By Barry D. Frisbee (BornToVector)
Barely forty, yet a lifetime of heartaches showed heavily in her tired eyes. Clutching Jesse's hand, she watched through the glass of the observation area. Her three-year-old daughter laid motionless, drugged into a careless slumber, as one test after another was being performed on her frail body.
"It'll be all right, honey . . . it has to be," Jesse said, trying to assure himself as much as her.
Audrey turned and buried her face in the shoulder where countless tears had fallen in their sixteen years of marriage, and once again found comfort in his strength. He'd been the rock that she leaned on and her whipping-post when she needed to vent anger. Knowing that she was dangerously close to breaking, his tears had all been shed in the solace of his own spaces. If he were not strong, this last straw she was asked to carry, could very well be the one to break her back.
"Why is He doing this to us, Jesse? Why?" she begged for an answer.
He wiped the tears as they crested on her jaw line. He knew of whom she spoke, but did not answer. He had no answers. After losing one child without any show of mercy from above, now she feared for another, and had for many years blamed God as their tormentor.
Justin had been gone now for seven years, nearly as many years gone, as he had been theirs to love and hold. Unlike Anna, he had not fallen unexpectedly ill. His body had not been riddled with cancerous tumors that tore at his life day by day. He had merely disappeared, disappeared from the front yard of his middle-class suburban home in broad daylight. Playing hide-and-seek one moment, gone the next.
In the years following his disappearance, Audrey had daily made her pilgrimage to St. Josephs Church, where she prayed for her sons return, pleading with God to bring him home to those who loved and cared for him. After three anguishing years, she no longer asked God for his safe return, but for answers to squelch the torment that plagued her mind. Hope was lost, but she felt a desperate need to know anything that would put a sense of finality to her suffering. Was he alive? Was he okay, or was he . . . dead? When these questions also went unanswered, she began to turn away from the God that she had once loved and depended so upon. Her heart turned bitter and she felt that He had forsaken her.
It was only at the moment that she first saw Anna's angelic face that she began to believe in life and possibly God again. Though Justin was never far away in her thoughts, through Anna's love, she was able to go on living.
Kneeling in the hospital chapel, she felt awkward and out of place. She had turned her back on God, and yet, here she knelt to beg his intervention again.
"Father," she said as she lifted her eyes to the crucifix and began to softly weep. "I have sinned and lost faith in you. I would not blame you for turning a deaf ear to me, because I know I am deserving of this, but, please, Father, please do not turn away from Anna, and Jesse. They have suffered enough because of my lack of faith. Do what you will with me, Lord, but help Anna. She does not deserve this. She is so little. I put her in your care, Father. Please send her help." She stood, signed the cross and left the chapel.
Still groggy from the medication, Anna dozed on and off in her car seat. The talk was minimal as they made their way down I-75, southward from Atlanta.
"I asked him," she quietly said.
"I know," he said, needing no explanation. "I saw you in the chapel . . . I asked him too."
She smiled and grasped his hand, this time more in compassion than in a need of support. "He's going to send help," she said, "I just know it."
He leaned to kiss her, but stopped suddenly as they passed a young hitchhiker on the shoulder of the road.
The stunned look on Jesses face concerned her and she asked, "What is it, Jesse? Whats wrong?"
He swerved onto the shoulder without an answer. His head snapped around, as the young man ran to catch the offered ride.
"What are you doing? We cant pick up a hitchhiker," she said frantically, "especially with Anna in the car."
"It was him, Audrey. It was him."
"It's who? What are you talking about?"
He continued to stare at the approaching teen and absently said, "it's Justin, Audrey. Its Justin."
Her head spun abruptly in the boys direction. He was close to the right age, she thought, but could it possibly be? His hair was long and partly covered his face, making a good look at him nearly impossible.
She impatiently watched his every move as he approached. He wrestled with a heavy backpack, trying to keep it steady on his thin frame. Nearing the van he brushed the hair from his face with his hand, giving Audrey her first clear look at him. Her breath caught in her throat and only a small indistinguishable sound escaped.
"Oh my God," she finally said in astonishment. How?"
Confused, but overjoyed, she reached for the door handle, but Jesse took her arm and held it firmly.
"What is it?" she demanded. "Let me go to him."
"Wait," he pleaded. "Wait, you may scare him. He might not remember."
"Of course he will remember." He wasnt a baby when he was taken."
"You don't know what he's been through, Audrey. Let him get in and well take it from there."
He trotted alongside where Jesse had opened the sliding door. "Thanks," he said as he threw his backpack behind the seat.
"Where you headed?" Jesse asked.
