Here’s my entry for the Faith in Fiction conversion story contest. Leave a comment if you so choose.
By Linda Gilmore
“Daddy, get up, get up!”
Dan Reilly was awakened by the pounding of a small fist on his bedroom door. He rolled over onto his back and rubbed his eyes against the light streaming in. He could see a clear blue sky through the opening in the curtains. It was nice to see the sun after days of rain. Rainy weather always made him a little homesick for Ireland. But he had no time to reflect on the weather—Lizzie was still pounding on the door. He thought he detected the sound of little bare feet jumping up and down on the floor, too. “Come on, Daddy. Get up!”
“Just a minute, sweetie.” Dan got out of bed, pulled on some clothes and opened his door. His 2-1/2-year-old daughter grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the bathroom.
“Lizzie, where’s your pajamas?”
“In here, see.”
Dan followed her into the bathroom, where her pajamas and diaper lay in a heap on the floor. She was quite pleased with herself for going to the bathroom on her own.
“That’s good. Now if you could just go to the bathroom without takin’ all your clothes off.”
He helped Lizzie get dressed, letting her pick out a pair of big girl panties. He wasn’t sure she was dependable enough, but she was so proud of herself he couldn’t say no.
Dan would have thought that by the fifth time, he’d have the hang of potty training, but the other four had been boys, and now he understood that their mother had done most of the training, no matter how involved he thought he’d been. It was the same with milk money and permission slips and clean gym clothes—his wife had kept track of all the little details and he’d only imagined that he knew what was going on.
The sounds of his two younger sons arguing downstairs pulled his thoughts from Annie. Which was just as well—he had to get along without her. He knocked on the door of his oldest sons’ room. “Michael, Andy, it’s time to get up.”
A sleepy voice objected. “Aw Dad, it’s Saturday.”
“That’s right and we’ve got a lot to do today. So get up and get downstairs or Tim’ll eat all the pancakes.”
This statement had the desired effect. The boys were all at the table by the time he had fixed enough pancakes to go around. Seventeen-year-old Michael’s appetite had leveled off, but Andy, at 15, and Tim, who was 12, were bottomless pits. Sean hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet, but he was only 9.
Dan sat down at the table and started cutting up Lizzie’s pancakes.
“Shouldn’t we say grace first?” Michael asked.
Dan sighed. Michael and Andy were getting to be as religious has Annie had been. They were always wanting to pray before meals or go to things at the church they attended—it wasn’t the Catholic church, but Dan couldn’t remember what it was called.
“Oh go ahead.”
Dan bowed his head while Michael offered thanks for the meal. Dan recognized the prayer as one Annie used to say. He automatically crossed himself at the end, then was annoyed with himself for doing it. It seemed a silly thing to do when it meant nothing to him.
After breakfast came chores. Dan had Michael and Tim help him with the horses and outside work, while Andy and Sean did inside chores. Even Lizzie had a job—Dan gave her a soft rag to dust low tables and shelves with. She was the only one happy to be working on a Saturday.
“Dad, Alex and Matt Rawlins wanted me and Sean to come over today. Remember?” Tim asked as he walked out to the barn with Dan. Their border collie, Jack, ran circles around them, trying to get their attention.
Dan knew about the invitation, but reminded Tim that he had to do his chores first if he wanted to go to his friend’s house that afternoon.
Dan had learned the secret of holding off the memories that waited just below the surface: stay busy and keep the kids busy. He wanted no time for reflection or reminiscing—it was too painful. If the boys wanted to talk about their mother, they could always talk to Leah Rawlins, who had been Annie’s best friend.
By noon, Dan was back inside and had a pot of soup simmering on the stove. He went into his office to work on a business letter. He could build a house, but when it came to putting words on paper, he felt completely inadequate. He tried to keep an ear out for the kids while he struggled over the wording. He’d left Lizzie upstairs with Andy, who was entertaining her with his guitar. Dan could hear the other boys in the kitchen or living room. He thought he heard Jack in the house.
When the soup was ready; Dan called Andy down and went into the kitchen. He was dishing up bowls of soup when Andy came in alone.
“Where’s Lizzie?” Dan asked.
“I thought she was down here with you.”
“I told you to watch her.”
“Well I did, but she came downstairs with Jack so I thought she was with you.”
“Well she wasn’t.” Dan looked around at his sons. “So where is she?”
The boys all shrugged. No one had seen her.
Dan felt a prickle of anxiety, but it had only been a few minutes. Lizzie loved to hide in fairly obvious places—the hall closet, underneath the dining table, behind the sofa—but she never hid for long.
