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Mackenzie Allen Phillips’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation, and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later, in this midst of his great sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change his life forever.
A CONFLUENCE OF PATHS
Two roads diverged in the middle of my life, I heard a wise man say I took the road less traveled by And that's made the difference every night and every day
—Larry Norman (with apologies to Robert Frost)
March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon. Although spring was surely just around the corner, the god of winter was not about to relinquish its hard-won dominion without a tussle. There was a blanket of new snow in the Cascades, and rain was now freezing on impact with the frigid ground outside the house; enough reason for Mack to snuggle up with a book and a hot cider and wrap up in the warmth of a crackling fire.
But instead, he spent the better part of the morning telecommuting into his downtown desktop. Sitting comfortably in his home office wearing pajama pants and a T-shirt, he made his sales calls, mostly to the East Coast. He paused frequently, listening to the sound of crystalline rain tinging off his window and watching the slow but steady accumulation of frozen ice thickening on everything outside. He was becoming inexorably trapped as an ice-prisoner in his own home—much to his delight.
There is something joyful about storms that interrupt routine. Snow or freezing rain suddenly releases you from expectations, performance demands, and the tyranny of appointments and schedules. And unlike illness, it is largely a corporate rather than individual experience. One can almost hear a unified sigh rise from the nearby city and surrounding countryside where Nature has intervened to give respite to the weary humans slogging it out within her purview. All those affected this way are united by a mutual excuse, and the heart is suddenly and unexpectedly a little giddy. There will be no apologies needed for not showing up to some commitment or other. Everyone understands and shares in this singular justification, and the sudden alleviation of the pressure to produce makes the heart merry.
Of course, it is also true that storms interrupt business, and, while a few companies make a bit extra, some companies lose money—meaning there are those who find no joy when everything shuts down temporarily. But they can't blame anyone for their loss of production, or for not being able to make it to the office. Even if it's hardly more than a day or two, somehow each person feels like the master of his or her own world, simply because those little droplets of water freeze as they hit the ground.
Even commonplace activities become extraordinary. Routine choices become adventures and are often experienced with a sense of heightened clarity. Late in the afternoon, Mack bundled up and headed outdoors to struggle the hundred or so yards down the long driveway to the mailbox. The ice had magically turned this simple everyday task into a foray against the elements: the raising of his fist in opposition to the brute power of nature and, in an act of defiance, laughing in its face. The fact that no one would notice or care mattered little to him—just the thought made him smile inside.
The icy rain pellets stung his cheeks and hands as he carefully worked his way up and down the slight undulations of the driveway; he looked, he supposed, like a drunken sailor gingerly heading toward the next watering hole. When you face the force of an ice storm, you don't exactly walk boldly forward in a show of unbridled confidence. Bluster will get you battered. Mack had to get up off his knees twice before he was finally hugging the mailbox like some long-lost friend.
He paused to take in the beauty of a world engulfed in crystal. Everything reflected light and contributed to the heightened brilliance of the late afternoon. The trees in the neighbor's field had all donned translucent mantles, and each now stood unique but unified in its presentation. It was a glorious world and for a brief moment its blazing splendor almost lifted, even if only for a few seconds, The Great Sadness from Mack's shoulders.
It took almost a minute to knock off the ice that had already sealed shut the door of the mailbox. The reward for his efforts was a single envelope with only his first name typewritten on the outside; no stamp, no postmark, and no return address. Curious, he tore the end off the envelope, which was no easy task with fingers beginning to stiffen from the cold. Turning his back to the breath-snatching wind, he finally coaxed the single small rectangle of unfolded paper out of its nest. The typewritten message simply said:
It's been a while. I've missed you.
I'll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.
Mack stiffened as a wave of nausea rolled over him and then just as quickly mutated into anger. He purposely thought about the shack as little as possible, and even when he did, his thoughts were neither kind nor good. If this was someone's idea of a bad joke, he had truly outdone himself. And to sign it "Papa" just made it all the more horrifying.