"Uh . . . south, Florida," he said, being purposely vague. "How far you folks going?"
Audrey couldn't speak. "Just as far as Macon, I'm afraid," Jesse answered.
"Hey, no problem," he said lightly, "that's a good seventy miles I wont have to walk today."
Audrey looked anxiously at Jesse before turning to him. "Anna is the little snoozing one," she said nervously, "this is my husband Jesse and I'm Audrey, Audrey Wade." She watched carefully for some indication of recognition, but there wasn't any there, not even a glimmer.
"Great," he said. "I'm Christopher, or Chris if you like."
"Kind of young to be out here on your own, aren't you, Christopher?"
"Uh . . . no ma'am. I just turned eighteen," an obvious lie. "I've always looked young, everybody says so."
"What about you, guys?" he asked, changing the subject. "What're you doing up this way?"
"Well," Audrey said, "Anna is sick, and we take her to Atlanta for her tests and treatments."
"Sorry," he said, and offered nothing more.
The conversation tapered off and Jesse could see the tension building in Audrey with each passing mile marker. The sun was starting to crest on the horizon and with the encroaching darkness the temperature began to plummet. Looking at the outside temperature gauge, Jesse mouthed forty-two to Audrey as they pulled off the exit to their home.
"Where you staying tonight, Christopher?" Audrey asked.
"Oh, don't worry about me, ma'am. I'll get me a room or . . . something."
"No," she said in a tone indicating no sense of choice. "Bad weather is coming. You will stay with us. We have lots of room."
At home, while Audrey made dinner, Jesse and Christopher played with Anna. They played as if they had spent a lifetime together. She watched as Anna busily explained her entire toy animal collection to him and as he intently listened to every detailed story. With a slight but sudden glance, the sound of his voice resonated inside her head. I've come to help her.
The shock weakened her knees and she nearly dropped the dish she was holding. She steadied herself on the countertop; he smiled at her, and went back to playing.
Dinner was quick and without much conversation. To their questions, Christopher was at best short and vague with his answers. He needed to be on his way south was the overriding theme it seemed, but with the threat of bad weather setting in, they convinced him to wait a day before moving on.
"We can't let him leave," she whispered to Jesse in the hallway. "I'll not go through this again."
"He's not leaving. I promise you. He'll remember, just give him time."
Agreeing not to press him any further and hoping his memory of them would return, they began preparing for bed. Audrey showed him to what had once been his room. It still remained as it had the day he left it to play with friends.
Hesitating at the door, he took in the full panoramic view. "Wow," he said looking at the shelves covered in action figures, "I used to love these things."
"What?" Audrey asked. "You remember these things?"
"Well, not these, but the X-men and Batman figures. I loved those things, when I was younger."
"Oh," she said a bit despondent.
Making sure he was comfortable, she resisted the urge to kiss him goodnight. Sleep was not easy coming that night, but it finally came, and the long wearisome day drifted away as images of family and peace of mind soothed her.
But suddenly, in the depth of the night Audrey was startled awake by an unknown source. Not quite sure what had awakened her frightened her even further. She tried to quiet her breathing and listened for a clue that would explain her wide-awake state and her racing heart.
The sound, as quiet as an angels whisper, lured her to the hallway. The hallway was dark except for a meager glow from underneath Anna's door. It should have startled her, but for an unknown reason, did not. Easing the bedroom door open, she discovered her two children, Anna sleeping quietly and Justin standing above her, his hands moving inches above her tiny body. Each time his hands passed a tumor-laden area her ailing body would glow, softly casting shadows over the room.
"Justin?" Audrey whispered.
"Yes," he replied softly. "You believed he would send help and he did."
She began to sob, as he continued to move his hands over Anna.
"Because of your faith, I was sent to help her, but . . . I can stay only until it is done."
"But, shes doing fine, the Doctors, they all said she is in remission. Couldn't you wait for just a little while, stay with us . . . just until she needs you?"
"All I've ever wanted was to be with you again, and I'd give anything to stay one more day, but---" his moving hands stopped over Annas forehead. "There," he said, "a large one, they haven't found. She can't wait."
A small whine was all that was audible from Audrey. Buckling in the doorway she questioned, could she lose one to save the other?
"It's okay, Mom. I love you," he said, as he lightly touched Anna's brow. "I wish I could stay, but I'll be all right . . . and so will she."
He kissed Anna's tiny forehead, stepped back into the shadows and was gone."
Kneeling by Anna's bed, she watched her as she slept and counted her breaths as well as her blessings. Lifting her head to the star-filled window above her daughter's head, she knew for the first time in years, that both her children were okay.