The first forty-eight hours were the hardest - not because they'd spent its entirety sloshing through the McCormick woods, and not because a square off with the Warrington Creek had earned the woman six stitches above her left eye. No, the hard part had little to do with the grueling search itself, and everything to do with the hope that fueled it. The hope in those first two days was so strong that it might have well been surety; they were convinced that thoroughness, persistence, and endurance would be deciding factors in determining the head count of their four-year-old family. Hope made it imprudent to eat, drink, or sleep.
The second night was even more urgent than the first. They knocked on every door from the Wise's down to the old Jetstream on Chauncy owned by the veteran, Mr. Carter, and nobody had seen nothin. By that time they were so unraveled that both had forgotten to buy batteries before Walgreens closed. So they harvested the attic's Christmas boxes for candles, the camping gear for lanterns, and the boy's beloved Casio keyboard for the last existing D batteries in the suddenly barren house. When those ran out, they drove the Suburu out to Jerico Prairie, pierced its briared coat where the oat grass was newest, and shot the headlights straight out into the nothing they found there. The car died only minutes before dawn, "passing the torch" as it were. They walked home, dazed and distant.
On the third evening, the woman crashed hard. She'd returned to their place on Carbuckle to call her folks, when in walked Officer Stutzman tweezing a muddy sock in his gloved hand. He'd fished it out of a tire swing behind Shoals Elementary. Her husband was hanging signs outside the Wallmart when she called him in a wash of hysterics. It took him a painfully long time to get the whole story out of her, and in the end it wasn't much of a story: the sock was white, Fruit Of The Loom, and Medium-sized. Unfortunately, so were those of a good twenty other boys in the neighborhood. And furthermore, the last sighting of their son was on the opposite end of town. But the woman needed that sock ever-so-badly... They'd been floating through those first few days so anchorlessly, waiting for something to point them up or down. She refused to see the sock as pointing any way but up, while he could only think of how much further she'd fall when it proved fruitless. Even Coach Teffler, who'd never been married, warned him that keeping her spirits up was his #1 priority - why couldn't he just let her have it? Because men have a knack for asserting reality at the most inopportune moments:
"Now we've got to stay the course, here. I want to believe it's his sock, same as you, but we shouldn't go sending everyone over to Templeton just because of a sock. We've got to 'ma-xi-mize our re-sour-ces,' honey. And if---"
Suddenly he heard a series of noises come from his wife, the likes of which he'd never heard in all their twenty-three years together. Before he knew it the line was dead, and he was back in the Suburu driving home frantically. Officer Stutzman called him back a few minutes later to tell him his wife had been successfully transplanted to the couch, and was now moaning feebly from beneath a packet of frozen peas.
The next 336 hours were the most exhausting 336 hours of their entire marriage. They turned up the world around them, adding two small TVs to the bathroom and foyer respectively (for a grand total of five in the house), and a new radio in the garage, all tuned to different news stations. All blaring, all the time. They fought sleep and silence simultaneously, orbiting each other with the tightest lips, never colliding. Occasionally a circuit would be blown and the house would fall silent. When this happened, the man and the woman collapsed into crumpled piles wherever they'd stood. In the morning, The woman's mother would arrive with bags of tupperwared pasta salad and find them strewn about the house like the laundry they no longer bothered to wash. No sooner would she revive them then they'd flip the circuit and set the house, and themselves, to whirring again.
After the first week, the woman began to visit St. Matthews nightly. In the silences that found her there, she wondered if the man blamed her for the disappearance of their son. She wondered if she could survive to Christmas. And, most daringly, she wondered if her husband had already given up hope.
The man had no relief routine, no coping method. He tried to busy himself with the humbling task of stirring up publicity around the case. When his hands found themselves empty, they slipped into his coat lining and fingered the empty pewter flask hidden there. In those times, he only wondered one thing: at what point will knowing that her son is dead be better than not knowing?
The man and the woman never asked these questions of each other; they continued their ghastly game of musical chairs and waited for something or someone to break.