Authors: Rick Mofina
emy Toxton watched greater Dallas blurr by her window as Mason Varno guided their pickup along the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway to the emergency shelter in Duncanville.
Far enough away, she thought.
It was at least twenty miles west of the flea market and a good place to get the baby’s condition checked. It was important to do this before Remy took the next step toward exchanging him for the rest of her money, and getting closer to her dream life with Mason.
She looked down at Caleb Cooper sleeping on her lap.
She had thought it all through this morning over the McDonald’s breakfast Mason went out to get for them. A hospital or clinic might ask more questions and have security cameras, whereas a temporary shelter might be less formal and more understanding if tornado survivors didn’t have all the answers.
I just wish to hell that stupid mother in the news would shut up about looking for her baby. She wasn’t fit to care for this baby. I’m taking him to a better place.
They were ready to do this, she thought.
Mason had shaved his stubble, put on a new Cowboys’ ball cap, and a long-sleeved shirt to cover his tattoos.
Remy’s spiked red hair was now cropped short and dyed dark brown. She wore black-framed, knockoff Prada glasses, which she got at the flea market. She also wore a plain cotton top that covered her tattoo. They didn’t look anything like the couple who’d helped that stupid mother.
After making a series of merges, exits and turns, they’d reached the recreation center that served as the area’s emergency shelter.
“All set, babe?” Remy asked.
They entered the center with Mason carrying Caleb, looking every bit like young parents as they stopped at the first table, where three women were assisting people.
One of them was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words World’s Greatest Grandma. She smiled over bifocals at Remy and Mason. “How can we help you folks?”
“We’d like to get medical attention for our baby,” Remy started. “His head got hurt in the storm.” Mason held Caleb so the woman could see the little bandage. “We just want to be sure he’s okay,” Remy said.
“Oh my, yes. Can’t take chances with little babies.” The woman pointed with a pen. “Go to the medical unit down there. See the sign?”
Remy and Mason nodded their thanks.
“Are you sure that’s all you need?”
“Well,” Remy said, thinking, “we may need some clothes for him, and we lost his car seat. But that’s asking too much.”
“Not at all, honey. We’ve got donations of children’s clothes and items over there. Take what you need. We’ve also got groceries and hot food down that way. If you need a place to sleep, let us know. We’ve got volunteers from everywhere to help. Red Cross, Salvation Army, churches, community groups. If you’re missing or looking for anybody, we’ve got people set up with Missing Person Emergency Search System down there to help you. If you’re property owners that were hit, you’ll need a permit to get into your home and see the damage so you can start insurance claims and apply for aid. We’ve got people who can help you with the process.”
“Thank you,” Mason said, “but we were traveling through from out of town and just wanted to get the baby checked.”
“Sure. Mary Jo?” The woman turned to a teenage girl with a T-shirt that read I’m Here to Help.
“Mary Jo, can you please take these nice folks and their little angel over to medical?”
“For sure. Follow me.”
Mary Jo’s ponytail swayed in cheery contrast to the air of a recreation center filled with tornado victims as she led them to the medical unit. The six treatment stations had makeshift examination rooms with curtained walls. Each one was in use. Remy and Mason sat among the people in the two dozen folding chairs that constituted the waiting area. They were greeted by a woman in her twenties wearing a T-shirt and jeans and carrying clipboards.
“Hi, who are we helping?”
“Our baby got a scrape on his head in the storm.”
The woman looked at it.
“How old is he?”
“Three months,” Remy lied. If she said his real age, it would raise suspicion by matching the age of the missing baby in the news.
“Okay,” the woman said before passing Remy a clipboard and form. “Fill this out then return it to me. One of our medical team will call you so Dr. Butler can examine him. It won’t be long.”
Mason’s face grew taut looking at the form about names, Social Security Numbers, medical history, allergies. He glanced at Remy, who took her time completing every box with phony information. Fifteen minutes later, she handed the clipboard and form back to the young woman.
“That was smooth,” Mason said.
“This is going to work.”
Remy took stock of Caleb for several moments before she was gripped by the fear that she’d slipped up somewhere, had forgotten some important thing. She racked her brain but nothing came to mind.
