Moonlight pierced through the windows of the Grier family home; casting shadows on the photographs that lined the living room walls. Generations of special milestones and precious moments captured the attention of every single guest, sparking a miniature history lesson that would entertain visitors for hours.
Gracie’s grandfather served in the First World War, and her father followed in his father’s footsteps, proudly serving in the second one. From her parents’ union, eight children entered the world, who later started families on their own. Once a single mother of five herself, Gracie and her sisters captured every championship, dance, graduation, and spelling bee before her husband Billy swooped in and swept Gracie off her feet. Now twenty years later, their sepia-colored wedding photo mimicked one taken years ago, symbolizing their timeless love story.
None of those memories comforted Gracie, however. It seemed as if the walls were bare. No photos. No flowers. No decorations. Only the window facing the front yard could reveal the image she longed to see; her son, Johnny Lee, treading through the grass with his illuminating smile.
With every light that shined through the window, and every leaf that rustled in the wind, Gracie’s heart fluttered but only for a moment. Slumping into the leather armchair near her post at the window, her eyes screamed for rest, yet her mind resisted. Ruminating over the worst-case scenario, her child being in harm’s way, Gracie asked God to silence her mind to help her faith stand strong in the midnight hour. Somewhere amid those thoughts, she lost track of the time. The ticks from the swinging pendulum clock right above Johnny Lee’s baby picture echoed throughout the night but Gracie remained undisturbed. The slow movement of her chest served as the only indicator of life still inhabiting her worn body.
The blinding sunlight pried Gracie’s eyes open, waking her from an uncomfortable sleep. All night she dreamed of being in an unfamiliar place, searching high and low and far and wide for something she had lost. Though she could sense the importance of this lost treasure, she never knew exactly what it was. Dull pains crept in, slowly reminding her of where she rested the night before. Her eyes surveying the room, she realized she had not awakened from a nightmare; she was living in one instead. The house was too still, too quiet. Johnny Lee never came home. Even if he had crept in while she slept soundly, she would have felt a warm peck from him on her cheek.
“Could he be hurt? Could he be in trouble? Could he be dead?” Pushing those troublesome thoughts to the back of her mind, Gracie dashed for the phone desperately searching for even a glimmer of hope.
With practically the entire community searching frantically day and night for her beloved son Johnny Lee, Gracie still couldn’t shake her haunting feelings of dread. Deep down in her heart of hearts, she wanted more than anything to see her second eldest son dance through the front door belting out a Frankie Beverly song from the top of his lungs and flashing his thousand-watt smile. She dreamed of him pulling her petite frame into a big bear hug and planting a sweet kiss on her forehead–the same way he always did. Her soul, however, was telling her something completely different this time. Now, three whole days and nights have passed, and no one had seen or heard from him since. It was not like him to just up and disappear out of the blue without telling anyone where he was going. This was not in his character. The truth was, none of her kids were raised to behave that way.
As soon as her children were old enough to remember, they understood the importance of family, manners, and respect. Every night they shared the happenings of their day while filling their bodies with a nourishing southern meal prepared by Gracie’s hands. They sealed even the simple requests with “please” and “thank you” and honored their elders with “ma’am” and “sir”. More importantly, they respected one another. Gracie created a safe space in their home where no issue could go undiscussed and reminded them that they would always have each other even when the outside world rejected them.
Although Johnny Lee was relatively small in stature, he always prided himself as the big brother and protector of his sisters, brothers, and even cousins. He strutted with his chest slightly puffed out as he escorted his sisters to school every morning before going to work; and back home afterwards. He never met a stranger and easily became the center of attention–especially among the womenfolk. Gracie could rarely remember an instance when he wasn’t laughing, joking, or loving on people. Now, with his sudden disappearance and with no one in town having seen him anywhere and supposedly no knowledge of his whereabouts, worry rushed in like a crashing wave. Just the thought of her son meeting some terrible misfortune pulled her into a deep sea of despair.
Since the morning after Johnny Lee’s disappearance, visitors flooded in both day and night. Some neighbors and family members organized their own search teams, while others camped out at the Grier residence busying themselves in the kitchen or covering the family in prayers. Though grateful to see their eager faces, Gracie knew they could never replace Johnny Lee. Each day she forced a smile while silently screaming on the inside.
With another long and worrisome night approaching, her husband Billy finally convinced her to check the local and surrounding hospitals, as well as the county jail. His statuesque frame carried a bushy head of salt and peppered hair, a matching beard, and kind eyes. Known for his soothing disposition, Billy had the loyal yin to Gracie’s yang, and was the entire family’s rock for more than twenty years. Gracie, his beautiful wife and the mother of Johnny Lee and five of his siblings, was only a fraction of her husband’s size. Her angelic voice hardly ever rose above a loud whisper. Whatever the Griers lacked in affluence, their close-nit family compensated for it with an abundance of love. But, if someone ever bothered or harmed one of them or any of their friends, they’d have to reckon with all of them.
