That Day

Today is Tuesday.

I know what you’re thinking: So what? There’s nothing really special about Tuesdays. If the days of the week were a group of girlfriends at a nightclub, Tuesday would be the one stuck at a table, watching coats and purses, while the others are on the dance floor or at the bar being plied with free drinks. It just doesn’t have the other days’ beauty, charisma, or good PR. We don’t even love to hate it the way we do a good movie villain. Or Monday.

Mondays you complain about because Monday morning means it’s back to the grind. No one’s ever had an annoying co-worker stop at their desk just long enough to diagnose them with “a case of the Tuesdays.”

Wednesday’s claim to fame is that when it’s over, there’s less week ahead than there is behind.

And if you’ve ever heard the phrase “Thank God it’s Tuesday,” it was probably on the same day you heard the sound of one hand clapping.

Saturday and Sunday… Those are the supermodels of the group. Whether you revel on one and worship on the other, party hard on both days, or major in relaxation, their charms are readily evident.

But Tuesday? We hold our elections on Tuesdays; it’s no wonder that hardly anybody shows up to the polls. Tuesday is a nothing day.

But not for Cedric Carter. Tuesday has become his personal Sabbath. Today is the twelfth Tuesday since his conversion. Exactly 84 days ago, it became the focal point of his week—his day of prayer, reflection, and wrestling with his sins, faults, and inadequacies. In the same way that Jews never fail to commemorate the night that blood over doorposts caused the angel of death to pass over their community without touching down, Cedric never fails to carry out the rites and rituals of his Third Day Adventist faith.

Hours before sunrise, he makes his pilgrimage from his bedroom to the one down the hall. And there he stands, at the entrance to the shrine dedicated to his religion’s martyr—a young innocent, taken on the Tuesday that, to Cedric, is now known simply as That Day.

Cedric stands in the doorframe, not so much staring at the empty upper bunk bed as staring through it like it’s an open portal. On the other side of the chasm: That Day.

He’s given himself a thousand lashes over his lapse in attention and his delay in realizing that one of the threads in the garment of his world was being tugged so that he would soon be left feeling stark naked. Those first few moments of unraveling replay in his head on an endless loop:

 

“Hey, Davey. You guys done salivating over the toys?”
“Yeah, Dad! I can’t wait ‘til my birthday!”
Where’s your brother?”
David shrugs and says, “He went looking for you. He wanted to show you something.”
“Looking for me? I’ve been standing right over here this whole time.”
Cedric peers down the aisle from which David appeared, then pushes the shopping cart into the next aisle and the one after that.
“Danny?”
He turns to David and asks, “Which way did he go?”
David isn’t sure. Cedric doubles back, but this time at a pace a half step slower than a jog.

He begins calling out, “Danny! Danny!!”

After a full on sprint through the sporting goods section adjacent to the toys, his concern level is ratcheted up to the point that he ditches the shopping cart and widens the search. His calls are even louder: “DANNNIELLLL!”

But panic hamstrings his efforts. The desire to run down every aisle at the exact same time produces a series of moves akin to a human heart in fibrillation: There’s a lot of activity, but it’s so spasmodic and uncoordinated that it’s counterproductive.

Through the portal conjured up by his mind’s eye, he can see one of the myriad ways he woulda, coulda, shoulda made things turn out differently.

If only I’d stood right there in the aisle with the boys… Run a little faster through the store when I realized he was missing… Screamed a little louder: DANIEL!! DAAAAANNNIEEEELLLL!!! If only I could have quieted my mind and been less frantic so I could have answered the police officer’s questions better…

Seeing Daniel’s bed still empty, Cedric begins the second refrain in his homily:

If only I’d gone to the bank first or to the post office after... Maybe we would have arrived at the store too early or too late to run into the disturbed creature the devil tapped on the shoulder and caused to… to…

Cedric can’t bring himself to think about what might have befallen little Daniel in the depraved hands of whoever snatched him, stole him away like an umbrella in the vestibule of a doctor’s office on a rainy day. The Bible says that God’s mercies are new every morning, and Cedric knows just how true that is. His imagination keeps filming those scenes of depravity in a pitch-dark room, with the lens cap still on the camera. The mental barrier preventing him from envisioning his baby boy being used as a punching bag, a tackling dummy, a sex toy—or all three—has helped him maintain the sample-size portion of sanity that’s all he has left after he, quite literally, lost his child.

