spontaneous because, well, just because he knew Laura might enjoy it, and also any other pig-headedness on his part. He admitted that he really knew God loved him and loved Austin. He begged God to bring his son back, and he promised to be a better husband and dad and to take his family to church.
“Please, Father Who Art in Heaven, please give me another chance.”
He heard a little yelp from Laura and stood up to check it out, mopping his face with his sleeve.
“Hi, Daddy,” Austin crowed, beaming over his mother’s shoulder where she held him so tightly he couldn’t say more.
In the noisy pandemonium following their entrance into the Kelly home, Tina waited warily for Gloria or Suellen to notice her. Suellen had run to Stephen asking him for his reaction at seeing Tina and Austin walk through the door. Gloria couldn’t seem to decide whom to touch—she hugged Laura’s shoulders, patted Austin’s head and grabbed Will’s hands, all the while saying ‘thank you, Lord,’ over and over again in an awed voice.
The other men stood around looking confused.
The kitchen ladies emerged in a tizzy and several of them swarmed and flapped around Laura and Austin like June bugs on a porch screen.
Finally Gloria lifted her head and their eyes met. She somehow slipped out of the perfumed pack and folded Tina in her arms.
“Are you all right, dear?”
Tina nodded and stepped back. “You see, Austin is fine, too. He’s a wonderful little boy, Gloria.” Choking back tears, she went on. “Please. Can we pray for Jake?”
Tina could feel all eyes on her as the word ‘Jake’ hung out there all by itself in the sudden deathly quiet.
Then, like the pause in a televised news conference, questions erupted from every side.
“Who is Jake?”
“Is he the guy who snatched Austin?”
“What possesses a man to do such a thing?”
“I hope he gets what he deserves!”
“Let me at him for a few minutes; I’d teach him a thing or two!”
As two or three people forgot the holiness of recent moments and yielded to natural reactions, manifest fury oozed into the room and spread like toxic spill.
Austin, still holding on to his mother for dear life, turned to look at the angry faces of those calling out. “NO!” he cried over and over again, “No! Jake is a good guy! He didn’t do anything bad! He’s my friend!” But no one paid him heed.
Into this melee David spoke, the authority in his voice silencing all the hen-house-at-laying-time chaos.
“My son is here, and he looks fine. He looks GREAT!” His voice faltered as Austin broke away from Laura’s grasp and grabbed his dad around the neck. David stood taller.
“Look at him! He’s here, he’s safe, and I say we ought to thank God. I want to thank you all for praying.”
He stepped over to the woman who had swamped him when they first walked in. “Talk about a quick answer to prayer,” he said, hugging her. “Austin, this lady told us that you would be delivered to us on the wings of an angel. What do you think of that?”
Tina could see Austin’s ears turn red as he nodded vigorously and pointed at her. He poked his dad then and she had to smile in spite of herself. It’s wonderful to be adored, she thought.
Will, holding Gloria’s hand—she was weeping openly, tears coursing unchecked down her cheeks—put his other arm over David’s shoulder, patting Austin on the head.
“David’s right; we thank God for bringing our boy safely to us, don’t we?” He looked around. “David, it looks to me as if some of us may have reacted poorly, but we’re all rejoicing for you, aren’t we folks?” Murmured agreement rolled over the group. “Let’s sing a prayer of thanksgiving and then, if the ladies are ready, how would it be if we had something to eat?”
“Yes,” David agreed. “We’ll have a thanksgiving dinner.”
“Fine,” Laura piped up, “but I want to know where my son has been all this time, and who is this chick who shows up with him? Was she in on it or what?”
The hen house seemed ready to erupt in a fresh round of cackling, but Will’s strong baritone rang out, “Praise God…” everyone assembled joined in “… from Whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
As they harmonized on “Amen” the full impact of Austin showing up unharmed seemed to hit them all at once and general rejoicing burst forth. After a couple of minutes, Suellen shushed them with a little silver bell.
“I’m sure y’all are eager to hear about Austin’s big adventure and Tina’s part in it, but I know y’all will understand if the family needs a little time to themselves. Let’s have dinner and then we’ll give them opportunity to share with us. Stephen, darlin’, will you offer thanks?”
