The Face of the Earth
Friday, September 3
Mitchell Brannon fastened his seatbelt and navigated his Saturn through the Sylvia High School parking lot. “Good riddance,” he muttered, tossing a look over his shoulder at the rundown brick school building. Most of the time he loved his job, but this school year had gotten off to a rocky start and—today anyway—he would hand over his principal’s “badge” in a heartbeat.
Too bad the weather had taken a turn that felt more like the advent of winter than Labor Day. He flipped on the wipers and waited for them to whisk away the raindrops collecting on the windshield. At least it wasn’t freezing.
He hoped Jill hadn’t hit any weather on her way home from Kansas City today. But as much as his wife hated driving in the rain, from their phone call last night he knew she was ready to be
home. He stopped at the entrance to the street, dug his cell phone from his pocket, and punched in her number.
It went straight to voice mail. She was probably in that dead zone around Oak Ridge. That or she forgot to charge her phone. “Hey, you,” he said, when the beep sounded. “Just wondering where you are. Give me a call so I know when to start the steaks.”
He’d had to do some fast talking to convince his wife to take a couple of days away from a classroom of third graders who adored her and to make time for this professional development conference. But he knew it would be a good distraction for Jill. Their last little bird had flown the nest last weekend, and Jill had been in mourning ever since.
They’d delivered Katie to the University of Kansas on Sunday, and from the gallon of tears Jill had shed since, you’d have thought they’d buried the girl instead of merely transporting her over the Missouri state line. Even though it was nice having Evan and Katie at the same college, their kids were almost six hours from home, and it had hit Jill hard.
They’d contemplated heading to their lake cabin to celebrate their first weekend as empty nesters, but because Jill had been at the conference since Wednesday, she’d talked him into a “stay-cation”—something she’d read about in her latest women’s magazine.
“Besides,” she’d told him, “it would be silly to go somewhere and spend money we can’t afford when we finally have the whole house to ourselves.”
The house-to-themselves aspect sounded promising. She agreed not to mope and tried to wheedle a promise out of him to not do any yard work or watch any football.
Now that was pushing it. “How about I’ll help you grade papers if I can watch football?”
She’d cocked her head, a spark lighting her eyes. “I’ll see your football and raise you steaks on the grill.”
“Deal,” he’d said, before she could change her mind.
Turning onto their street, he touched the garage door opener and smiled. He would never voice it while she was still missing the kids so much, but he was beyond happy they’d finally reached this milestone. He’d loved every minute of raising Evan and Katie, but he was ready for it to be just the two of them again.
He tapped the brakes, waiting for the garage door to open. Hmm . . . Jill’s car wasn’t in its bay beside his. It was after five thirty. Her conference in Kansas City had dismissed at noon, and it was barely a five-hour drive back to Sylvia. Maybe she’d decided to pick up a few groceries on her way home. Probably got stuck in a slow checkout line at Schnucks. But she usually called if she was running late. She knew he worried about her when she was on the road.
He pushed the remote, savoring the satisfying grind of the garage door going down on another workweek. Before he even opened the door, he heard TP’s toenails clicking on the kitchen tile. The dog pranced a circle around him, tongue and tail wagging in unison, proving that three-year-old, fifty-pound chocolate Labs were still puppies at heart. Mitch deposited his briefcase on the island and bent to administer his daily dose of affection. “Hey, boy, where’s Mama?”
He refilled the dog’s water bowl and checked his cell phone for messages again. Nothing. But the answering machine on the kitchen phone was blinking. Odd. They rarely used the landline. Jill usually just texted. Maybe she’d remembered he had a meeting this afternoon and didn’t want to bother him at work.
He grabbed the thawed steaks from the fridge and played back the message while he mixed up his famous steak marinade.
“Hey, babe . . .” Jill’s voice filled the kitchen, easing the tension he hadn’t realized was forming behind his temples. “I’m rushing to get packed and checked out of the hotel, but I should still be home by five—six at the latest. Tell TP I’m bringing him home a little treat.” Her voice turned sultry. “I might have a treat for you, too, Mitchell Brannon.”
TP sat at Mitch’s feet, his head cocked as if he understood every word. The Lab was Jill’s dog. TP stood for Teacher’s Pet, although after a certain Halloween when Principal Brannon had been a target of trick-or-treaters, she’d started telling their friends that it stood for Toilet Paper.
