In life, there are so many doors to choose from. There are the doors that keep us out, the doors that let us in. There are the doors that open to the dreams we only glimpse when our hearts ache for happier times.
Doors that open to warmth, welcome, love.
Doors that close and bring cold, uncertainty, pain, loss.
The chapters of any life path can be determined not so much by what your doors keep out, but with what you have the strength to let in.
Mike turns out to be a God send. He's not only efficient, disciplined, and highly organized, he has an intensity that keeps both of them going long after they're both exhausted.
Mike doesn't have an ounce of quit in him.
On the second day that Mike joins Jared's search for Jenna, (the thirteenth day she's been missing) he packs them both supplies, GPS, maps, and they continue searching.
They continue searching on the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth days.
And the seventeenth, which somehow turns into the twenty-fifth day.
They plot out their course each day, waking at 5 a.m. and searching until almost midnight each day.
At first, Jared merely tolerates Mike's presence. After their fourth day of searching together (and two weeks since she's been gone) he's grateful for Mike, not just for his help, but his unwavering conviction that they will find her.
Their shared belief that she's alive, the days they both spend searching, their combined exhaustion, all of these factors are enough to make them friends.
It's a Sunday.
Jared has pushed this date back in his mind. He's refused to think about it (or so he tells himself). It's the kind of thought that creeps in at every opportunity. It's the sore place in his heart that his mind just can't leave alone so it will heal.
It's the thought that has nagged him out of sleep, that has ate at him, this is the thought that his frantic mind has worried over, lost sleep over, and it's the thought that urges him on, when he's too exhausted to see.
Today is Jenna's birthday.
By mutual decision, Mike and Jared have both decided that this is their day of the week to rest.
Neither of them mention the significance of the date, but it's at the top of both of their minds.
Mike invites Jared over to his parents house, Jenna was close to both of them, (Mama C and Daddy G, Jared thinks) and they were family to her.
He wants to go, because that's what Jenna would've wanted, but at the same time he doesn't want to see anyone. He wants to sit here in this house, he wants Jenna to come home, he wants to tell her he loves her, and he wants to never let her out of arms reach.
He tries getting up, then sits back down.
He stands up again, walks over to the radio, and turns it on. He's dialing through the stations, when he hears a knock at the front door.
Standing outside is Mike's mother. Otherwise known as Mama C.
Jared manages a half-hearted smile, and invites her in.
Before he realizes what's going on, she's marching him towards the door, then towards her car, and telling him that she's taking him to her house for Sunday dinner. This 5'1 woman is marching his 6'4 frame out the door as if he was a wayward eleven year old.
Before he knows it, he's buckled into her passenger seat, and they're on their way to her house.
On the drive over, she tells him, "Sugar, she wouldn't want you to be alone. And she's not here to celebrate her birthday. Trying to forget it isn't going to help, either. We're going to celebrate her birthday for her, since she can't. You know that's what she would want."
Hearing her say the words that he's been dreading, Jared nods. He clenches his jaw, and looks out the window, determined not to cry. He blinks back the tears that are scalding his eyes, just barely, then he manages to say, "Okay."
At the farmhouse, Jared and Daddy G are standing on the front porch. Mike hands Jared a beer as soon as he walks up, and Jared murmurs a quiet thank you.
Mama C ushers them all into the living room, and tells them that her birthday present to Jenna is this old video Jenna found.
The original video was too badly damaged to play, but Mama C was persistent. She found a place that salvaged the video, and converted it to DVD.
She was telling this story, even as she lowered the lights, and started the DVD player.
On the tv screen, Jared could see baby Jenna. He saw her big brown eyes. Her hair in soft curls, that bounced brightly, as she ran after a dog.
The way she threw back her head, even as a toddler, and laughed with her whole body. He sat there, his heart beating so loudly, he was sure they could all hear it.
He saw her, his love, at the beginning of her life. He saw even then, just how beautiful she'd always been. She was perfect, and good, and true.
She was the kind of person that you couldn't help but like, after meeting her, and the kind of person that you couldn't help but love after knowing her.
And she wasn't here.
She wasn't here to see how much everyone loved her. Jared felt his chest hitch, and something that had been squeezing his heart tore loose. He got up, determined to try to hide his tears, when he ran into Mama C. She pulled him close gently, whispered, "Shhh, sugar. It's okay. Shhhh. You don't have to hide your tears with us."
