Frank pulled the cruiser into the department parking lot and killed the engine. He had scoured his memory on the drive over for any reason for this impromptu meeting, but had come up with nothing. He thought that it was highly unlikely this meeting had anything to do with his recent misconduct with Alex Verney. Frank would bet his next paycheck that Alex would keep quiet about the altercation that evening, not wanting to attract any more attention from the authorities. However, Litchfield repeatedly stated that he had eyes and ears all over the city, and at times it felt as if he might be Big Brother, so there was no telling what the man knew. When Frank knew he couldn’t stall any longer, he took a deep breath and exited the cruiser.
Frank entered the station to find the desks empty and the hallways deserted. He checked his watch and was surprised to find that it was already 6:30. Shit, Frank thought. He was supposed to be off duty an hour and a half ago. He considered himself lucky that he didn’t have a hundred voicemails from Valerie. It actually struck him as odd that Valerie hadn’t tried to contact him at all, but that was something to worry about later.
As Frank made his way through the station, he grew increasingly more worried that he had been called in to be reprimanded for that evening’s behavior. He tried to dismiss the thought and get himself under control, with little success. When he arrived at the Deputy Chief’s office, Suzanne’s desk out front was vacant. Frank assumed that she had probably gone home right after she had made the call to him. He approached the doorway cautiously, lightly tapping one knuckle on the door as he entered.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” Frank said. He was having a hard time controlling his nerves, but managed to keep his voice steady. Litchfield stared at his computer screen, never moving a muscle as Frank spoke.
“Come sit down, Frank,” the Deputy Chief said, his eyes glued to the screen. As Frank sat down in the chair in front of the desk, Litchfield clicked his mouse and turned to face him. The Deputy Chief usually had a terrible poker face, but at that moment Frank had no idea what the man was thinking. Frank’s heart was beating like he was a rabbit caught in a trap. Litchfield breathed a heavy sigh and rubbed his eyes with the thumb and forefinger of one hand.
“This has been a stressful week for all of us, Frank. The pressure of this job… not a lot of people can handle it.” Frank nodded his head slightly. “But over the years you’ve proved yourself a real asset to this department. You’re reliable,” Litchfield said. He tapped a case folder on his desk. “This shit made me realize that I need more men like you by my side. So, no more beating around the bush. How’s about we make you a sergeant?”
Frank was blindsided by the offer. He had been waiting to make sergeant for the last six months, and it only took two disappearances and a week of grueling emotional turmoil for him to finally achieve it. After shaking off the initial shock of the proposition, Frank was filled with immense gratitude.
“I’d be honored, sir,” Frank said with a smile on his face. The Deputy Chief returned a tired grin. Frank took a deep breath and chuckled, Litchfield furrowed his brow. “From the way Sue sounded, I thought you were gonna send me to the farm.”
Litchfield looked toward Suzanne’s desk.
“She’s been a little shaken up by everything that’s going on. You know, she’s got two girls of her own, one of them about the same age as Jackie Douglas.”
Frank nodded his head, emotions clashing within him. While he was incredibly excited by the promotion, it also doubled his internal pressure to find the person responsible for the disappearances. He had nearly lost himself in thought when he noticed Litchfield stand, an action that he mimicked from his spot across the desk. The Deputy Chief extended his hand, which Frank grasped and shook firmly.
“Go home, Frank. And congratulations.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Frank exited the office and headed to the back of the station to turn in his bodycam. On his way there, Frank pondered whether he could have been wrong in his initial impression of Litchfield. He had always thought of the Deputy Chief as a blowhard whose one-track mind only had one objective: rising through the ranks. However, it seemed that when the chips were down, Litchfield knew what he was doing. Frank was also shocked that the Deputy Chief had taken note of his work ethic, something that Frank never thought the man would ever acknowledge, even if he spent an eternity on the force. Maybe he was a good cop disguised in an asshole’s body.
