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Chapter 21: Sunny
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Friday, January 3, 7:30 P.M.
Ronni spoke from the bottom of the stairs. "That's all right, Mr. Marlow. I'll take care of him now."
Dan dropped the garbage bag and straightened up fast to stare down the stairs at Veronica Masterson. Her face had resumed its natural color and her voice was perfectly normal in pitch and modulation.
"I know you had to do it, Mr. Marlow. Now, please, let me take care of Midnight and clean up the mess."
Ronni was padding up the carpeted stairs in her bare feet and Dan watched her come with more than a little fear. He finally regained his voice. "Are you feeling better now, Mrs. Masterson? You gave us quite a scare a while ago when you walked in out of the snow, half frozen to death."
Ronni smiled weakly and Dan felt his irrational fear of her dissipate a little. She motioned toward the bottom of the stairs. "Go ahead, Mr. Marlow. Go on down with your wife and I'll take care of this mess. I've been cleaning up after this black cat for the last 11 years so it's only right that I do it one last time."
The false brightness in the woman's voice worried Dan a little but he was more than willing to let someone else gather up the shredded cat and dispose of it. Although the nightmare was over, the sound and smell still lingered in his mind and he was anxious to get back downstairs and hold Karen tightly in his arms.
His wife was still in her kitchen chair, again staring unseeingly at nothing in particular. She looked up with a startle as Dan walked in.
"What was that? What was going on up there? It sounded terrible!"
Calmly Dan recounted the frightening incident at the top of the stairs, dreading the moment when he must tell Karen about what had happened to the twins' things. When he got to that part, her eyes opened wide in disbelief and then slitted in anger.
"What next? First the twins are ... are taken away somewhere and now, this diabolical cat walks in off the street and ruins the things they were wearing when they-- when they left us. How much more am I supposed to bear!"
Dan stood close to the grieving woman's chair and gently stroked her face and hair. Gradually the rigidity of her anger drained from her body and she leaned softly against him, tears falling freely. Dan and Karen remained that way for several minutes as little by little Karen's sobs diminished and her tears dried. She was giving her nose a final blow and wipe when the breezeway door burst open without a knock.
Dan and Karen looked up to see the ravaged face of their eldest son, Mark. Dark circles sagged beneath his eyes and his hair looked like he had been venting his anxiety by running his fingers through it.
"Kevin and Kellie," he croaked. "Are they all right?" The expressions on his parents' faces answered the question before he had finished asking it.
"I knew it! They're gone, too, aren't they? What's this world coming to?" He slumped into a kitchen chair and ignored the cup of coffee his mother handed him. Then he looked at it quizzically as though he had never encountered a custom like drinking coffee before.
"I tried to call you, son," Karen said quietly, "but they said you'd already left for Liverpool. How-- how did you find out about it?"
"I was in the middle of it over in Jersey. Then I left to come and that's all there's been on the radio, all the way over here. Millions and millions of babies and young children from all over the world, just missing. I must have listened to a hundred radio network actualities in the last four hours. Mothers with babies in their arms. Teachers seeing a whole kindergarten disappear before their eyes. A nurse in a hospital delivery room seeing a newborn change into one of those creatures just seconds after birth. And on and on."
never cried. Even when Cristy died, he had faced the loss with stony silence.
But now the tears came. Scalding tears, stinging tears, long, long overdue tears.
Finally he rose and walked into the powder room. When he came out 20 minutes later,
he was in control again.
"Mother, if what I'm going to ask is more than you can give, please say so. But do you know how it happened for Kevin and Kellie? Would you mind telling me what you know?"
"No, Mark, you certainly have a right to know as much as we do. And I don't mind telling it again, especially for you." Very simply his mother reviewed what had happened in the school cafeteria and Mark related his experience in Cottage 4 at the institution.
At that moment Veronica Masterson walked into the kitchen. She held the upstairs bathroom waste can in front of her, a knotted plastic bag sticking out of the top. There was a moment of awkward silence as the elder Marlows groped for a smooth way to handle the situation.