Their search of Lizzie’s favorite spots in the house turned up nothing, however. Now the prickle was becoming a sick feeling in the pit of Dan’s stomach. Could she have gone outside without anyone noticing? He knew from experience how quickly a small child could slip out. And Dan lived five miles out in the country with no nearby neighbors, in the middle of Kansas, with hazards waiting in all directions.
His first thought was the corral. Lizzie was fascinated by the horses and unafraid of their size. But Dan’s horse, Goliath, was high-strung and Dan feared what would happen if Lizzie got under his feet.
But Lizzie was nowhere near the corral. She wasn’t in the garage. She wasn’t under the deck. She wasn’t hiding in the hedge that separated their yard from the gravel road.
“Where’s Jack?” Dan asked. The dog usually came running whenever Dan went outside.
“I haven’t seen him,” Michael said. “Maybe he’s with Lizzie. He always watches out for her.”
“Or maybe he took off after a rabbit and she tried to follow him,” Dan said, turning toward the pasture behind the house.
Just then Andy came from around the other side of the house and Dan vented his frustration with his second son.
“And if you’d been doin’ your job like I told you to instead of foolin’ around on that guitar, maybe we wouldn’t have to be out here lookin’ for her.”
“I was watching her. I thought she went looking for you. Maybe if you’d been paying more attention yourself …” Andy stopped short.
It was all Dan could do to keep from hitting his son in anger. When he spoke, it was in a choked whisper. “Just you try doin’ this all by yourself sometime. See how easy it is.”
“Dad, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, honest.”
The sound of tires on gravel caught their attention. Leah had arrived to pick up Tim and Sean. Dan hadn’t even noticed the time.
The distress on his face must have been obvious because Leah immediately asked, “What’s wrong Dan?”
“We can’t find Lizzie. We’ve looked all over the house, around the yard. She’s not anywhere.” His voice started to break and he realized how close to the edge he was.
“Let me help. Have you called anybody? I could do that, I could probably find some people to help look.”
Dan hadn’t even thought to call for help yet.
“Sure, that’d be good. Thanks.”
Leah reached out and patted his shoulder. “I’ll do whatever I can. But first I think we should pray.”
“Oh, like you prayed for Annie? That did a lot of good,” Dan said, without trying to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “No, you’ll have to do your prayin’ without me. I’m going to take Goliath and ride out to the pasture to look for Lizzie.”
He turned and walked off so he wouldn’t say anything worse. If Leah wanted to waste her time praying to a capricious God who let a good wife and mother die, let her. He could take care of himself and his family just fine on his own, thank you. He hushed the voice inside that told him he couldn’t.
He rode slowly from one end of the pasture to the other, for more than an hour, calling for Lizzie and Jack. He heard nothing but the whispering of the dry grasses in the light breeze, saw nothing but a hawk circling in the sky. He searched carefully near the pond at one end of the pasture, but there was no sign that Lizzie or Jack had even come that way.
He was thankful that it was a mild day. Lizzie was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and tennis shoes, so he didn’t think she would be cold yet. But November afternoons were short, and once the sun went down the temperature would drop sharply. He didn’t want to think of his little girl alone in the dark and cold.
He rode back to the house and found that Leah had rounded up a couple dozen people to help, including his aunt and uncle, and some of the sheriff’s deputies. He found Aunt Sophie and Uncle Jamey in the kitchen, making ham and cheese sandwiches. Aunt Sophie handed Dan a cup of coffee.
“Don’t worry, Danny, there’s more people comin’ to help and we’ll find her soon. The good Lord’s watchin’ out for her, I’m sure,” Uncle Jamey said.
“I wish I could believe that.”
Dan left his cup on the table and stalked out of the kitchen. He consulted one of the deputies about where people were looking, then got back on Goliath and rode toward the creek that bordered his property on the north. People were searching along both sides of the creek where it ran about 100 yards behind the barn. Dan urged Goliath as close as possible to the edge and rode along the bank in the opposite direction of the searchers.
The creek was usually little more than a trickle, but the recent heavy rains had swollen it alarmingly. It wasn’t out of its banks, but it was full and flowing swiftly. Dan made slow progress through the trees and brush along the creek bank. He often had to dismount in order to search along the banks or pass under low hanging branches. The calls of the other searches receded. Eventually he came to where the creek passed under the road. Dan scrambled down the bank, holding onto a support brace while he peered under the bridge at the dark water swirling swiftly by.
He led Goliath across the road and looked down the bank on the other side of the bridge.
His heart stopped.
The current had pushed a tiny pink tennis shoe in with the debris against that side of the bridge.