But he hasn’t gotten off Scot free. He can always imagine Daniel’s voice:

 

Daddy! Daddy!!I Help!! HEL—”

 

Then the boy’s cries are muffled, as if by the idle hands that, on That Day, became a brand new franchise location of The Devil’s Workshop Inc.

Cedric will always remember the big, fat streams of tears running down David’s cheeks as they scoured the store in search of his brother, and the hesitance in his little voice when he asked the question that mirrored Cedric’s desperate need to think positive:

“We’re gonna find Danny, right, Daddy?”

The memory of the flicker in his own voice when he replied, “Right, son,” and how it gave away the extent to which his hope had begun to dwindle, is still like a Catholic school nun’s ruler rapping the knuckles of his spirit.

How delusional am I, calling myself a good father? I can hardly bear to look Davey, my own son—and now my only son—in the face. I can see it in his eyes; he’s scared to death that I’m going to lose him too. And why should he trust me? I was responsible for him and his brother and I blew it.

The order of tonight’s service is slightly unusual. Cedric has returned to one of his personal Psalms, but it’s one that his heart sings only periodically. It’s a song of lamentation, repentance, and a plea for a second chance.

How could I whiff so badly on basic questions? It’s no wonder why the detective started giving me the side eye right off the top. You were around him every day, Cedric! How is it that you couldn’t give a decent description so the police could find him right away? You had one job: take care of your babies. But you couldn’t pay attention, could you? Didn’t pay enough attention to your sons, and didn’t pay attention to detail. At least not enough to give Danny any kind of hope of being found That Day.

But I love my boy. God, I know you hear me. I know you know… You know.

I could pass the test now… I promise I could. Green sweater, grey jogging pants, and white sneakers. He’s four-foot-seven, 62 lbs., with a birthmark on his left cheek right in front of his ear. He has a habit of absentmindedly rubbing his earlobe—a holdover from his self-soothing behavior when he was an infant.

I know. I’m a week late and a wallet short. But I do care about you, Danny. Even now. I care about how you love basketball and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drawing on any scrap of paper that happens to be lying around. I care about you more than the business plan I sent out to potential investors That Day—even though I yelled at you for leaving your mark on it and forcing me to reprint it before we hustled to the post office. I’m sorry, Danny. I’m amazed by your curiosity and creativity. You’re soooo smart… I just wish I could see your little face again.

God, PLEASE bring my Danny back.

Massive as it is, the weight of Daniel’s loss is matched by another millstone: a looming, choking sense of alienation from his wife. That feeling of separation has gripped him since an all-points search of the store by he and a half dozen employees proved fruitless, and a glance at his watch revealed that Daniel had been missing for over an hour.

God please help me. I can’t tell Jaclyn that I lost our baby… She’ll never forgive me… Oh, God, what have I done? Cedric silently pleaded.

Jaclyn was indeed devastated by the news and has been drinking from her own bitter cup for these 12 weeks. A lot has happened. She’s experienced the horror of watching the police—who she assumed were following every possible lead aimed at bringing her son home alive and well—turn the focus of the investigation onto Cedric. So there he was, a 38-year-old entrepreneur with two master’s degrees, an adjunct teaching position at the local state university campus, and cherished roles as a Sunday school teacher and church youth group leader. But to the police who showed up at the mall That Day, Cedric’s dark skin, bald head, and commanding presence came across as menacing and his anguish registered as illegitimate. So much so that, in their eyes, he was guilty until proven innocent.

She’s seethed over the bold-faced, unrepentant local media maintaining a constant public vigil for a 10-year-old white girl kidnapped three days after That Day, while hardly ever mentioning her Daniel. Hers is not the first child to be utterly ignored because he or she doesn’t have the complexion to make the connection with a community’s collective consciousness. But she isn’t supposed to notice that. Nor was Jaclyn supposed to be angry when a TV news producer summarily rejected the school Picture Day photo of Daniel in a blazer and necktie, then asked to thumb through the family’s photo albums so she could find snapshots with him “looking more natural… Y’know, roughed up.”