The visitor took care of it herself, smiling and saying casually, "Hello, I'm Ronni Masterson and you must be Mark. I can see the resemblance. I was visiting with your parents a while ago and my crazy cat went berserk and had to be shot." She turned to Dan. "Everything's pretty well taken care of upstairs, except the bedroom. Do you think it'll be all right to put this out back in one of your garbage cans? I think they pick up Monday morning and this'll be frozen solid in a couple hours, anyway."
Dan still found Ronni's manner disturbing. One minute she was flat on her back in some kind of trance. Now she had cleaned up her cat's torn remains and was discussing the disposal procedure as though she were dealing with a pan of potato peelings. On the other hand, a day like today was enough to make anybody strange.
"I'm sure that will be fine for now, Mrs. Masterson. Here, let me take that out for you, though. You're still in your bare feet."
Ronni glanced down and then laughed a little thinly. "Well, so I am! So much happening today with ... with the cat and everything, I guess I'm not exactly sure what I'm doing any more."
Mark changed the subject. "You folks planning to watch the President's news conference tonight? Supposed to come on at nine."
paused before opening the door. "I just wish we could get some answers, from
the President, the FBI, the CIA, or whoever. Sooner or later this beating around
the bush has got to stop!" His declaration was punctuated by the slamming
"We'll have it on, Mark," Karen said quietly. "Your Dad is just a little extra tense because of not knowing just exactly what has happened. You know how lost he is without hard facts to deal with."
Ronni had watched with clouded eyes as the Marlows talked. When Dan returned from his trip to the alley, she rose and stood in the doorway to the hall. When she spoke, Dan noted instantly that her voice had lost its falseness.
"Could we all go into the living room? You may find it hard to cope with but I think I can give you most of the answers to the questions you have about what happened to your twins." After her mysterious offer, Ronni walked down the hall to the living room door and the three Marlows were left staring at each other in bewildered silence.
"You know, Karen," Dan whispered, "I wouldn't rule out her being crazy or bewitched or both. That thing upstairs with the cat was not of this world or I miss my guess!"
"Crazy or not, let's listen to what she has to say," Karen said as she gently pushed her resisting husband toward the living room. Dan mumbled something about insane females and demonic cats but he allowed himself to be nudged down the hall.
Ronni had positioned herself in a corner chair with her feet tucked under her. She pushed the fine blonde hair back from her Breck-girl face and her blue eyes were bright with an unidentifiable emotion. She spoke softly but firmly.
"I know the full story behind the strange disappearances which happened today and you'll just have to have faith that what I'm saying is the absolute truth. And I'll tell you what I--"
"How can you know any more than the networks, the FBI, the CIA, and the President himself!" Dan exploded. "Just who do you think you are, coming in here and putting on like you know everything?"
"Dan, please," Karen said with pleading in her eyes. "If there's only a one-in-a-million chance that Mrs. Masterson knows something about Kevin and Kellie, I want to hear what she has to say."
Dan leaned back against the couch and nodded sullenly for Ronni to continue.
She smiled at Dan in spite of his outburst. "Believe me, Mr. Marlow, I can understand how you feel. And I'd feel exactly the same way, if I wasn't in a position to know the truth."
"Before you go on," Mark interjected, "could we dispense with all this Mister and Missus thing? This place sounds more like a court room than my home."
"Fine with me, Mark. In fact, my husband ... my husband and I were out with your parents just last evening and we were on a first-name basis then." Karen nodded in agreement and Dan didn't say anything so Ronni continued.
"I have one request before we start. No matter how unbelievable or bizarre you find what I say, please let me finish before you ask questions or contradict. My story will be fairly long and it will be harder to tell than you'll ever know. I'm afraid if I get stopped or sidetracked before I'm finished, I'll never be able to get started again. Can we agree on this one ground rule?"
Karen and Mark answered in the affirmative. Again Dan remained silent.
"The total foundation to understanding what happened today is wrapped up in this one fact: It was an act of God."
Dan opened his mouth for an angry remark but Karen squelched it with a look comprised of tenderness and pleading. Mark's eyes narrowed in speculation but he said nothing.
"And so that you can see that we're really in this thing together, I will start by saying that my husband Jason, my oldest child Jason Junior, and my youngest child Bethany, were all taken away at the same time you lost Kevin and Kellie."