He wrapped his arms around her, cried soundlessly. The tears poured out of him, and he felt the hot tears wetting her shirt.
Her calm, cool hands soothed him, and after a few minutes the worst had passed. He looked down at his feet, embarrassed, until he saw Mike and Daddy G, both with suspiciously wet eyes.
Mama C took Jared's hand, and sat him beside her at the dinner table.
Around the dinner table, it's a glum affair. Everyone is picking at their food, until Daddy G says, "Did I ever tell you about the time Jenna helped me haul hay?"
Jared raised his heard at that, exchanging looks with Mike. Neither one of them had heard this story.
Daddy G continued on, "Yep, It was the summer Mike went down to Ft. Benning to do his basic training. I had the hay baled, and I was looking for some hands. Jenna was here with Cathy, they were making some Sangria, and --"
That's when Mike interrupted him. "Mom! You drank sangria?" Cathy (Mama C, Jared thought) blushed. "Well, Jenna wanted me to try it. It didn't taste like any alcohol I ever had, and it was good," she added defensively. "It made my face warm, and it made me giggle," she said, winking at Daddy G.
He grinned back at her, and then continued on, as if the interruption never occurred.
"Jenna heard me making my phone calls, and she told me she'd help me."
"'Course, I asked her if she had any experience hauling hay, and she just laughed at me. 'Daddy G, I grew up on a farm, she said." "And that was that. I told her to be ready around 4 a.m. and we'd just haul us some hay." He took a drink of his coffee, his eyes wistful, amused.
"When I went to pick her up, she was wearing overalls, had her hair tied up in a bandanna, like some kind of a gangster, and she was wearing a tank top."
Mike, and both of his parents burst out laughing at this last little bit. Daddy G looked at Jared, "Anyone who's ever hauled hay knows that you want long sleeves," he explained. Jared grinned, thinking of Jenna and the way she would help in any way she could. She probably knew that Daddy G would never let her help, especially knowing she'd never hauled hay before. She also knew that he needed her help.
Jared found himself grinning, even as tears burned in his eyes.
When someone like that is in your life, you get used to having them around so much, that if they leave, it gets you in a thousand different ways. Just when you think you've braced yourself, it hits you again.
When Jared looked up from his hands, Daddy G was watching him. Jared could see him waiting to go on. Jared nodded to Daddy G, and he continued.
"She'd said to me 'Daddy G, I grew up on a farm', not 'Daddy G I've hauled hay before," Daddy G grinned at Jared, and Jared shook his head, laughing.
"I told her, 'you're gonna need something to cover your arms, sis, or that hay's gonna rash you up."
"She got herself into some long sleeves, and she brought out a thermos of coffee for me, and some of those bull drinks. Red bulls, I think she called 'em. She gave me one, but it just tasted like cough syrup mixed with sprite," he grimaced. "When we finally got to the hundred acres, I tried to talk her into driving the truck while I stacked the hay."
He paused, for effect. "But you know how she is. She insisted on me driving," he laughed. "She actually did a bang-up job. Once she'd made her mind up to be good at something, she just was," he recalled fondly.
"In fact, she had me convinced that she might've hauled some hay before."
"Anyway, it was about noon, and we'd gotten all that hay put up in the barn. I remember looking back at Jenna, when I turned around, I saw her just fall backwards off the truck."
"I ran around to see if she was okay, and she was jut laying there. She'd managed to get herself heatstroke."
"When she came around," his eyes gleamed mischievously, "She said to me 'Daddy G, I wasn't meant to be a fucking farmer."
Jared and Mike broke up laughing at the same time. Mama C tried to hold out, but she ended up laughing until tears spurted from the corners of her eyes.
A few times, Jared tried to guilt himself into feeling bad, but Mama C was right there to nudge him. Once she even said, "Jared, you know she'd want you to celebrate her birthday for her, since she's not able. She'd be mad at you for feeling guilty." Jared nodded, and Mama C hugged him close.
As the night wrapped up, Jared found himself feelig warm for the first time since Jenna went missing.
For the first time, he felt a part of himself relax. For the first time in twenty-seven days, he could breathe.
Even though he couldn't see her, he wished with all his heart that she knew just what she meant to him.
He wished for her to somehow break free of where ever she was, to find him, to find her way home.
With that wish firmly in his mind as he drifted off, he fell asleep.
Jared's wish didn't come true on Jenna's birthday.
It happened two days later.