She’s supposed to bottle up her reaction to seeing the iconic Picture Day photo of 10-year-old Kayleigh Stevens—with an orange bow in her blonde hair, a floral sundress, and a golden meadow as the backdrop—that flashes across her TV screen during the 7am, noon, 5pm, 6pm, and 10pm newscasts. Expressing her, hurt, sadness, and rage over such disparate treatment would open her up to accusations that she doesn’t want Kayleigh to be found.

So this nightmare burns in her gut like overproof whiskey, but provides no buzz to ease the pain.

Despite wanting to barricade herself in a room and weep ceaselessly, life has gone on. And Jaclyn has had to run right along beside it.

She’s had to plan and carry out an 8th birthday celebration for David. This, despite every element of the planning being a heartbreaking reminder that the second of two babies born to her that day had been ripped out of her life on That Day. She has had to teach herself not to shout out, “Danny and Davey!” the way she would when she would call them in from the backyard, announce that dinner was ready, or summon them both to mommy court when someone messed up and hoped to escape justice.

Christmas came, but it wasn’t merry. The New Year arrived but it wasn’t happy.

Worse still, she’s watched Cedric—her mountain—suffer an identity crisis that has him looking in the mirror and seeing a mere molehill. Despite her reassurance, over and over again, that she can’t forgive him because there is nothing to forgive, he’s been unable to shake the feeling that she’s saying all the right things outwardly but secretly swimming in a deep pool of resentment toward him.

The high winds and raging waters of self-blame that are wearing Cedric down to a scale model of the man Jaclyn had grown to love, admire, and cherish are also gouging out deep hollows in their relationship. The easy rapport they had enjoyed since their very first encounter back when they were undergraduates—a tug of war over the final used copy of the textbook for their Early American History class—has been replaced by awkward silences.

She wishes she could find just the right syringe to draw out what’s killing their relationship from the inside like a pit viper’s venom. It’s been 12 weeks since he’s walked up to her, smacked her on the behind, and wrapped his arms around her. Exactly 84 days since the last “kiss attack” where he’d corner her and plant a flurry of kisses all over her face and neck. She’d always feign annoyance, but they both knew she loved it like a fat kid loves cake.

She still catches Cedric sneaking peeks at her. But it’s different now. Instead of giving her the eye to signal that he’s in the mood, or just to playfully flirt, his glances are those of a chastised puppy looking to gauge her attitude toward him. He hasn’t initiated sex, not once, since That Day; and when she tries to get a fire started, his overwrought politeness and anxious eagerness to please end up stripping the fun out of it.

Jaclyn is in hell.

But she can’t begin to know what Cedric is wrestling with.

There he stands at the portal.

The boys begged me to get them some pretzel bites—the way they did every time they got a whiff of Auntie Annie’s. Why did I have to be in such a hurry?

Cedric can see himself and the boys in an alternate timeline, watching impatiently as the pretzel guy cuts a slab from the giant pre-prepared mound of dough. He rolls it out into a rope of just the right thickness, cuts it in half, then in smaller pieces, and puts them in the magic oven that bakes them in, like, three minutes flat.

Cedric envisions himself sitting with the boys, watching them giggle, compare their Christmas lists, and pepper him with random questions as they lick cinnamon sugar off their fingers. David mows his pretzel bites down like bowling pins. Daniel takes his time, savoring every bite, and doing more people watching than nibbling. But eventually, the vision fades, pushing Cedric back through the chasm, to the threshold of his place of worship.

He allows himself to step onto the carpeted hallow ground—but ever so lightly, for fear of waking David. After all, it’s still his room. But Cedric refuses to accept the fact that his boys’ room had permanently become his boy’s room. That’s why he can’t bring himself to remove a single one of the trinkets that serve as reminders—and if Cedric is being honest, as placeholders—for Daniel.

On more than one Tuesday, he’s given in to the unrealistic but wholly understandable impulse to run downstairs in the middle of his worship service under the belief that this has all been a cruel trick. His soul won’t yet let him rule out the possibility that, after barreling into the family room, he’ll find Danny in the spot on the couch where he liked to curl up in his mom’s Snuggie after he’d raided the fridge for a midnight snack. But each time that just-in-case impulse grabbed him and sent him running like fire was shut up in his bones, he got downstairs only to find no cotton-draped lump on the couch.