Frank dropped off the bodycam and headed home. He was worried about what Valerie would say about him being almost two hours late, but was hoping that the good news might balance things out. He pulled the cruiser into his driveway and prepped an apology before he exited the car.
When Frank walked in the front door, he couldn’t help but smile. Valerie was seated in the recliner with Cade in her lap, both of them fast asleep. Frank tiptoed past, being extremely careful not to wake them, and scurried down the hallway. He changed into a plain white tee shirt and sweat pants, grabbing the Tom Clancy novel he had been reading slowly but surely off his nightstand, and crept back into the living room. He planted himself on the couch and began to read. He intended to wait until Valerie had woken up, but before he knew it Frank had drifted off to sleep. This time it was a black, dreamless sleep where time seemed to be nonexistent. Two minutes or two years could have passed before he was awakened by Valerie’s light shaking of his arm.
“Hey,” Frank said with a lazy smile. Valerie kissed him and sat down on the couch next to him.
“Hey yourself,” she said. Valerie was dressed in pajamas, her hair in a messy bun that resembled a bird’s nest. She was wearing glasses that would look more at home on a librarian than a stay-at-home mom in suburban Arizona. Somehow, someway, Valerie could still make that look work for her. Frank didn’t know how she did it.
“Have a good nap?” Frank asked, motioning toward the recliner.
“I could ask you the same thing. Tom Clancy is nature’s NyQuil, huh?”
“Hey, we don’t trash Clancy in this family.”
“Oh, was that in the monthly newsletter? I must have missed it,” Valerie said, giving Frank a sarcastic grin. Both of them laughed, making sure to keep it quiet so as not to wake Cade.
“I have some good news,” Frank said.
“What is it?”
“In the very near future, you’ll be married to Vander PD’s newest sergeant,” Frank said, beaming.
“Oh my God, that’s amazing!” Valerie gave Frank a long kiss. She pulled away and the two looked into each other’s eyes. “When will I get to meet him?”
“I’ll introduce you tomorrow,” Frank quipped back. He loved their playful banter, but didn’t see much of it when times were stressful. He was beyond grateful to see it now.
“Alright Sergeant, let’s go to bed.”
“Ten-four,” Frank said. For the first time in the last week, Frank finally felt like himself again.
Frank awoke to the decadent smell of freshly-cooked bacon wafting through his bedroom door. He sat up in bed, deeply inhaling the aroma as he stretched and rubbed his eyes. The first touches of morning light were peaking through the window, illuminating the room in a soft, comforting glow. It seemed as if everything in his life that had been insanely hectic for the last week had faded away, so Frank took a moment to bask in the serenity of the year’s first September morning.
Frank was scheduled for the night shift, and he intended to utilize every available moment of daylight to spend with Valerie and Cade. He climbed out of bed and watched as the sun crested Callaway Creek Mountain, appreciating the natural beauty that Arizona had to offer. Frank could feel no trace of the near-crippling anxiety that had almost consumed him and hoped that it was gone for good. Thoughts of the two missing girls still itched at the back of his mind, occasionally gaining some of his attention, but he was able to brush them off for the time being. He was determined to let nothing ruin his time with his family.
Frank walked out of the bedroom toward the kitchen, where he found Valerie finishing up breakfast. Cade was in the living room sitting against the couch, playing with his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine toy. Frank went to Cade first, sitting down cross-legged on the floor next to him. Cade paid no attention, completely engrossed in his attempt to chew Thomas in half. Frank started slowly walking his fingers across the floor, which caught Cade’s eye. The kid was smart enough to know what was coming next. Frank started tickling Cade around his midsection, causing Cade to laugh hysterically and drop his toy under the couch. Frank retrieved the toy and handed it back to his son before standing up with a grunt and meandering over to the kitchen.