“Spiller?” A woman in a flowered smock, her blond hair pulled up in a bun and with a stethoscope around her neck, glanced from the clipboard toward the waiting area. “Isaac Spiller?”
Remy raised her hand.
“Hi, I’m Charlene Butler. Let’s go to number three and I’ll take a look at him.”
Remy and Mason entered the curtained cubicle. Charlene directed them to lay Caleb down on the examination table and hold him while she tugged on surgical gloves.
“Let’s see... So he got a little bump in the storm.” She lifted her stethoscope from her neck and bent over Caleb to check him. “Are those little bloodstains from when it happened?”
It hit Remy like a sledgehammer to her stomach. The thing she’d overlooked. She’d forgotten to change the baby out of his bloodied romper. She knew she needed to get him clothes but had completely overlooked the fact he was still wearing his blue-and-white-striped romper with the tiny elephant. The last thing his mother had dressed him in. It was listed as a detail in the last news story Remy had read about Caleb.
“I’m sorry,” Remy said, “can you repeat that?”
Dr. Butler looked directly at Remy, then Mason for a moment, as if she were assessing them.
“I said, did either of you see what happened?” Charlene removed the bandage. “How did he get his little scrape?”
“No.” Remy shook her head, looking at Mason. “It was during the storm... We didn’t see anything hit him. I was holding him and afterward he was just bleeding a little.”
“Well, there’s no bruising. That’s good.”
As the doctor checked the baby’s vital signs, she continued asking questions.
“Since it happened has he seemed overly tired or cranky?”
“Have his sleeping patterns changed at all?”
Charlene removed the baby’s romper and diaper to continue.
“Has he been fussing at his ears as though irritated?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“What about eating? Has his appetite changed?”
“No. Well, I’m moving him to formula and solids.”
Charlene glanced at the form Remy had completed on the clipboard.
“At three months? Most people wait a bit longer. He’s big for three months.”
“He’s a good eater.”
“Are you breastfeeding?”
Charlene cleaned his tiny wound and covered it with a new bandage. Then, after several more minutes, she finished up.
“He’s fine.” Her gloves gave elastic snaps as she peeled them off. “Just clean his cut regularly and replace the bandage often. You can put his romper back on.”
Charlene smiled, cooed at the baby then left the cubicle.
Remy took Caleb, now clad only in a diaper, into her arms, and touched her cheek to his. Then she grabbed the romper and led Mason out of the medical post. They didn’t speak as they worked their way across the rec center floor to the section with tables and rows of plastic tubs and boxes of donated children’s clothes.
Remy passed Caleb to Mason to hold. She then tossed the baby’s bloodied romper into a pile and began rifling boxes marked, Baby Boy 0-12 Months, building a selection of clothing, diapers, cramming it all into plastic bags. She dressed Caleb in a new green romper. It was a little big on him but it smelled freshly laundered. While she was choosing more clothes, Mason noticed a couple of baby car seats nearby and took the one that appeared the sturdiest, checking the harness system.
Mason then found the food table, grabbed several ham-and-cheese and egg-salad sandwiches that were wrapped in clear plastic. He also took cookies and doughnuts, cramming them into the bags of clothes.
They headed for the lot and their pickup truck, where Mason got out his tools and secured the car seat in the truck’s cab, inspecting the anchor and the tether, ensuring it was secure before Remy strapped Caleb in.
Mason started the truck. Remy fastened her own seat belt then threw her head back into her headrest, letting relief wash over her.
“We did it, Mason! He’s healthy and no one had a clue about us!”
“Damn straight—he’s sixty thousand dollars healthy!”
They drove away, realizing that now they were closer to achieving what they each truly wanted.
* * *
As Mason wheeled the pickup through the neighborhood, he pulled a sandwich from the bag and began devouring it. By the time they’d made it to the freeway on-ramp to head back to their motel, Mason had reached into the bag for a doughnut.
“The kid’s healthy, so let’s call her,” he said between bites. “Let’s set things up to get this done.”
Mason accelerated and they merged with expressway traffic.
“Remy? Are you going to call her?”
“Not just yet. One more thing.”
“What? What one more thing?” Mason turned to face her, disbelieving, when his cell phone vibrated.
Keeping an eye on the road and his mirrors he pulled out his phone to check the text he’d received.