Oh how Cedric would love to be greeted by islands of milk on the countertop and the floor—an archipelago telling the story of how Daniel’s latest ambitious attempt to handle the gallon milk jug resulted in him knocking the glass over mid-pour or overshooting the vessel entirely. Oh how he’d rejoice at the sight of jelly in the peanut butter jar, and a fine, brown ribbon of chocolate syrup marking the route from the tan marble on the center island, across the bamboo floor, to the base of the refrigerator. Oh how good and how pleasant it would be to have the chore of rousing Daniel so the boy could trudge upstairs to the bathroom then produce the telltale sound of a half-sleep child shooting a stream of pee directly onto the wall adjacent to the toilet.

But tonight, Cedric doesn’t feel the call.

Once back on this side of the portal, he’s transfixed by a picture of David and Daniel as infants just learning to crawl.

“C.C., honey, please come back to bed. He’s fine,” Jaclyn says, thinking Cedric is simply standing guard over David. She strokes the back of her husband's head and continues the comforting caress until her slender fingers come to rest on the small of his back.

“Okay,” he says. “I’m coming.”

But the instant he turns to follow her back down the hall, the doorbell rings.

“What in the world…?” he wonders. “Go ahead, honey. I’ll send this nutcase away and be right back.”

Cedric looks through the peephole and sees a state trooper on the porch and another standing near their police cruiser.

“Sorry to disturb you folks at this hour, but I didn’t think this could hold ‘til daybreak,” the officer says. “May I come in?”

“What is it? It’s 3:30 in the morning,” Cedric says angrily, thinking this is the police’s latest attempt to catch him off guard so he’ll tell a different story than the one maintaining his innocence.

“We’ve got a kid over at the hospital in Clarksdale, says his name is Daniel Carter and that he lives at this address.”

“I’m sorry. What did you just say?” asked Cedric. He’s by now so accustomed to his own flights of fantasy, he thinks he must be hearing things.

The officer pulls out his smartphone and shows Cedric the picture he snapped of the boy before making the 35-mile trip to alert the kid’s parents in person instead of making a phone call. “Is this your boy?”

Cedric falls to his knees and begins to weep. “Yes. Yes, that’s my Danny. Ohhh, Danny! I’m so sorry son. Daddy’s coming to get you.” Then he jumps up, runs to the foot of the stairs and yells, “Jackie! JACKIE!”

“For God’s sake, Cedric! You’re gonna wake the dead!”

“They found him! They found Danny!

Along with their tears comes a fast-moving stream of questions.

“We don’t know all the details yet, folks. What I do know is that you’ve got one brave boy there. He was in a car that was about to cross state lines last night when they reached a seat belt safety checkpoint. I don’t know how he did it, or how he knew exactly when to do it, but he managed to pry open the trunk just as his abductor was about to be waved on.

“Well, we want to see him,” Cedric said.

“Now?”

“Not now; right now.”

And just like that, Cedric has regained his commanding presence.

“Honey, go get dressed. I’ll wake Davey and get him ready. Officer, we’ll be ready in 10 minutes. You might want to lead us there. I’ve never been in a hurry the way I’ll be when I pull out of that driveway.”

When Cedric steps in the bedroom down the hall from his, it’s already a different place. It’s no longer his Orthodox Tuesdayite temple. And he can sense that the placement of the apostrophe has been shifted; once again, the appropriate pronoun describing the bedroom is boys’ instead of boy’s.

As Cedric backs down the driveway and the trooper turns on his squad car’s overhead lights, a thought strikes Jaclyn. “Wait. It’s Tuesday. Davey’s got school in the morning.”

“Believe me. I know what day it is. God has delivered us from That Day and given us this new day. And I know that from now on, we’re gonna celebrate This New Day—even if it means missing school, or work, or whatever.”

“Amen to that,” Jaclyn says. Her heart swells when Cedric reaches over into her lap and puts his hand on hers. Thank God it’s Tuesday, she thinks before glancing into the backseat to check on David.