Frank wrapped his arms around Valerie’s waist and kissed her cheek as she scraped scrambled eggs from a stove pan onto the two plates in front of her. The breakfast that she had made included scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and two slices of buttered toast each, a monumental step up from Frank’s usual breakfast of soggy oatmeal and black coffee on the way out the door. Frank took his plate and seated himself at the head of the dining table, making sure that he could see Cade. Valerie sat in the chair next to Frank and they both took a moment to admire their son as he slid Thomas the Tank Engine back and forth across the carpet. Frank couldn’t believe that the pure-hearted bundle of joy seated in the living room was truly his flesh and blood, his DNA.
When Frank had first heard about Valerie’s pregnancy, he initially had reservations about being a father, but after seeing Cade’s face for the first time, he knew that everything had turned out right. Cade had been a fairly easy baby to raise compared to some of the horror stories he had heard other new parents tell. Cade wasn’t colicky, he hardly ever fussed, and he seemed curious and inquisitive about the world around him.
“That kid is going to be smarter than the both of us,” Valerie would say occasionally.
“Dear God, let’s hope so,” was Frank’s usual response.
Frank turned his head to Valerie who met his gaze, and they both smiled. Frank knew that they were thinking the same thing. How did we make something so perfect and pure? Frank personally didn’t have the slightest clue.
He took a bite of his eggs and before he knew it, he was devouring the entire plate like a feral animal. The bacon didn’t stand a chance; it was gone in a matter of seconds. The stress of the last week and Frank’s constant mental frenzy had caused his meal schedule to be thrown out of whack, and he was compensating greatly.
“Don’t just inhale it,” Valerie said, the look on her face a combination of amusement and horror.
“Sorry Hun,” Frank said, wiping his face with a napkin, “The food is amazing.” Valerie chuckled and rolled her eyes before continuing to eat her breakfast.
“So I was thinking that maybe we could take Cade to the park today,” Frank said, just moments after clearing the last bits of food off his plate. Valerie’s eyes lit up at the proposition.
“That’s a great idea!” Valerie shouted. Cade turned his head, curious as to why his mother had raised her voice. After the momentary distraction, he returned to the important matter of picking up Thomas the Tank Engine and throwing him onto the ground repeatedly.
“I thought it would be nice for him to play around in the sand and maybe I can push him on the swings. Who knows, he might make a little friend or two,” Frank said.
“I’ll get ready for the day and then we can go right on over,” Valerie said, beaming with joy. Frank leaned in and gave Valerie a kiss. Just then, Frank felt a tug at the bottom of his shirt. He turned to find Cade standing right next to him, his trusty Thomas held in one hand. Frank figured that Cade must have waddled over in the short time that he had turned his head to look at Valerie. Kid is like The Flash, thought Frank. Cade lifted Thomas above his head, offering him to his father as a grin spread across his infantile face.
“Thank you, Cade,” Frank said. He accepted the gift graciously and picked Cade up, placing him on his lap. The two pushed Thomas back and forth to each other on the table as Valerie finished her breakfast and left the room to get ready for the day. Frank played with Cade until Valerie was out of the shower, at which time he handed Cade off to her and took a shower of his own. He got ready much quicker than Valerie and found himself in the living room with Cade as he watched a television show that was supposed to be good for developing brains. As soon as the episode ended, Valerie was ready to go and the three of them hopped in the family SUV and made their way to the park.
When they arrived at Hammond Park, Cade immediately made a beeline for the playground sandbox. He planted himself in the center and went to work repeatedly picking up handfuls of sand and letting it slip through his fingers. Frank and Valerie occupied the bench closest to the sandbox, where Valerie took out a book and began to read, glancing up every few pages or so to make sure Cade was still his happy-go-lucky self. Frank was staring into the space in front of him, letting his mind wander while Valerie kept her nose buried in the book. The novel she was invested in was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and Frank thought that the book completed a comical picture of the two of them.