"Idiot," he grunted, thinking about Tony the mailman, an overly friendly Italian with a big heart but little tact. Why would he even deliver such a ridiculous envelope? It wasn't even stamped. Mack angrily stuffed the envelope and note into his coat pocket and turned to start the slide back in the general direction of the house. Buffeting gusts of wind, which had initially slowed him, now shortened the time it took to traverse the mini glacier that was thickening beneath his feet.
He was doing just fine, thank you, until he reached that place in the driveway that sloped a little downward and to the left. Without any effort or intention he began to build up speed, sliding on shoes with soles that had about as much traction as a duck landing on a frozen pond. Arms flailing wildly in hopes of somehow maintaining the potential for balance, Mack found himself careening directly toward the only tree of any substantial size bordering the driveway—the one whose lower limbs he had hacked off only a few short months before. Now it stood eager to embrace him, half naked and seemingly anxious for a little retribution. In a fraction of a thought he chose the chicken's way out and tried to plop himself down by allowing his feet to slip out from under him—which is what they had naturally wanted to do anyway. Better to have a sore butt than pick slivers out of his face.
But the adrenaline rush caused him to overcompensate, and in slow motion Mack watched his feet rise up in front of him as if jerked up by some jungle trap. He hit hard, back of the head first, and skidded to a heap at the base of the shimmering tree, which seemed to stand over him with a smug look mixed with disgust and not a little disappointment.
The world went momentarily black, or so it seemed. He lay there dazed and staring up into the sky, squinting as the icy precipitation rapidly cooled his flushed face. For a fleeting pause, everything felt oddly warm and peaceful, his ire momentarily knocked out by the impact. "Now who's the idiot?" he muttered to himself, hoping that no one had been watching.
Cold was creeping quickly through his coat and sweater, and Mack knew the icy rain that was both melting and freezing beneath him would soon become a major discomfort. Groaning and feeling like a much older man, he rolled onto his hands and knees. It was then that he saw the bright red skid mark tracing his journey from point of impact to final destination. As if birthed by the sudden awareness of his injury, a dull pounding began crawling up the back of his head. Instinctively, he reached for the source of the drumbeat and brought his hand away bloody.
With rough ice and sharp gravel gouging his hands and knees, Mack half crawled and half slid until he eventually made it to a level part of the driveway. With not a little effort he was finally able to stand and gingerly inch his way toward the house, humbled by the powers of ice and gravity.
Once inside, Mack methodically shed the layers of outerwear as best he could, his half-frozen fingers responding with about as much dexterity as oversized clubs at the ends of his arms. He decided to leave the drizzly bloodstained mess right where he doffed it in the entryway and retreated painfully to the bathroom to examine his wounds. There was no question that the icy driveway had won. The gash on the back of his head was oozing around a few small pebbles still embedded in his scalp. As he had feared, a significant lump had already formed, emerging like a humpback whale breaching the wild waves of his thinning hair.
Mack found it a difficult chore to patch himself up by trying to see the back of his head using a small handheld mirror that reflected a reverse image off the bathroom mirror. A short frustration later he gave up, unable to get his hands to go in the right directions and unsure which of the two mirrors was lying to him. By gingerly probing around the soggy gash he succeeded in picking out the biggest pieces of debris, until it hurt too much to continue. Grabbing some first-aid ointment and plugging the wound as best he could, he then tied a washcloth to the back of his head with some gauze he found in a bathroom drawer. Glancing at himself in the mirror, he thought he looked a little like some rough sailor out of Moby Dick. It made him laugh, then wince.
He would have to wait until Nan made it home before he would get any real medical attention—that attention being one of the many benefits of being married to a registered nurse. Anyway, he knew that the worse it looked, the more sympathy he would get. There was often some compensation in every trial, if one looked hard enough. He swallowed a couple over-the-counter painkillers to dull the throbbing and limped toward the front entry.
Not for an instant had Mack forgotten about the note. Rummaging through the pile of wet and bloody clothing he finally found it in his coat pocket, glanced at it, and then headed back into his office. He located the post office number and dialed it. As expected, Annie, the matronly postmaster and keeper of everyone's secrets, answered the phone. "Hi, is Tony in by chance?"