Mitch chuckled at the thought, while Jill’s cheery voice continued on the answering machine. “If you don’t mind getting the steaks started, I’ll stop off and pick up some salad stuff. Maybe a loaf of that French bread you like from Panera. Love you. I can’t wait to tell you about the conference. And other stuff. It was—” She giggled, and Mitch could almost read her thoughts. She was thinking about how much grief he always gave her for leaving “soliloquies” when she used voice mail.
“Never mind,” she said—he could almost see her rolling her eyes—“It was just a really good experience. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home.”
She sounded good. Really good. He’d worried a little that Jill was taking Katie’s leaving harder than she should, moping around the house like a mama cat looking for her kittens.
He checked the display on the answering machine. She’d left her message at one fifteen. Even allowing for a stop at the grocery, she should be home any minute.
It was plenty chilly for a fire. Perfect. He went out to the back deck to bring in some of the wood he and Evan had cut last time
they were at the lake cabin. He got a fire started and lit some candles on the mantel. He wished he’d thought to pick up flowers on the way home. Candlelight and roses were usually just the ticket to a romantic evening. Though recently, with the pressure of getting Katie off to college and getting her own classroom ready for the school year, Jill seemed ticked off by his overtures more often than not. But he would take the risk tonight. Surely she guessed what his hopes were for their first weekend in a wonderfully empty nest.
When she still wasn’t home at six o’clock, he called her cell phone. Voice mail again. “Hey, babe . . .” He cradled the phone between his ear and one shoulder while he turned the steaks in the marinade. “Where are you? I’m going to fire up the grill. Let me know when I should put the steaks on. For what it’s worth, I’m starving.”
He set the dining room table with the good dishes—the ones they’d gotten as wedding gifts—and lit the tall candles that decorated the center of the table.
At seven thirty, he turned off the grill and put the steaks back in the fridge. At this rate it’d be dark before they ate. He scratched TP behind the ears. “Sorry, boy. Guess you’ll have to wait till tomorrow night for scraps.” The dog whined, looking disappointed.
The sky was clear and the rain hadn’t amounted to anything. But maybe it was worse up near Kansas City. Mitch went into the den and checked area weather on his computer. It didn’t look like anything to be concerned about anywhere along the route Jill would have taken. Surely the Labor Day holiday didn’t generate enough traffic to make her this late.
By eight o’clock the candles were puddled on the table runner and the sun sank below the rooftops of their cul-de-sac. Still no phone call. No text. He stood at the open front door, staring
down the street. The trees cast long shadows across the pavement. It would be dark in a couple of hours. He’d left three messages on her voice mail and called the hotel to confirm she’d checked out. She had. But they had no record of when she’d left the hotel, since she hadn’t turned the key in. There were no incidentals charged to the room, and the bill had been paid by the Sylvia school district.
He paced the length of the kitchen, debating who to call next. He didn’t have a clue which other teachers had gone to the conference, and he didn’t want to bother Jill’s principal if it turned out to be nothing. The last time he’d worried over her whereabouts, she’d been home all along, yakking over the backyard fence with Shelley next door.
Maybe she’d called Shelley. Those two were like sisters. He went back to Katie’s room and parted the curtains to see if the lights were on next door. Not that he could tell if anyone was home by that. He hated to guess what the electric bills were over there. Shelley Austin kept a lamp burning in almost every room of the rambling ranch. Jill swore her friend simply liked the ambience the lamps created, but he suspected it had more to do with the fact that Shelley lived alone now that her own daughter was off at college.
The kitchen window cast a patch of light onto the back deck of the Austin home and Mitch keyed in the number Jill had set on speed-dial for Shelley.
“Hey, Shelley, it’s Mitch. You haven’t talked to Jill, have you?”
“Well, since noon or so. She had that conference in Kansas
City, you know, but I expected her home by now. I just thought she might have said something to you . . .”
“No, sorry. I haven’t talked to her since the night before she left . . . Wednesday, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. She left on Wednesday.”
“Did she ride with somebody? Or maybe had to drop somebody off?”
“I don’t think so.” He walked through the house and went out onto the back deck. “She drove up by herself anyway. I don’t think they were carpooling.”