Dan slipped and slid down the bank, almost ending up in the water himself. He managed to catch himself, then knelt in the mud as he reached out to grab the shoe. He didn’t know whether or not to be relieved that it wasn’t attached to anything. Was his precious baby under the water or somewhere farther up the stream? He couldn’t see anything on either side of the creek to indicate that Lizzie had been there. The noise of the rushing water made it impossible for him to hear anything else.
He climbed back up the bank to Goliath and looked at the muddy little shoe in his hand. Tears streamed down his face, but he did nothing to stop them. He cried out in grief and anger, “What more do you want from me, God! Do you want my children, too?”
“He just wants you.” The answer came unbidden, as if he heard the voice aloud. But it was Annie’s voice he heard in his mind, and those were Annie’s words. “God loves you. He won’t leave you alone, Dan, no matter what happens to me.”
He remembered how he’d answered her, how even though she lay dying he refused to listen. “He loves me? Well he’s got a funny way of showin’ it. I think I’m better off without his help.” He would never forget the sadness and hurt in Annie’s eyes as he’d turned away from her.
Dan looked up at the sky. The sun would soon set and it would be much harder to search.
“I’m not makin’ any bargains, God. All I want is to find my daughter. Is that too much to ask?”
All he heard was the creek flowing past below him.
He remounted and rode slowly along the creek bank, watching the stream, straining to hear any sound other than the rush of water, which diminished as he got farther from the bridge. He stopped. What was that? Barking? He rode around the thicket of brush in front of him, then dismounted and pushed closer to the bank.
Lizzie sat on the bank across the creek from him, Jack standing guard between her and the water. She was missing one shoe.
“Daddy!” Lizzie stood up and held out her arms. Jack started barking again and pushed against her to keep her from the edge.
“No, Lizzie. Stay there. I’ll try to get over to you.”
He heard someone pushing through the brush behind Lizzie.
“Dan? Is that you?” It was Leah.
“Look below you. It’s Lizzie! Get her before she falls in!”
Leah made her way down the slope toward Lizzie while Dan rode back to the bridge and across to the other side. He met Leah carrying Lizzie back to the road and enfolded his little girl in his arms.
“Why are you crying Daddy?”
“I was so afraid I’d lost you, Lizzie.” He wrapped her close and buried his face in her red curls, so like her mother’s, and sobbed in relief.
Later that evening, after the searchers had left (Aunt Sophie insisted on feeding them first) and after Lizzie had fallen asleep, Dan went out to the kitchen, where Leah was helping Michael and Andy clean up.
“You don’t have to do that, Leah. We can finish.”
“No, really, there’s hardly anything left to do,” Leah said. “Want a cup of coffee?”
The boys started to leave the kitchen, but Dan called Andy back.
“I need to apologize, Andy. I don’t want you to think it’s your fault that Lizzie wandered off, OK?”
“No, Dad, I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry.”
“But I’m the parent here and it’s my responsibility. I had no business blaming you. Can you forgive me?”
“Sure,” Andy said, with a bashful smile. “It’s OK. And God was watching out for Lizzie today. He answered our prayers.”
Dan hugged Andy and told him goodnight. Then Dan sat back down at the table across from Leah.
“Do you believe God answered your prayers today?” he asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Then why didn’t he answer our prayers for Annie? Why did he let her die? And don’t give me any of that crap about God needing her more in heaven. We need her here. I can’t do this alone. I almost lost my little girl today!”
“I’m not going to lie — I don’t know why Annie had to die. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. Annie put her trust in Jesus and her faith never wavered. I think I learned more from her about living, while she was dying, than I ever learned from all the sermons I ever heard.
“But even when I don’t understand, I know that God is good and he’s never left me alone. And he hasn’t left you alone, either. Just ask your sons. They’ll tell you all the ways God has sustained them since their mother died. And God was with you today.”
Dan sat quietly for a minute. He felt so drained, but he needed to talk.
“Maybe you’re right. Do you think God would speak to me with Annie’s voice?”
“I think God would use whatever voice he needed to, to get your attention.”
“Really it was just a memory. Not one I’m especially proud of, but it just came to me all of a sudden. Annie tried to talk to me about God all the time and I never wanted to listen to her. She used to say I was proud and I put too much faith in myself, instead of in God. I think she was right. But I don’t know what to do.”
“Stop trying to do it by yourself and let God help you. Let God heal you. You don’t have to keep trying to go on alone.”
Dan had been fighting against God for a long time, though, and it was hard to give up. He needed help to take the last step.
“Do you want us to pray with you Dad?” asked Michael, who was standing in the doorway with Andy.
“I thought I sent you two to bed.”
Andy grinned. “We disobeyed.”
“Then show me what I need to do.”
So they did, and as a peace he couldn’t explain seeped into his soul, Dan began to understand Annie’s hope.