His mind kept trying to pull thoughts of Katheryn and Jackie to the surface as he let it wander and he had to make a conscious effort to suppress them. He would focus all of his attention onto what Cade was doing, and that helped to keep his mind occupied. At that moment, Cade was using a plastic shovel that someone had left in the sandbox to make an enormous mound of sand in front of himself. Birds were singing in the trees and the sky was clear and blue, the perfect setting for a day at the park.
After a while, Cade grew tired of the sandbox and meandered over to his mother, lifting his arms in the air to indicate that he wanted to be picked up. Before Cade could reach her, Frank swooped in and did the job for her, carrying him toward the swing set. Valerie smiled and waved to Cade, who returned the gesture with a giggle.
Frank placed Cade in the bucket swing and began to push him, much to Cade’s amusement. The higher he was pushed, the louder his laugh grew. Frank pushed the swing reflexively, looking around at the different types of people that frequented Hammond Park. There were two mothers shooting the breeze on a bench near the jungle gym as their daughters ran rampant around the playground, as well as a father and son tossing a Frisbee to their golden retriever. There was also a woman in a bright pink track suit speed-walking down the runners’ path near the parking lot, where she passed a bench that was occupied by an elderly man in a black jacket. The man had a snow-white goatee and was wearing a gray ivy cap pulled down low. He seemed to be doing nothing more than enjoying the sound of the birds, but the man had Frank’s undivided attention from the moment he first caught sight of him. Frank’s palms became sweaty and his mouth dried out, and he couldn’t help but feel like somehow he knew the man, although the face didn’t ring any bells. The anxiety that Frank had been keeping at bay suddenly came rushing out, congregating in his chest and squeezing his heart until it felt ready to burst. Every breath became a struggle, and Frank felt like his lungs might wither and die.
Suddenly, the bucket swing that Cade was seated in struck Frank in the chest on a backswing, knocking whatever air was left in his lungs out of him and doubling him over. He winced and took a few seconds to regain his breath, glancing up at the bench afterwards. The elderly man was gone. Frank looked in every direction but could not seem to find any trace of him. Oddly enough, Frank’s anxiety had dissipated and he felt just as good as he had that morning. Maybe what I needed was a sharp blow to the chest, Frank thought.
He began to push Cade on the swing once again when he noticed Valerie standing near her bench with a concerned look on her face. Frank flashed a cheesy fake smile in her direction to indicate that he was okay and that he did realize how dumb he must have just looked. Valerie rolled her eyes and shook her head, smiling. She sat down and delved back into Gillian Flynn’s world.
They spent another hour at the park, running around in the grass and helping Cade traverse the jungle gym. Valerie didn’t end up doing all that much reading, but she was okay with that. She would much rather play with Cade. By the time the three of them left the park, he had fallen asleep.
When they got home, Frank used the time that Cade was asleep to fix the malfunctioning garage door that he had been meaning to get to for some time. The door would open properly most of the time, but occasionally it would get stuck halfway or not move at all. It took a few hours, but Frank finally got it back in suitable working condition.
When Cade awoke from his nap, Valerie thought it would be a good idea for the three of them to watch one of Cade’s favorite movies together. She put Toy Story in the DVD player and they watched it uninterrupted from start to finish. Frank had to admit that he loved the movie just as much as anyone else, but the best thing about watching it was seeing how captivated Cade looked during every scene. The kid was mesmerized by the Pixar characters and it filled Frank with joy to see how much happiness Cade radiated while watching the film, even though it was about the 12,000th time he had seen it.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. Frank prepared his equipment and uniform for his shift, Valerie decided to clean the bathroom, and Cade played with various toys in the meantime. Frank made spaghetti for the adults for dinner and a small bowl of macaroni and cheese for Cade. Frank and Valerie thought their dinner was delicious, and Cade wore most of his on his face instead of eating it. After Frank and Valerie finished tucking Cade into bed a few hours later, Frank opted to get a few hours of shut eye himself before he went on duty at 1:00 in the morning.