"Hey, Mack, is that you? Recognized your voice." Of course she did. "Sorry, but Tony ain't back yet. In fact I just talked to him on the radio and he's only made it halfway up Wildcat, not even to your place yet. Do ya need me to have him call ya, or would ya just like to leave a message?"
"Oh, hi. Is that you, Annie?" He couldn't resist, even though her Midwestern accent left no doubt. "Sorry, I was busy for a second there. Didn't hear a word you said."
She laughed. "Now, Mack, I know you heard every word. Don't you be goin' and tryin' to kid a kidder. I wasn't born yesterday, ya know. Whaddya want me to tell him if he makes it back alive?"
"Actually, you already answered my question."
There was a pause at the other end. "Actually, I don't remember you askin' a question. What's wrong with you, Mack? Still smoking too much dope or do you just do that on Sunday mornings to make it through the church service?" At this she started to laugh, as if caught off guard by the brilliance of her own sense of humor.
"Now, Annie, you know I don't smoke dope—never did, and don't ever want to." Of course Annie knew no such thing, but Mack was taking no chances on how she might remember the conversation in a day or two. Wouldn't be the first time that her sense of humor morphed into a good story that soon became "fact." He could see his name being added to the church prayer chain. "It's okay, I'll just catch Tony some other time, no big deal."
"Okay, then, just stay indoors where it's safe. Don't ya know, an old guy like you coulda lost his sense of balance over the years. Wouldn't wanna see ya slip and hurt your pride. Way things are shapin' up, Tony might not make it up to your place at all. We can do snow, sleet, and darkness of night pretty well, but this frozen rain stuff, it's a challenge to be sure."
"Thanks, Annie. I'll try and remember your advice. Talk to you later. Bye now." His head was pounding more than ever—little trip-hammers beating to the rhythm of his heart. That's odd, he thought. Who would dare put something like that in our mailbox? The painkillers had not yet fully kicked in but were present enough to dull the edge of worry that he was starting to feel, and he was suddenly very tired. Laying his head down on the desk, he thought he had just dropped off to sleep when the phone startled him awake.
"Hi, love. You sound like you've been asleep." It was Nan, sounding unusually cheery, even though he felt he could hear the underlying sadness that lurked just beneath the surface of every conversation. She loved this kind of weather as much as he usually did. He switched on the desk lamp and glanced at the clock, surprised that he had been out for a couple of hours.
"Uh, sorry. I guess I dozed off for a bit."
"Well, you sound a little groggy. Is everything all right?"
"Yup." Even though it was almost dark outside, Mack could see that the storm had not let up. It had even deposited a couple more inches of ice. Tree branches were hanging low, and he knew some would eventually break from the weight, especially if the wind kicked up. "I had a little tussle with the driveway when I got the mail, but other than that, everything is fine. Where are you?"
"I'm still at Arlene's, and I think me and the kids'll spend the night here. It's always good for Kate to be around the family… seems to restore a little balance." Arlene was Nan's sister who lived across the river in Washington. "Anyway, it's really too slick to go out. Hopefully it'll break up by morning. I wish I had made it home before it got so bad, but oh well." She paused. "How's it up at the house?"
"Well, it's absolutely stunningly beautiful, and a whole lot safer to look at than walk in, trust me. I for sure don't want you to try and get up here in this mess. Nothing's moving. I don't even think Tony was able to bring us the mail."
"I thought you already got the mail?" she queried.
"Nope, I didn't actually get the mail. I thought Tony had already come and I went out to get it. There"—he hesitated, looking down at the note that lay on the desk where he had placed it—"wasn't any mail yet. I called Annie and she said Tony probably wouldn't be able to make it up the hill, and I'm not going out there again to see if he did.
"Anyway—" He quickly changed the subject to avoid more questions. "How is Kate doing over there?"
