The Children Are Missing: Thirty Minutes of Terror
Thursday evening, I am rinsing out a salad bowl in the ranch kitchen when Eira strides in, concern in her voice.
“I can’t find the children anywhere,” she says. “I’ve searched and called. They’re not here.”
It’s 8:30PM. The sun is about to set. Our ranch is 80 acres in the East Bay hills, but the main compound in which the children are permitted to freely roam is much smaller – 16 acres, bound in by a high deer fence.
“Maybe they’re with Pablo and his kids?” Pablo is our caretaker, who lives nearby. He and his wife have three little ones on whom my children dote. My ex-wife shakes her head.
“His car is gone. No one answered when I knocked on their door.”
“Pablo will be at church tonight,” notes my aunt. Pablo is a Pentecostal, and there is church in town most nights.
Eira and I clamber into the battered old golf cart that the family uses to zip around the property. Just this week, the children have each mastered driving it on their own. Twelve and nine are not too young, not on a ranch. My step-grandfather brought the cart to us nearly 30 years ago, when the Oakmont Country Club updated their own machines. Somehow, it still runs.
We drive up the gravel path towards the county road that runs along the edge of our property. We call out as loud as we can, the names echoing off the hillsides. It is twilight, and will be completely dark in 20 minutes. There is no reply.
“You checked all the rooms? They’re not hiding?” I’m trying to stay calm, imagining a game that’s being played.
Eira shakes her head grimly. “I’ve checked everywhere.”
I take the golf cart onto the paved county road, and push it to the limit of both the engine and safety, which is somewhere around 20 miles per hour. “Heloise! David!” Nothing.
“Take me back,” says my ex-wife. “I’m calling the police.”
I turn around.
My fiancée, my mother, and my aunt – the latter two well into their 80s – stand concerned outside the main ranch house. My aunt waves a heavy-duty flashlight at me. “Perhaps they went on a hike?” She offers.
My city kids need to be coaxed to hike up here. Not a chance at this hour.
I’ve been keeping all the possible scenarios at bay. I’ve built a wall in my mind through which I will not allow the terror to come. I’ve spent the past 10 minutes focusing on doing the next right thing, allowing my brain to move only seconds ahead, to contemplate the next task at hand. Now, the sky a foreboding velvety black, the fear hits me like a wave.
I think of the most horrifying novel I’ve ever read, Ian McEwan’s early masterpiece, The Child in Time. His daughter is snatched from a supermarket, and never seen again. I remember the narrator’s ongoing disbelief, the sheer scale of the terror, the fruitless nationwide searches. I think of how Stephen King wrote stories that put children in terrible danger largely to deal with his fears about what might happen to his own little ones. You may have hugged them for the last time, a voice says to me. They are cold or hurt or scared right now and you can’t help.
The terrors play on, like a television in the corner of the room with its volume slowly rising. My mind has a remote-control button, at least I think it does, and I press mute.
“Eira is going towards town. She’s calling the police.” I describe my ex’s intentions as she jumps into her SUV and drives away.
Victoria, the woman I will marry in three short months, places a comforting hand on my arm. “I’m sure they’re okay,” she says. She has to say that. She will keep saying that as long as it is plausible to say so, and even after.
Eira’s first thought is that the children have been abducted. I think of other options – the most rational fear I can summon is that somehow, David has fallen down and gotten hurt. Heloise has gone to him, and he has begged her not to leave him. They are somewhere out of earshot, waiting for me, and if I can just find them… but our 80 acres back onto a huge regional park and 50 square miles of wilderness. How far could they have gone?
I wave the flashlight at my remaining loved ones. “Stay here! I’m going down the old wood road.”
My mother says something I can’t hear. Someone else has grabbed the remote control in my mind, and the volume on the horror movie playing in the corner is up to 9.
I look up at the oak-clad hill just south of the ranch houses. It is little more than a silhouette in the gloaming. My grandmother’s ashes are there, as are those of many a beloved cousin. I’ve been a Catholic, an Anglican, a Mennonite, an evangelical; I’ve learned so many prayers in English and Latin. My years in the Kabbalah Centre gave me formulas to pronounce in Hebrew and Aramaic. None of that is helpful.