The night shift was long and tedious, filled with mental malaise and wandering thoughts. Frank spent the majority of the night trying to keep his mind occupied, but the most exciting task he was assigned was crashing a party on 16th Street. The neighbors had made a noise complaint and there was a variety of cars on the street, but when a teenager opened the door to speak to Frank, he was the only person who could be seen. A fold-up table was placed in the center of the living room and red solo cups were strewn about the room haphazardly.
“You have a little party going on in there?” Frank asked.
“Just have a few friends over,” the teenager said. He was choosing his words deliberately and carefully.
“Where are they at, then?” Frank asked. The teenager hesitated for a moment.
“Upstairs.” Frank nearly smirked at the succinct response.
“Okay, well you guys keep it down, alright? I don’t want to have to come back here,” Frank said, turning and walking back toward his car.
“Yes sir, Officer,” the teenager mumbled, miming a sloppy salute. Frank had to hand it to the kid, the sober act was pretty convincing up to that point. He also found it impressive that everyone in the house managed to hide and keep quiet so well. He chuckled as he walked back to his patrol car.
Frank parked at the end of the street, far enough out of view to not be seen by the partygoers but close enough to see them come out of the house. His plan was to wait until the inebriated teens stumbled out of the house and stop the prospective drunk drivers before they could ruin anybody’s life. I’m a glorified babysitter, Frank thought. He couldn’t wait to get home and spend the rest of the weekend with his family.
Valerie sprinted down the middle of Wright Street as Catholics of all ages cheered her on. She was breathing heavily and her legs were tired, but she was determined to finish the race on a high note. She had known that she wouldn’t be in top fighting shape for the 5K, but she was running out of steam faster than expected. In her prime, Valerie could finish half-marathons without a problem, but this race was kicking her ass. Every time one of her Nikes hit the pavement she felt the needle in her fuel tank dipping closer to empty.
Valerie was having one of the best weekends she’d had in recent memory, and finishing this race would be the cherry on top. On Friday, Frank had suggested that they take Cade to the park, and seeing the two of them interact warmed Valerie’s heart. It was also great to see her husband’s usual personality shine through the stress and anxiety that he had been experiencing the previous week. She was even able to poke jokes at him and he would give them right back, just like they were in college again. Saturday was just as good as Friday, most of the day being spent lounging around and watching movies as a family. She even found time to finish Gone Girl, and was excited to pick up another Gillian Flynn novel as soon as possible.
It had been a relief to Valerie when she learned that the church was still putting on their annual 5K for Leukemia that Sunday. She had been uncertain about whether it would still happen in light of recent events, but believed that it was important that the show go on. The event was for a good cause and was the first race she had been able to run in two years.
Valerie spotted Frank and Cade in the crowd as she inched closer to the finish line. There was a light breeze blowing through the Sunday morning air and Valerie was extremely grateful for it. Beads of sweat dripped down her face intermittently, but she paid no mind to them. This was the final stretch, and Valerie kicked into the highest gear that she had.
She crossed the finish line in front of the church a few seconds later, clocking in a time just under twenty-two minutes. A few racers had finished before her, but she was still in the top ten. She slowed to a walk and paced around with her hands on her head as Frank walked over to her with Cade in his arms. Cade was clapping his hands together and was wearing an ear-to-ear grin.
“That was incredible!” Frank exclaimed as he leaned in and gave her a kiss in between her gasping breaths.
“Thanks,” Valerie managed to force out, flashing a smile. She noticed some commotion near the church and saw that members of the congregation were taking photos with the winner of the race. Valerie recognized the woman from Sunday mass, but was unsure of her name. Mindy or Mandy sounded vaguely correct. Good for her, Valerie thought. That’ll be me again soon enough.
Frank couldn’t have been more proud of his wife. After taking off two years due to the pregnancy and raising Cade, Valerie finished in the top ten during her first race back. He was truly amazed by her. This was the one of the best weekends the family had ever had together, and Frank loved every second of it. He remained in the same state of joy until he learned of Vander’s third disappearance the following day.