U can run but U can’t hide mfkr.
It was from DOA. Jesus.
Then in a sickening heartbeat Mason suddenly realized that disappearing inches separated their pickup from the rolling wheels of a tractor trailer. At that very moment a flash of sunlight on chrome and a panicked bellow of an air horn sucked the breath from his lungs.
Mason lifted his foot from the gas to stomp the brake as his hand spasmed on the wheel to swerve.
Remy reached for the baby, screamed and shut her eyes, bracing for a collision.
At the last second Mason swerved, coming within a hairbreadth before averting a crash.
Remy sighed with relief.
This was the last straw for Mason. The close call detonated his rage—rage at Remy’s reluctance to get rid of the baby; rage at DOA’s text; rage at everything. Mason roared east on the freeway, his nerves rippling with each car he passed.
“Slow down!” Remy said.
He was catatonic with fury, driving hard.
He drove without speaking as they exited the freeway into some community racing by them in the southeast.
“Mason, for God’s sake, what are you doing?”
He didn’t have a clear destination but rather a burning intention. They came to a deserted field, heaped with broken branches and debris from the storm. He parked the truck, grabbed the baby and got out.
“Mason!” Remy jumped out after him. “What are you doing?”
“I can’t take any more of this bullshit, Remy! I’m going to take care of things once and for all!”
Mason’s jawline pulsed as he marched through the debris with the baby. Remy ran after him, pounding his back and shoulders, tears streaming down her face.
Balch Springs, Texas
he morning after her night shift, Kate was in a southeast suburb of Dallas.
She’d halted her Chevy Cobalt in front of a redbrick bungalow, glanced at the trimmed grass and neat low-standing hedges bordering the sidewalk.
she thought, flipping through her notes to confirm the address.
Bolstered by Chuck Laneer’s support the night before, she’d been going full tilt on the baby story since 6:00 a.m. When she woke, she’d texted Jenna Cooper for any news in the search for Caleb.
Jenna texted back.
Kate then called Frank Rivera for any developments on the case. Had the baby, any baby, been recovered? What about anyone bearing resemblance to the helpful strangers?
“Nothing new to report, Kate, sorry,” Rivera said.
“Hey, Frank, is it possible the baby was taken by this couple?”
A moment passed.
“You’re not going to quote me. We’re just talking, right?”
“Right, just talking.”
“Okay, well, anything’s possible, but I doubt it’s the case here.”
“People try to help people in times of chaos, and the storm has given us many stories like that. I think this one is just a very tragic one, and while I pray for a different outcome, I fear the baby and the Good Samaritans may be found miles from the flea market.”
Kate pondered Rivera’s comments then reasoned that her best bet for learning more about what had happened to Caleb, and the strangers, was to get an account from anyone who was there at the time.
She drove to the flea market.
Search-and-recovery work was ongoing. Access remained restricted. Kate was permitted to enter and returned to the wreckage of the Saddle Up Center, where she located Captain Vern Hamby and search-and-rescue team leader Steve Pawson. She pressed them for any information on the Cooper case.
No babies had been recovered so far from the center’s debris, and they’d found no one fitting the descriptions of the strangers, they said.
“I understand that you have maps,” Kate said, “floor plans that pinpoint where people were situated when the tornado hit, to help identify people.”
“That’s correct,” Hamby said.
“Can you help me locate a spot on the floor plan?” Kate unfolded a page of her notebook with a sketch she’d made based on Jenna Cooper telling her how she’d taken shelter with the strangers by four large concrete planters near a wall.
Hamby and Pawson checked the sketch against the center’s floor plan, which covered a worktable. Pawson touched a dirty, scraped finger to a corner of the plan.
“That would be here,” he said.
Kate looked at the plan.
“Which vendor was closest to that spot when the storm hit?”
Hamby scratched his chin.
“Big Rail World. They would’ve had the clearest view of that area.”
“Who’s the operator for Big Rail?”
“According to the public directory, Burl Heaton,” Pawson said.
“Did Burl Heaton survive?”
Pawson consulted his phone and Hamby opened a three-ring binder.
“Yes, he did,” Hamby said. “Got banged up a bit, but he’s okay.”
