The summer sun sparkled on the creek in August. Cadence leaned his back against one of the stones and observed the waters streaming toward him and swirling around his neck. He eased his head back on the rock and stared up at the clear sky. A couple sparrows darted after one another in a spat, and he mimicked their call with reasonable accuracy.
He closed his eyes. The warmth of the sun on his cheeks contrasted the crisp coldness of the creek. The sparrows conversed in the aspens and the pines. He seemed alone in the woods and in the world.
Eventually, he dressed and started back to the camp.
There, he could see Mama Gretchen in a close discussion with Adam. Strange, as the man generally worked as a contractor during the day. He sensed the concern in her voice as she murmured Adam and sneaked peeks in each direction.
"She hasn't been seen today, and that's not what she does. She lets me know where she goes."
A snapped stick startled them and all eyes were on him.
"There you are, honey," Mama Gretchen started brusquely toward him and snatched his hand to tow him back to the boxcar. "Mind getting the clean clothes and putting them in the basket? You're a doll."
He pulled a coral skirt down from the clothes line and dropped it into the basket. Gretchen returned to Adam and started to murmur again, but he could scarcely catch anything.
As he pulled down a white blouse, he heard "No, he hasn't seen her." She could be speaking about Tracy, Marisa, Morgan, or the girl. The other boys had taken Natalie to the store, he remembered. So that narrowed it down to the three women. He reached toward a black pair of pants Marvin often wore and heard, "What can the Gardaí do?"
His heart hastened. This was serious. His mind reeled back to seeing his parents get shot. There was something amiss here, and Gretchen suspected a crime was involved. Were he and his companions in danger? What would happen to him if they were?
"Give her a day," Adam suggested calmly. "See what happens."
Maybe he overreacted. He dropped the last pair of jeans into the basket.
Gretchen startled him. He raised his eyes to the woman standing beside him, and she smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Sorry to surprise you. Got that done a mite fast. We can go to the boxcar and read, maybe."
Shelter. Mama Gretchen reading. Seemed safe.
She read several Proverbs as well as a chapter of James and the Giant Peach he missed the night previous because he had gone to sleep the moment she had started reading. He warmed himself beneath the covers and closed his eyes to listen.
"So," she said when she read each of those, "I have a game for you."
He opened his eyes. That never had been said before. She reached down to pick up a Rubric's cube beside her rocking chair. She leaned down to present it to him with a smile.
"You move it this way," she said as she twisted the rows of squares around, "and you try to make each side all one color. You can move it this way," she shifted an entire side, "or this way," as she moved another entire side. She extended it to him and said, "See what you can do."
He accepted it, and she disappeared out of the boxcar. Strange that she would have him stay inside rather than come out and help with chores until dinner. He examined the cube and twisted the rows of squares around. He mouthed the words of "Dear Prudence" by the Beatles to crowd out the insecurity and anxiety creeping into his heart and mind.
One of the women was gone. That was rare. Everyone kept in touch with the camp at some point in the day. He could sense the alarm in Gretchen when she was around. He was about to lose another person in his life. Each one was snatched away in an instant. It could happen to anyone at any time.
The boxcar suddenly seemed empty and lonesome. He started to murmur the lyrics to strengthen his distraction of himself.
After some time, he lay on his side and played with the cube beneath his covers. He murmured the same song repeatedly. His eyelids drooped with heaviness until they closed. Minutes later, he drifted into sleep and the completed cube tumbled out of his hand.
Dinnertime was more unsettling. Gretchen awakened him and he accompanied her out to the bonfire set to counter the chill of the encroaching summer storm. The atmospheric shift seemed to be an ominous correspondence to their situation.
Cadence seated himself close to Gretchen on one of the logs around the fire and examined the people around him. Niall leaned his arms on his knees to scrub his hands together close to the flames. Marvin remained sullen and still. Flames cast shadows across Tracy with her arms around Natalie. The smaller boys argued over the second half of a sandwich. Marisa leaned against Adam, whose arm was around her shoulders. So Morgan was the missing woman.
"She might be out with her fella," James reasoned in his English accent. "She has not maintained her usual routine since she has gone out with him. We have every reason in the world to suspect that's where she is."
"Morgan always keeps in touch," Gretchen answered curtly. "Always. No matter how caught up she got with that – that man. We must all pray for her tonight, because I can tell you she needs it!"
She closed her eyes and dropped her chin. Everyone else did the same and she started to pray.
"God, please be with our dear Morgan tonight. Please steer her home. We love her, and we know You do as well. Help us be still and know You are God. We ask this in the sweet name of Jesus. Amen."
Silence amidst the crickets came after the prayer. Everyone stared into the fire or at the earth in his or her own mind. Snacks were passed around. Water was boiled to make tea. An owl glided gently above them. And then the group dissolved one by one to prepare to sleep, or at least attempt to, as rain started to shower down.