“Oh. Well . . . Sorry. Wish I could help. I’ll let you know if I hear from her.”
“Thanks, Shelley.” He clicked off and dialed Jill’s cell again, hanging up as soon as he heard her voice mail. She was going to think something was wrong when she finally checked her messages. Served her right for making him worry. He checked the clock on his phone. If she still wasn’t home by eight thirty, he’d call her principal. Maybe she’d stopped by her classroom to pick up papers to grade or something.
He poured a Coke and ate some chips and salsa. A poor substitute for a steak. At eight forty-five, he called Carol Dorchester, Jill’s principal at the elementary school. “I’m sorry to bother you on the weekend, Carol, but Jill isn’t back from that conference yet, and I just wondered if you knew whether the conference ran late or something . . .”
“Oh? I’m not aware that it ran over, but Jeannie Brent is the only other teacher who went from Sylvia. I heard her tell someone that Bill was meeting her in Kansas City for the weekend.”
“Oh, that’s right. I think Jill said something about that. Okay,
well, thanks . . . I’m sure she’ll be home soon. Again, I apologize for calling on the weekend.”
“Oh, heavens, don’t mention it. Let me know if she’s not home in an hour or so.”
Mitch hung up feeling a little foolish. He’d completely forgotten about Jill telling him Bill and Jeannie were staying in Kansas City for the weekend. She often accused him of not really listening to her. And too often he was guilty as charged. Maybe she’d told him something about where she was tonight and he’d forgotten that, too. But if that was true, she wouldn’t have left a message on the answering machine saying she’d be home by five or six and then not call to let him know she was going to be three hours late. And they did have a date planned.
Maybe she’d called one of the kids on the way home and pulled over to talk. He dialed Katie’s cell phone.
“Papacito! What’s up?”
Hearing her chipper voice made him realize how much he missed his little girl already. “Hey, kiddo. You haven’t talked to Mom tonight, have you?”
“No. Why?” His daughter’s voice turned wary. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on. I just wondered if you’d heard from her. She’s on her way home from that conference in Kansas City and I keep getting her voice mail when I call.”
“She probably forgot to charge her stupid phone again.”
“That’s what I figured. So how’s everything going with you?” He changed the subject quickly, relieved Katie had assumed the same as he. “Did you get all your textbooks bought?”
“Oh. My. Gosh. Dad, do you know how much they charge for
those things? My psychology book was almost a hundred bucks. I’m talking for one book!”
He chuckled. “Why do you think we made you pay for books?”
“Yeah, well, next time I’ll trade you, and I’ll pay tuition. It’d be cheaper!”
“Not hardly. You talk to your brother lately?”
“Ha!” He could picture the familiar drama queen eye roll. “I try to avoid Big Brother at all costs.”
“Unless you need wheels, of course.”
She laughed, sounding caught.
“So everything’s going good? You’ve had a good week?”
“Yeah. It’s going real good. Calculus is gonna stink, but I like my other classes so far. And my roommate is cool. Hey, Dad, let me talk to TP.”
“What is it with you Brannon women? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you and Mom like that dog better than you like me.”
“Come on, Daddy. Please? He misses me.”
“No. I am not putting a dog on the phone.”
“Come on, Dad . . .”
He looked over to see TP staring up at him with sad eyes, ears drooping. “Sorry, he’s on the other line. I’ll have him call you back later.” He laughed at his own joke.
“You’re mean.” But he heard the smile in her voice.
“Sorry, but no go. You—” He stopped to listen, thinking he heard the garage door. “Hey, Katiebug, I think Mom’s home. I’ll let you go, but glad everything’s going good. Mom will probably want to call you later this weekend, so we’ll talk more then, okay?”
“Okay. ’Bye, Daddy. Love you.”
The lump that came to his throat at her endearment took him
by surprise—and made him a little more sympathetic to all the moping Jill had done lately.
He hung up and went to open the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. He flipped on the lights. But the garage door was closed and Jill’s side was still empty. Apparently it had been wishful thinking. It was pitch black outside now, and the garage windows formed dark rectangles between the tools and lawn chairs hanging on the walls.
It was after nine o’clock. Jill should have been home four hours ago. Where on earth was she?