He prayed briefly and Suellen quickly announced, “Y’all can form a line beginning in the den, pick up a tray and wind your way through the kitchen, serving yourselves from a fabulous buffet of your favorite recipes, coming out into the dining room. Gail and Eva will help you with beverages. You can find a place to sit anywhere in the house.” Her smooth-as-molasses Texas inflection commanded attention and they dutifully lined up according to her instructions.
Leaning in close to Gloria and Tina, Suellen whispered, “I had the twins arrange a table for six in the den. You go ahead and sit down, and I’ll have someone serve you. You can talk to the people after they’ve eaten. Some of the ladies must have been a bit hungry to go on the attack like that.”
“Oh thank you, Suellen. My goodness, Tina!” Gloria said. “You must feel as if you’ve fallen into a pool of sharks.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Tina laughed shakily. “This is my church and I know these ladies. I love them. They’re really good hearted, you know; it’s just that they sometimes switch gears before they step on the clutch.” That’s something Jake would say, she thought.
“I’m not even sure what that means, but I do know those ladies don’t intend to be mean. To be fair, they didn’t say anything I haven’t thought in the last couple of days.”
Stephen Kelly had already seated Will, David, Laura and Austin in the den by the time Gloria and Tina came in. Tina almost stumbled under Laura’s angry stare, but before the planned interrogation could begin, Austin, seated between his parents, bubbled out the whole story, frequently interrupting himself with, “Mr. Jake is a cool guy, see, I hid in his truck and he didn’t even know it.”
Laura remained silent, obviously holding her peace with some difficulty. Tina sensed her occasional sidelong glances and longed to try to make her understand about Jake, but when David shushed Austin and asked Tina to tell them how she became involved, she felt hot and guilty. She wished she understood Jake herself.
Before she could speak Austin said “Jake loves Tina, Dad, but he couldn’t marry her, see, on account of he didn’t have Jesus in his heart but now he does, see, so now they can live happy ever after, right?” He spread his hands out to them having made what was to him an obvious point.
“I’m sure we’re all very touched by this sweet little romance and absolutely delighted that the felon has seen the light,” Laura said, pulling Austin close, “but I still haven’t heard a single solitary explanation of why precious Miss Tina is here and super Mr. Wonderfulness Jake is not.”
“Jake’s locked up in jail, right Tina?” Austin said, his eyes filling. He moved away from his mother and grabbed David’s arm. “You gotta help him, Daddy!”
“Jake will be all right, Austin.” Tina finally found her voice. “He wouldn’t want you worrying about him, would he?” Tina glanced away from Austin’s look of naked admiration and read pain and jealousy in Laura’s eyes. She cleared her throat and sat up a little straighter.
“The Poppy and Kate Austin has been telling you about are my grandparents who live in a remote cabin in the Arkansas Ozarks. Jake visited them with me one weekend not long ago.”
Her cheeks felt red, but she plowed on, unfolding for them as much of the story as she knew, filling in blanks in Austin’s account, and concluded, finally, her eyes locked on Laura’s. “Your son is a wonderful little boy, Laura. He couldn’t wait to see you. You should have heard him brag about you and his Daddy and his little sisters…”
Her tiny blossom of courage withered and died under Laura’s glare. She took a gulp of water and gave her full attention to folding and re-folding the napkin in her lap.
“Thank you for bringing him here, Tina,” David said, his hand on the back of Laura’s neck. “My wife and I are thankful to have our family is complete again, and we are grateful to you for bringing him here safely. We’ll call you tomorrow to talk about Jake and the trouble he’s in, but for now I think we should join the rest of the people in this house and thank God together.”
With that he stood up, took Austin by one hand and with the other arm pulled Laura close to him.
Tina couldn’t hear what David said to his wife, but the tender look in his eyes drew down a veil and hid the Page family away from the rest of the world. Something in the intimacy of that moment stirred a longing so deep her heart nearly stopped. Just one time, she prayed silently. Please, God, let me know that kind of love just one time.