Karen thought Ronni had just one child, a boy, but she didn't ask questions and waited for Ronni to begin her story.
Ronni's face was chalk white and her eyes were glazed with pain or fear or both. Her voice faltered two or three times before she was able to begin. When she did speak, all three Marlows had to lean forward to catch the words.
"You need to hear my story because it will help you to understand what has happened to Kevin and Kellie." Ronni paused to fight for breath and Karen wasn't sure the young minister's wife would be able to go on. After several dry sobs, and with a badly quivering lip, Ronni continued.
"The story you need to hear goes back 10 years to when Jason and I had our first child, a baby boy named Samuel. Everybody called him Sunny, though, because of his disposition. He was the cutest little baby I've ever seen. Everybody just adored him. The day he was six months old, I took him to Olan Mills to get his picture taken. I still have that picture, upstairs in my trunk. He had chubby cheeks, blonde hair with a butcher-boy cut, and a dimple right here at the point of his chin. He was just starting to cut his front teeth and in the picture you can see two little pearls showing under his upper lip. He was so soft and cuddly, when I took him to church everybody fought to hold him."
Dan stirred and yawned so obviously that Karen looked at him sharply. Ronni realized she had to pick up the pace of her story a little.
"On the way home from the photographer, I stopped at the drug store to get Sunny some Liquiprin because he was a little fussy with his teeth. He was asleep in his car seat in the back so I locked the car and just left him there. I wasn't gone more than three minutes but when I came out of the drug store, Sunny was gone. The rear vent window had been smashed and my baby was gone." Ronni paused to struggle for breath and tears poured silently over both cheeks. Karen handed her a tissue and the Marlows waited silently until the grieving mother could compose herself.
"They found Sunny's dead body in a dumpster three days later. Turned out he had been kidnapped by a convicted child molester who was released from prison because the prison psychiatrist felt he was cured. Some cure. The autopsy showed he had been sodomized both ways over and over again, even after he was dead." Ronni rose and bolted for the powder room, slamming the door behind her. Even over the sound of the flush Karen could hear her vomiting violently.
Ronni returned to the living room fifteen minutes later, still white and trembling. "There's no need for you to go on with this," Karen said kindly. "You can tell us another time, when you're feeling a little better."
In spite of her distraught state, Ronni was resolute. "No, no, Karen. I must go on. Actually, I'm almost finished. It's just that thinking about how Sunny died--" After a long pause she continued.
"Anyway, they caught the man who did it and he was tried again. Only this time, the judge ruled a mistrial because of some legal technicality which I still don't fully understand. As far as I know, he's still walking the streets today. Sure didn't go anywhere today at noon, that's for sure." Karen was puzzled by her last statement and the fact it seemed to give Ronni some small comfort.
Ronni spoke again. "Up until the time Sunny died, I was a good Christian woman and, I believe I was a good preacher's wife, too. But when that demon-possessed monster got off Scot free, something snapped inside my soul. I did what Job's wife told him to do. I cursed God and died--spiritually. I told God that if He couldn't have protected Sunny from that monster and if he could let him go free without punishment, I was through with God forever. To this day, I haven't prayed a real prayer. My worship has been an empty ritual. In church I've opened my Bible while Jason was preaching, just for the sake of appearance, but I haven't read a word in almost ten years. Now, it's too late. It's forever too late ... "
Ronni spoke the last words with her head bowed and her eyes closed but there were no more tears. Only her chalky complexion and compressed lips betrayed the torment inside. After several minutes of clock-ticking silence, Ronni raised her head and looked in the face of first Dan and then Karen. She spoke through lips anesthetized by supreme self control.
"I can see by the looks on your faces that you can't make the connection between my sad story and the disappearance of your twins. If you want, I can give you a brief outline of that connection now, before the President's speech. Then we can discuss it in greater detail later." The Marlows nodded.
two thousand years the Bible has taught Jesus would come again. And his return,
in what evangelicals have referred to as the rapture, would be characterized by
the instant removal of all persons, living and dead, who had accepted Him as their
personal Sin Sacrifice and were living according to His teachings. So, in a nutshell,
that's what happened today at noon. Jesus Christ came back to earth and removed
in a miraculous rapture all persons in the whole world who were looking for His
coming and were ready to meet Him."
