As Mack catches his breath, he suddenly remembers Missy had been up at the campsite coloring. But when he goes to find her, she isn’t there. At first, Mack hopes she is somewhere close by. But as the Madisons and Ducettes help him search further and further from the campsite, he begins to panic. He begins praying and making promises to God in hopes that she might be close. Surely, he thinks, God will know where Missy is.
Mack starts making promises to God because he believes that god expects sacrifice from him in order to avert tragedies, just like in his telling of the stories of Jesus or the Multnomah princess. Mack believes that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, but will only intervene on Mack’s behalf if he offers something in return. Mack’s relationship with God is predicated on an exchange: like many, Mack believes that God will help him if he offers up prayers or promises in return.
As the search spreads out to the whole camp grounds, one camper tells Mack that he saw a little girl in a red dress in the back of a green truck leaving the campsite. She had been crying, and a man pushed her down. Mack and his friends hail the police and, over the next few hours, the search escalates. The FBI get involved and Nan begins making her way to the campsite.
Even though Mack associates the good and bad in his life with the will of God, Missy’s kidnapping is clearly the work of a person choosing to commit evil. In this horrible time, Mack turns to his relationship with his wife Nan for strength.
Officers ask Mack to look back over the campsite to see if he notices anything amiss. He sees a ladybug pin sticking out of the book, which he is sure doesn’t belong to Missy. Officer Tommy Dalton phones the FBI field office in Portland, where an Officer asks him about the pin. Mack insists on listening in. After hearing a description of the pin from Officer Dalton, the FBI officer says that the pin matches the description of the trademark of a serial killer known as “Little Ladykiller.” He has abducted and killed four children under the age of ten; the five dots on the ladybug pin indicated that Missy might be his fifth victim. Listening in, Mack is awash with horror and despair, thinking of all the memories of his little daughter and wondering how something like this could happen.
Mack’s worldview is predicated on his belief that all evil exist because God wills it or allows it. So when he hears about the horrible atrocities committed by the serial killer, he doesn’t understand why or how such a person could exist. Mack sees evil as originating from God, so its existence and presence in his life is especially horrible, because it suggests that God intentionally caused him harm. He does not see evil acts like those committed by the serial killer as working against God’s plan, because his understanding of an all-powerful God means it must be part of God’s plan.
That evening, Nan arrives at the nearby hotel where the family is waiting and officers have set up a temporary headquarters. The couple tearfully embraces and spend a restless night waiting in vain for news. Everything feels meaningless and gray. The next day, Nan and the kids prepare to head home, while Mack prepares to stay close by with investigators.
Already, Mack’s overwhelming grief, which takes the form of a constant numbness, has begun to set in. Mack’s grief portects him by keeping him from having to face the enormity of his loss, but it also turns the world into a monochromatic, pointless place.
The Madisons and Ducettes both work to comfort the family and help in any way they can. Everyone parts tearfully. They feel shaken and bonded by the shared traumatic experience of Missy’s disappearance and promise to pray for her return.
Even though negative emotions can be traumatic and difficult, sharing them and processing them with others can bring people closer together, even in the darkest times. The book suggests that this is one of the benefits of having open, honest relationships, and one of the unexpected positive outcomes of sharing difficult emotions.
FBI Officers, including Sam, who had identified the ladybug pin over the phone, arrive at the site. Sam and Mack take a liking to one another. Sam questions Mack about the past few days, asking if he had seen anyone suspicious or had noticed a truck matching the description of the one that Missy was spotted in. Feeling helpless, Mack says he hadn’t noticed anything.
Even in the midst of the pain and stress of Missy’s disappearance, Mack is bolstered by the kindness of a stranger, Sam. These interactions show the importance of accepting help and support from others.
That evening, the officers get word that some hikers saw a vehicle matching the truck’s description near a national forest. Inside, a suspicious looking man with a low hat had leaned down to avoid being seen. After some debate, the officers unanimously agree to set out in pursuit. Their intense attitudes seem to reflect a universal belief in the innocence of children and the horror of crimes against them. Setting out with Tommy, Mack prays to God to keep Missy safe.
The fact that everyone present seems to immediately and instinctually agree that children are sacred and crimes against them are heinous suggests that Missy’s kidnapper is choosing to perform a universally acknowledged evil, in contradiction to a natural or God-ordered system of justice. In other words, Missy’s kidnapper must have strayed from God’s plan for the world to commit an act that everyone agrees is evil. Mack again demonstrates his belief that God will intervene to stop bad things from happening if he offers up sacrifice in return. Mack hopes that God will help him, which means he will also feel abandoned if God does not.
Over the next few hours, Mack joins the FBI officers as they canvass the woods near where the truck had been spotted. Close to dawn, one officer finds a green paint-splattered hubcap, and then, the truck, hidden down a side road under a lean-to of tree limbs and brush. Deeper in the woods, police dogs find an old two-room shack that had once belonged to a settler. Sam asks Mack to identify something they’ve found in the shack. Bolstered by Tommy on one side and Emil Ducette on the other, Mack walks to the shack. When he sees what Sam wanted him to identify, he breaks down immediately: it is missy’s red dress, torn and blood-soaked.
The kindness of Tommy, Emil, and others shows the capacity of love and relationships to help ease suffering even in the worst times. And yet Mack’s breakdown makes clear that even such support cannot totally alleviate intense pain.
Over the next three and a half years, the family struggles to return to some semblance of normalcy, especially Kate, who has retreated behind a wall, and Mack, who blames himself for the tragedy. Missy’s body has never been recovered, but she is presumed dead. Mack feels a growing sense of separation from God.
Kate and Mack have both been consumed by their grief, and, in different ways, are stuck on the tragedy that rocked the family years ago, unable to move on or experience more positive emotions because of their guilt and sadness. Because he believed God would save him from the tragedy of Missy’s loss, and God did not, Mack now feels that God has abandoned him and does not care about him.
Now, Mack reflects on the note in the mailbox. It feels like a cruel joke that God would ask him to meet at the shack, the epicenter of the painful memory. And receiving a note from God also clashed with Mack’s theological understanding, which held that God could only be encountered through highly mediated scriptures. At the same time, Mack knows that simply attending church isn’t working for him anymore. He wants more.
Mack believes it would be impossible for him to receive a note from God because of some assumptions he has about faith and his relationship to God. First of all, Mack believes that God is far removed from the daily struggles of people like him, and that it is foolish to believe God would reach out to him personally. Second, Mack believes that his relationship to God is defined by and exists only within the confines of the formal church.