Equal amounts of anger and fear about Johnny Lee being missing shrouded and heightened the fear in the African American community. For the most part, racial relations had been good around the county within the last ten years or so, but Johnny Lee’s disappearance didn’t sit right with anyone. Because of the unfounded whispers and rumors of Johnny Lee’s secret courtship with Sheriff Stoner’s daughter Francine, some strongly believed it was possible he may have fallen victim to some seriously violent hate crime. Although racial relations around town had improved somewhat, interracial dating was a huge no-no. It was still considered taboo and extremely dangerous. In 1983, black recording artists like Michael Jackson and Prince were finally allowed to share their videos on the same platform as their white musical counterparts. Yet, folks all across the country, black and white, knew all too well the danger and potential violence interracial coupling then could bring.
Her heart feeling like it could leap out of her chest, Gracie dragged her finger across the dial pad, trembling as she pressed each number. Each ring pushed her to pray harder, so much so that she didn’t realize the rings had been replaced with an older woman’s voice. After a lengthy hold, the receptionist transferred Gracie to another department at the county hospital where she was placed on hold yet again. Upon bidding the hospital staff farewell, she repeated the same steps for hospitals in their neighboring counties before contacting the county jail. The call wait this time was much longer, and the staff less tolerable. Gracie slid the phone away from her ear at least twice but convinced herself to wait for her dear Johnny Lee’s sake. She released all of the air trapped in her lungs upon learning no one fitting Johnny Lee’s description occupied any of the hospital rooms or jail cells. However, terrible and morbid thoughts still filled her gut and weighed heavily on her spirit.
“What if he’s somewhere hurting and unable to call anyone for help? What if he’s being held against his will? You pray and hope to God you’re wrong, but you can feel it in your heart when something’s not right and that your child may have met with some serious danger.”
Gracie gently nestled the phone back into the receiver, her mind in a daze. Even Billy’s shadow towering over her failed to shake her trance. Only when she motioned to lift herself from the kitchen table did his presence startle her. Billy stood there silently. As the pounding in her chest quieted, she slowly nodded her head, answering the question in Billy’s eyes. Gracie buried her face into his husky chest and melted with each stroke of his firm hand, sobbing as he caressed her soft curls.
Lying in bed with Billy that night, tossing and turning with seemingly no possible chance of sleeping, Gracie turned to her adoring husband. She wrestled with the words attempting to take form. Each passing hour birthed more distressing thoughts, pouring down on her like a thunderstorm. She knew the rain would never let up until she saw her son’s face again, whether he was dead or alive.
Her dainty hands rested on Billy’s broad shoulders. “I guess I’m going to have Jeannie call the morgue tomorrow morning. I just pray to God that he won’t be there, but my soul is telling me a different story.” She gasped, her voice breaking. “This whole thing isn’t making any sense to me; something just isn’t right. I know my child–he would never just up and leave without telling us. You know how much he looked forward to going to work every morning with you for Mr. Simmons. Please Lord, please don’t let me be right–don’t let this nightmare be real!”
Wiping away his wife’s tears, Billy enclosed her tiny trembling hands into his huge palms. She drew closer to him, following the direction of his pull. His lips pressed gently on her forehead. “Baby, we just have to put our complete faith and trust in God. But before we even call the morgue, let’s file a missing person report with the sheriff’s department first.”
“Okay, let’s do that”, her soft voice quivered. “I just want my sweet son to come home. I desperately need to see that bright smile and feel another one of his warm hugs again.” She lifted her head, her voice deepening. “I’ve told him a thousand times to stop hanging around and being seen around town with those white folks, especially with that girl Francine. He’s just always been naive to a fault, thinking those white folks he sometimes hangs around are his friends.”
“I just never saw anything good come from him being around them. If we know about him dating that white girl, I’m sure other white folks know it as well. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a real sweet girl and all, but to me, the danger that comes from being with her isn’t worth risking your life for.”
Billy patted Gracie’s shoulders, rocking her like a newborn child.
“Just close your eyes and try to get some rest now, baby. The morning light will be here before you know it. Hopefully, we’ll sort out everything and get some answers then. I refuse to believe anything bad has happened to our boy.” He lifted her chin. “You remember when we thought your cousin Sarah had disappeared that time and then called a month later saying she moved to Savannah? There’s a chance it could be something like that.”
“You think so?” Her glassy eyes searched his for answers.
“Yeah. I think I’m going to sit up for a spell and make a few more calls to see if anyone has seen or heard from him. Good night, sweetheart.”
She sighed. “I’d love to find out it’s only something like that. Good night, babe.”
Billy positioned himself at the door and watched Gracie as she nestled into her favorite spot on the bed–the right side. He pulled the door closed, quietly wiping away tears of his own.