Dan could wait no longer. "But why Kevin and Kellie? They weren't connected with your church, or any other church for that matter. Why, they never harmed anyone in their lives! Why did they have to go to this-- to this rapture or whatever you call it?"
"That's just the point, Dan," Ronni said with compassion in her voice. "Kevin and Kellie were six, right? Okay, that means that in God's eyes they were too young to make a binding decision on what their relationship with Christ should be. An evangelical minister such as my husband would have said they were below the age of accountability."
Mark sat up straight and stared hard at Ronni's face. "Now I get it. If the twins at six were included in this rapture on a de facto basis, so to speak, then the residents of Walnut Valley, who all had mental ages of much less than six, were given the same special treatment. Right?"
"Hold on just one minute!" Dan barked harshly as he jumped to his feet. "You people are making this sudden disappearance sound like it is some kind of special honor to be conferred on God's pets. How can that be? Kevin and Kellie were wrenched from their mother's arms and are who knows where. You call that special treatment? I don't! I call it kidnapping, whether God did it or the little green men from Mars did it. My children are gone and I am out-of-my-mind mad about it and don't care who knows it!"
By the end of Dan's outburst, flecks of foam were flying from his mouth and his voice was a rasping roar. Ronni never blinked or flinched.
"Believe me, Dan, I know where you're coming from," she injected smoothly when the big man stopped for breath. "And what you say makes sense if we're talking about life as you and I know it. Life in the three-score-and-ten sense of the word. But that's not what we're talking about at all, Dan. We're talking about eternity and eternal life. I know you can't deal with that concept at the intellectual level but it is true, nevertheless. God has just granted Kevin and Kellie eternal life. They will never die. They will exist forever in the presence of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Angels, and all the righteous of all the ages!"
Dan shook his head like a winded bull and slumped back in his chair.
Karen was afraid of another outburst from Dan and steered the conversation in another direction. "Ronni, I'm not sure I understand why you didn't get to go, along with Jason, I mean. Don't answer if you don't want to but does it have something to do with the way you felt about God after Sunny died?"
"You're precisely right. It has everything to do with how I felt about God. You see, I had voluntarily severed my relationship with God and that's why I was rejected when all true believers were raptured. In the classic sense of the word, I was an atheist."
The clock ticked through more silent moments with the Marlows not knowing quite what to say. At last Karen broke the silence. "You know, Ronni, I almost feel like we owe you an apology. You've gone to all this trouble and personal pain to help us understand what's happened. But really, you're in just about the same boat, aren't you?"
"Not quite. The instant it began to happen, I knew what it was. I wasn't even surprised when God took my unborn child."
"I didn't know you were pregnant. How far along were you?" There was just a hint of normal enthusiasm in Karen's voice.
"Less than twelve hours."
"That's right. I became pregnant last night after we got home from the concert. Today at noon, when Christ called up His church to be with Him at the marriage supper of the Lamb, my Bethany went along, too."
Dan rose and jammed his hands in his pockets. "Mrs. Masterson, there's something about this whole rapture thing which really bothers me. Here you are, raised in the church and a preacher's wife, and you've lost your husband and two children. But--and this is what bothers me--but you seem as calm and cool as a cucumber. You'll have to forgive my bluntness but it just doesn't seem natural somehow. I know how I feel about losing Kevin and Kellie and my guts are all busted up inside. How can you be so calm?"
"Well Dan, I've already done my share of screaming and carrying on over in the parsonage right after it happened. I spent several hours flat on my face on the dining room floor. I didn't need to check around and see what had taken place. I knew the whole story without even turning on the radio or TV. You see, the New Testament of the Bible lays out the whole picture of the rapture, step by step. All there was left for me to do was pound the floor with my fists, and I did that until I passed out. To tell you the truth, I don't remember a thing of what happened from the time I passed out on my dining room floor until I heard a racket at the top of the stairs here in your house.
"And there I was, lying on your sofa."
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