There was a pause and then a long sigh. When Nan spoke her voice was hushed to a whisper and he could tell she was covering her mouth on the other end. "Mack, I wish I knew. She is just like talking to a rock, and no matter what I do I can't get through. When we're around family she seems to come out of her shell some, but then she disappears again. I just don't know what to do. I've been praying and praying that Papa would help us find a way to reach her, but"—she paused again—"it feels like he isn't listening."
There it was. Papa was Nan's favorite name for God, and it expressed her delight in the intimate friendship she had with him.
"Honey, I'm sure God knows what he's doing. It will all work out." The words brought him no comfort, but he hoped they might ease the worry he could hear in her voice.
"I know," she sighed. "I just wish he'd hurry up."
"Me too" was all Mack could think to say. "Well, you and the kids stay put and stay safe, and tell Arlene and Jimmy hi, and thank them for me. Hopefully I will see you tomorrow."
"Okay, love. I should go and help the others. Everyone's busy looking for candles in case the power goes out. You should probably do the same. There's some above the sink in the basement, and there's leftover stuffed bread dough in the fridge that you can heat up. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, my pride is hurt more than anything."
"Well, take it easy, and hopefully we'll see you in the morning."
"All right, honey. Be safe and call me if you need anything. Bye."
That was kind of a dumb thing to say, he thought as he hung up the phone. Kind of a manly dumb thing, as if he could help if they needed anything.
Mack sat and stared at the note. It was confusing and painful trying to sort out the swirling cacophony of disturbing emotions and dark images clouding his mind—a million thoughts traveling a million miles an hour. Finally, he gave up, folded the note, slid it into a small tin box he kept on the desk, and switched off the light.
Mack managed to find something to heat up in the microwave, then he grabbed a couple of blankets and pillows and headed for the living room. A quick glance at the clock told him that Bill Moyer's show had just started, a favorite program that he tried never to miss. Moyer was one of a handful of people whom Mack would love to meet—a brilliant and outspoken man, able to express intense compassion for both people and truth with unusual clarity. One of the stories tonight had something to do with oilman Boone Pickens, who was now starting to drill for water, of all things.
Almost without thinking, and without taking his eyes off the television, Mack reached over to the end table, picked up a photo frame holding a picture of a little girl, and clutched it to his chest. With the other hand he pulled the blankets up under his chin and hunkered deeper into the sofa.
Soon the sounds of gentle snoring filled the air as the media tube turned its attention to a piece on a high school senior in Zimbabwe who had been beaten for speaking out against his government. But Mack had already left the room to wrestle with his dreams; maybe tonight there would be no nightmares, only visions, perhaps, of ice and trees and gravity.
THE GATHERING DARK
Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.
Sometime during the night an unexpected chinook blew through the Willamette Valley, freeing the landscape from the storm's icy grip, except for those things that lay hidden in the deepest shadows. Within twenty-four hours it was early summer warm. Mack slept late into the morning, one of those dreamless sleeps that seem to pass in an instant.
When he finally crawled off the sofa, he was somewhat chagrined to see that the ice follies had fizzled out so quickly but delighted to see Nan and the kids when they showed up less than an hour later. First came the anticipated and considerable scolding for not putting his bloodied mess in the laundry room, followed by an appropriate and satisfying amount of oohing and ahhing that accompanied her examination of his head wound. The attention pleased Mack immensely, and Nan soon had him cleaned up, patched up, and fed up. The note, though never far from his mind, was not mentioned. He still didn't know what to think of it, and he didn't want Nan included if it turned out to be some kind of cruel joke.
Little distractions like the ice storm were a welcome although brief respite from the haunting presence of his constant companion: The Great Sadness, as he referred to it. Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack's shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders. Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair and he had somehow become part of it. He ate, worked, loved, dreamed, and played in this garment of heaviness, weighed down as if he were wearing a leaden bathrobe—trudging daily through the murky despondency that sucked the color out of everything.
