Chapter OneI am in torment within, and in my heart I am disturbed.
They were late and that bothered her.
She had been through a list of likely explanations, any one
of which was possible. They'd stopped for ice cream; they'd
forgotten something back at the campsite; they'd gotten a later
start than usual.
Still Hannah Ryan was uneasy. Horrific images, tragic possibilities
threatened to take up residence in her mind, and she
struggled fiercely to keep them out.
The afternoon was cooling, so she flipped off the air conditioning
and opened windows at either end of the house. A hint
of jasmine wafted inside and mingled pleasantly with the pungent
scent of Pine-Sol and the warm smell of freshly baked
chocolate chip cookies.
Minutes passed. Hannah folded two loads of whites,
straightened the teal, plaid quilts on both girls' beds again, and
wiped down the Formica kitchen countertop for the third time.
Determined to fight the fear welling within her, she wrung the
worn, pink sponge and angled it against the tiled wall. More air
that way, less mildew. She rearranged the cookies on a pretty
crystal platter, straightened a stack of floral napkins nearby, and
rehearsed once more the plans for dinner.
The house was too quiet.
Praise music. That's what she needed. She sorted through a
stack of compact discs until she found one by David Jeremiah.
Good. David Jeremiah would be nice. Calming. Upbeat.
Soothing songs that would consume the time, make the waiting
She hated it when they were late. Always had. Her family
had been gone three days and she missed them, even missed
the noise and commotion and constant mess they made.
That was all this was . just a terrible case of missing them.
David Jeremiah's voice filled the house, singing about when
the Lord comes and wanting to be there to see it. She drifted
back across the living room to the kitchen. Come on, guys. Get
She stared out the window and willed them back, willed
the navy blue Ford Explorer around the corner, where it would
move slowly into the driveway, leaking laughter and worn-out
teenage girls. Willed her family home where they belonged.
But there was no Explorer, no movement at all save the subtle
sway of branches in the aging elm trees that lined the cul-desac.
Hannah Ryan sighed, and for just a moment she considered
the possibilities. Like all mothers, she was no stranger to the
tragedies of others. She had two teenage daughters, after all,
and more than once she had read a newspaper article that hit
close to home. Once it was a teenager who had, in a moment
of silliness, stood in the back of a pickup truck as the driver
took off. That unfortunate teen had been catapulted to the
roadway, his head shattered, death instant. Another time it was
the report of an obsessive boy who stalked some promising
young girl and gunned her down in the doorway of her home.
When Hannah's girls were little, other tragedies had jumped
off the newspaper pages. The baby in San Diego who found his
mother's button and choked to death while she chatted on the
phone with her sister. The toddler who wandered out the back
gate and was found hours later at the bottom of a neighbor's
It was always the same. Hannah would absorb the story,
reading each word intently, and then, for a moment, she would
imagine such a thing happening to her family. Better, she
thought, to think it through. Play it out so that if she were ever
the devastated mother in the sea of heartache that spilled from
the morning news, she would be ready. There would be an initial
shock, of course, but Hannah usually skimmed past that
detail. How could one ever imagine a way to handle such
news? But then there would be the reality of a funeral, comforting
friends, and ultimately, life would go on. To be absent from
the body is to be present with the Lord; wasn't that what they
said? She knew this because of her faith.
No, she would not be without hope, no matter the tragedy.
Of course, these thoughts of Hannah's usually happened in
less time than it took her to fold the newspaper and toss it in
the recycling bin. They were morbid thoughts, she knew. But
she was a mother, and there was no getting around the fact that
somewhere in the world other mothers were being forced to
deal with tragedy.
That was the key. Eventually, even as she turned from the
worn bin of yesterday's news and faced her day, Hannah relished
the truth that those tragedies always happened to other
mothers. They did not happen to people she knew-and certainly
they would not happen to her.
She prayed then, as she did at the end of every such session,
thanking God for a devoted, handsome husband with
whom she was still very much in love, and for two beautiful
daughters strong in their beliefs and on the brink of sweet-sixteen
parties and winter dances, graduation and college. She
was sorry for those to whom tragedy struck, but at the same
time, she was thankful that such things had never happened to
Just to be sure, she usually concluded the entire process
with a quick and sincere plea, asking God to never let happen
to her and hers what had happened to them and theirs.
In that way, Hannah Ryan had been able to live a fairly
worry-free life. Tragedy simply did not happen to her. Would
not. She had already prayed about it. Scripture taught that the
Lord never gave more than one could bear. So Hannah
believed God had protected her from tragedy or loss of any
kind because he knew she couldn't possibly bear it.
Still, despite all this assurance, tragic thoughts haunted her
now as they never had before.
David Jeremiah sang on about holding ground, standing,
even when everything in life was falling apart. Hannah listened
to the words, and a sudden wave of anxiety caused her heart to
skip a beat. She didn't want to stand. She wanted to run into
the streets and find them.
She remembered a story her grandmother once told about a
day in the early seventies when she was strangely worried
about her only son, Hannah's uncle. All day her grandmother
had paced and fretted and prayed
Late that evening she got the call. She knew immediately, of
course. Her son had been shot that morning, killed by a Viet
Cong bullet. A sixth sense, she called it later. Something only a
mother could understand.
Hannah felt that way now, and she hated herself for it. As if
by letting herself be anxious she would, in some way, be
responsible if something happened to her family.
She reminded herself to breathe. Motionless, hands braced
on the edge of the kitchen sink, shoulders tense, she stared out
the window. Time slipped away, and David Jeremiah sang out
the last of his ten songs. Lyrics floated around her, speaking of
the Lord's loving arms and begging him not to let go, not to
allow a fall.
Hannah swallowed and noticed her throat was thick and
dry. Two minutes passed. The song ended and there was
silence. Deafening silence.
The sunlight was changing now, and shadows formed as
evening drew near. In all ways that would matter to two
teenage girls coming home from a mountain camping trip with
their father, it couldn't have been a nicer day in the suburbs of
Los Angeles. Bright and warm, a sweet, gentle breeze sifted
through the still full trees. Puffy clouds hung suspended in a
clear blue sky, ripe with memories of lazy days and starry
It was the last day of a golden summer break.
What could possibly go wrong on a day like this?