“Any idea where he is right now—hospital, shelter, home?”
“I think he went home with his son,” Pawson said.
Kate confirmed the spelling of Heaton’s name and looked up his address.
Now she was parked in front of his house in Balch Springs. She closed her notebook. The address was correct. This was the place.
She gathered her bag, walked up to his door and rang the bell, hoping against hope that Burl Heaton might get her closer to learning what happened to Caleb Cooper.
A white-haired woman in her sixties opened the door.
“Hello. I’m Kate Page, a reporter with Newslead. I called earlier.”
“Oh yes, come in. Burl! She’s here! Don’t worry about your shoes. This way.”
Thick outdated carpet covered the living room floor. Dark paneling covered the walls, which displayed family photos and a large painting of a freight train in the mountains. The coffee table was covered with paperwork, lists, photos, inventories and forms. Burl Heaton, aged seventy, was a retired brakeman who’d run a model railroad business at the flea market. He was assessing his losses and the toll, he told Kate.
His face was a net of abrasions. “I lost everything. About fifty thousand in product,” he said. “I got my arms skinned to the bone, got some bruised ribs, but I’m alive. Not like some of my friends. Not like— Sorry...”
He turned away and cried as his wife comforted him. In the quiet, Kate heard a man’s voice in the kitchen, talking about insurance on the phone.
Heaton brushed away his tears.
“In forty-nine years of railroading, I thought I’d seen a lot. I was in two derailments and one collision. But I cannot comprehend what I saw at the market. The building was torn apart, bodies flying like rag dolls, like the door to hell had been kicked open.”
Kate’s heart twisted as Heaton shook his head slowly until he found his composure and his way back from the horror to his living room.
“On the phone you said you needed help looking for someone?”
“Yes. I’m following the story of Jenna Cooper, whose baby was lost in the storm.”
Heaton glanced to his wife and said, “We heard a little bit about that on the news. She was at the Saddle Up. Terrible, just terrible.”
Kate cued up the photos she’d taken of Jenna on her phone and showed them to Heaton, to aid his memory.
“We think she passed by Big Rail to take shelter by the planters near your booth. I’m interested in knowing if you saw what happened there, especially with the two people who were helping her, a man and woman in their twenties.”
Kate described the mystery pair as Heaton looked at the pictures for several moments.
“No, she doesn’t look familiar. I don’t recall seeing her or these other people you’re talking about,” he said. “It was so crazy and everything happened so fast. A lot of people just stood there in shock, not believing what was happening. There was no place to go, nothing you could do.”
“What about Lance?” his wife asked and cocked an ear to the kitchen. “He was there with you. I think he’s done on the phone. Lance!”
A slender, unsmiling man in his thirties with bandages on his cheeks stood at the hallway entrance, listening to his mother explain Kate’s request. Without speaking, he took Kate’s phone and looked at the images intensely before shaking his head and passing the phone back to her.
Disappointed that her avenue of searching had dead-ended, she thanked the Heatons and stood to leave.
“Hang on.” Lance was busy with his phone. “I got something else. It came this morning. It may help you. Dolores Valdez runs the booth across from Dad’s, called These Boots. Her teenage son Tony sent me a recording he did of the center when the tornado hit. He wants to sell it to the TV people. Here it is. Watch.” Lance passed his phone to Kate.
She saw shaky video of people crowding inside the center amid the sounds of cracking, creaking and hammering. There, Kate glimpsed Big Rail, the forest of people, a flash of a baby stroller, Jenna’s profile, a fleeting image of Cassie’s head, and two adults with them, barely visible, navigating their way through the pack. The camera’s point of view shifted; some people crouched on the floor, shouting to others to get down. Some cried out as explosion after explosion sounded along with the shredding of metal by unbelievable winds. Debris swirled, a car landed inside, people were pulled into the air and tossed into darkness.
Then the footage went black.
Kate caught her breath and willed her heart to calm.
She asked Lance to replay the video, which ran for nearly five minutes. As she watched the second time, she realized there was no way of telling what had happened to Caleb and the strangers. The video cut away before it offered up any clues.
“Lance, can you give me Tony’s number? I’ll check with my desk, but Newslead might buy this from him and put it up on its website.”