At times he could feel The Great Sadness slowly tightening around his chest and heart like the crushing coils of a constrictor, squeezing liquid from his eyes until he thought there no longer remained a reservoir. Other times he would dream that his feet were stuck in cloying mud as he caught brief glimpses of Missy running down the wooded path ahead of him, her red cotton summer dress gilded with wildflowers flashing among the trees. She was completely oblivious to the dark shadow tracking her from behind. Although he frantically tried to scream warnings to her, no sound emerged and he was always too late and too impotent to save her. He would bolt upright in bed, sweat dripping from his tortured body, while waves of nausea and guilt and regret rolled over him like some surreal tidal flood.
The story of Missy's disappearance is, unfortunately, not unlike others too often told. It all happened during Labor Day weekend, the summer's last hurrah before another year of school and autumn routines. Mack boldly decided to take the three younger children on a final camping trip to Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon. Nan was already booked at a continuing education class in Seattle, and the two older boys were back at college or counseling at a summer camp. But Mack was confident that he possessed the right combination of outdoorsmanship and mothering skills. After all, Nan had taught him well.
The sense of adventure and camping fever gripped everyone, and the place became a whirlwind of activity. If they had done it Mack's way, they would have simply backed a moving van up to the house and shifted most of its contents for the long weekend. At one point in all the confusion, Mack decided he needed a break and settled himself in his daddy chair after shooing off Judas, the family cat. He was about to turn on the tube when Missy came running in, holding her little Plexiglas box.
"Can I take my insect collection camping with us?" asked Missy.
"You want to take your bugs along?" grunted Mack, not paying her much mind.
"Daddy, they're not bugs. They're insects. Look, I've got lots of them in here."
Mack reluctantly turned his attention to his daughter, who, seeing him focus, started explaining the contents of her treasure box.
"See, there are two grasshoppers. And see on that leaf, there is my caterpillar and somewhere… There she is! Do you see my ladybug? And I have a fly in here somewhere too and some ants."
As she inventoried her collection, Mack tried his best to show attention, nodding along.
"So," Missy finished, "can I take them along?"
"Sure you can, honey. Maybe we can let them loose in the wild when we're out there."
"No she can't!" came a voice from the kitchen. "Missy, you need to keep your collection at home, honey. Trust me, they're safer here." Nan stuck her head around the corner and lovingly frowned at Mack as he shrugged his shoulders.
"I tried, honey," he whispered to Missy.
"Grrr," growled Missy. But knowing the battle was lost, she picked up her box and left.
By Thursday night the van was overloaded and the pull-behind tent-trailer hitched up with lights and brakes tested. Early Friday, after one last lecture from Nan to her kids about safety, obedience, brushing teeth in the mornings, not picking up cats with white stripes down their backs, and all manner of other things, they headed out: Nan north up Interstate 205 to Washington, and Mack and the three amigos east on Interstate 84. The plan was to return the following Tuesday night, just before the first day of school.
The Columbia River Gorge is worth the trip by itself, with breathtaking panoramas overseen by river-carved mesas standing sleepy guard in the late-summer warmth. September and October can offer some of Oregon's best weather: Indian summer often sets in around Labor Day and hangs on until Halloween, when it quickly turns cold, wet, and nasty. This year was no exception. Traffic and weather cooperated wonderfully, and the crew hardly noticed the time and miles passing by.
The foursome stopped at Multnomah Falls to buy a coloring book and crayons for Missy and two inexpensive, waterproof disposable cameras for Kate and Josh. They then decided to climb the short distance up the trail to the bridge facing the falls. There had once been a path that led around the main pool and into a shallow cave behind the tumbling water, but, unfortunately, it had been blocked off by the park authorities because of erosion. Missy loved it here, and she begged her daddy to tell the legend of the beautiful Indian maid, the daughter of a chief of the Multnomah tribe. It took some coaxing, but Mack finally relented and retold the story as they all stared up into the mists shrouding the falling cascade.
The tale centered on a princess, the only child left to her aging father. The chief loved his daughter dearly and carefully picked out a husband for her, a young warrior chief of the Clatsop tribe, whom he knew she loved. The two tribes came together to celebrate the days of the wedding feast, but before it could begin, a terrible sickness began to spread among the men, killing many.
- On Sale
- Sep 2, 2008
- Page Count
- 384 pages