Instead, I pray to the ancestors. I pray to baby Sophia, my cousin’s infant daughter who lived but a single day and whose last remains were scattered on the hill as well. I pray to the witnesses beyond who look upon Heloise and David as the latest in a long, long line. You see what I don’t, I plead. Help me. Bring our babies back.
I have only just started to climb the hill, a shortcut to the wood road, when I hear wheels on gravel. Eira couldn’t be back so soon.
It is the ranch’s other golf cart, an even more feeble conveyance that we’ve given to Pablo. I hear the wheels, and I hear laughing. I squint through the gloaming. Lupe, Pablo’s wife, is driving. I see her two-year-old, Isaias, on her lap. And then, unmistakable, I catch my daughter’s voice.
I shine the flashlight. Five children and one instantly unnerved adult are caught in the powerful beam. The cart slows to a stop. I lower the light, and feel my knees crumple.
Lupe sees my face, and knows, instantly. My children leap from the cart, not knowing yet. “Abba, we had so much fun! We went to the Starrs to see if there were any blackberries, and then the horses tried to follow us through the gate.”
(The Starrs are our cousins. Their ranch is a mile away.)
I try to sound calm, but my voice cracks. “We didn’t know where you were. Your mother has called the police. She’s driving into town, looking for you on the way.”
My children burst into tears. Heloise starts wailing that she’s sorry.
Lupe and Pablo’s citizenship status is unclear. I have the sense to realize that her terror may just be starting as mine abates, and I start to reassure her that her job is safe, and no law enforcement will set foot. She doesn’t speak much English, and my Spanish abandons me. I try anyway: “No hay una problema; no necessita la policia. It’s all good, Lupe, thank you.”
Tight-lipped, she nods at me, and reverses the cart slowly up the road towards her home, her children staring, unnerved and confused.
I call Eira. It goes to voice mail. There is little cell service on our canyon road to town. I send a quick text. I got me. That doesn’t make sense. Got them, I type.
Heloise crumples into the gravel. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. We didn’t have a phone. I couldn’t call.”
She is hysterical. Her brother wraps himself around her like a barnacle, pressing his leaking eyes and nose into her sweatshirt.
Victoria kneels by my children, soothing them.
I feel relief, guilt, and sixteen other emotions competing for precedence. I say nothing. My phone rings; Eira. I answer.
“They’re safe? You have them?”
“They were on a cart ride with Lupe. I’ve got them.”
A pause, then the start of a sob. “Turning around,” their mother says, and hangs up.
Now the task is comfort. The children are not defensive; they do not downplay the severity of our fears. They are worried for Lupe, fearful of their mother’s anger, and overcome by guilt. We hug and hold each other, sitting in the gravel until we hear Eira’s SUV bouncing over the cattle guard at the top of our road.
“Ima’s going to be so angry,” says David dolefully.
“If she is, it’s only because she loves you very much. She’s just so happy you’re safe.” This is Victoria, who has stepped into the role of gentle, soothing stepmother with grace and aplomb.
I know Eira’s towering anger, but I can tell by her footsteps as she walks towards us that we will see none of that. Her voice is calm, even light. “Babies!” She says, “What an adventure.” The children race into her arms.
A new rule is laid down. No going off the property without informing us first. Lupe will get similar instruction, couched in reassurances that no one is angry with her and that her job is safe as can be. The children dry their tears, and my mother suggests ice cream covered in homemade jam skim will provide a worthy resolution to the crisis. Mama is, as always, right.
An hour later, I help tuck the children in. “Were you really worried?” David wants to know. I nod.
“I promise never to scare you and mama like that ever again,” declares Heloise.
I grin. “I don’t think that’s a promise any child can ever keep,” I say, thinking of my own mother, and all that I have put her through.
“I will do my best,” my daughter sighs.
I walk out into the night. The moon has risen, and in its light, I see the hill where the ancestors rest. I thank them, and then laugh. Every last one of my forebears has known the exact same terrors I felt this night. Their fears are over; where ever they are, they must be somewhere where every missing child has come home.
I go into the room where we keep our old ranch books, daily accounts of comings, goings and transpirings, and I scribble a short entry, recounting a happy Thursday, punctuated by 30 minutes of unspeakable dread.