Chapter 4—Friday, Arkansas Ozarks
For what seemed like ages but was in fact only three hours, the truck climbed through trees displaying tiny new pale green leaves, around sharp curves, across narrow bridges spanning streams bubbling out of the rocks with spring-thaw fullness.
Cheerful surroundings failed to elevate Jake’s mood. Austin, tired and pale, stared out of the side window, occasionally asking Jake if they might be driving in circles. Indeed, Jake thought, since daylight first peeked tentatively through the rising mist, the roadside scenery he’d been watching zip past his window, down to the trees and rocks, appeared much the same.
“Are we going up or down?” Austin asked, his voice a dry squeak.
“Both. Mostly up, but sometimes we go down a little. Eventually, when we find the place I’m looking for, we’ll be clear on the other side of this mountain.”
He mentally patted himself on the back for having left the trailer behind. On a tight S curve he could imagine the trailer and tractor heading off in opposite directions. The slightest miscalculation on one of these switchbacks would send them crashing through the sturdiest guardrail to the bottom of the valley. Here there wasn’t even a shoulder, never mind a guardrail.
Turkey vultures wheeled and turned overhead in haphazard circles, lending a surreal touch. As much as morbid curiosity tempted him, he didn’t dare peer down into the hollows to look for truck carcasses as evidence of some poor fools who had allowed their eyes to wander from the road.
“Are we really in the mountains?” Austin was wide-eyed now.
“Sorta. Ozarks are like small mountains.” It didn’t seem like the right time to explain the difference between mountains like the Smokies and valleys dug deep into elevated planes the way the Ozarks were formed.
Although Jake had tried various approaches to persuading Austin to tell him where he lived, he had been unsuccessful. Evidently still offended by what he perceived as Jake’s outburst when he emerged from the back of the cab, he couldn’t be talked into parting with much useful information.
At first he figured he’d scared the kid, but soon realized that this boy didn’t scare easily. He obviously watched too much TV. It seemed Austin didn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. He probably saw himself as some cartoon super-hero. Jake decided to try again.
“So, kid, do you have mountains where you live?”
“Of course not!”
“Well, don’t have a bird. I don’t know anything about where you live. You might have mountains; you might have a desert…how am I supposed to know? So do you? Live in the desert, I mean?”
Austin looked at him with disgust. “I know what you’re doing. I’m not telling you where I live. I already told you my name, and that’s all I’m telling. I’m Austin David Page. I’m a biotechnicoid boy, and I can live anywhere I want to. Right now I live in your truck. And I’m hungry!”
“Like thunder you live in my truck! You’re a stowaway, and you’re going back to your family as soon as we figure out how to accomplish that little trick without me landing in jail. We’re almost there and you can wait to eat until then. Now, if you won’t tell me where you live, at least tell me where you and your family were headed.”
Austin pressed his lips tightly closed and made the motions of locking them. He pressed the electronic button, opened his window a crack and pretended to throw his make-believe key out of the window.
“Are you sure you crawled out of your car? I can’t help wondering if your family might have dumped you out and drove away. As aggravating as you are, they probably don’t even want you back.”
Jake didn’t want to scare him, not that he was too worried about that unlikely possibility, and didn’t really want to make him feel bad, but he thought a little reverse psychology might coax some information out of him. The direct approach sure hadn’t worked.
Austin glared at him, blinking back tears welling up, his eyes becoming red-rimmed. Still he didn’t speak, and went back to staring out the window with his lips clamped shut.
“All right. There it is.”
Jake heaved a sigh of relief. He never would have tried it if he hadn’t trusted his memory and innate sense of direction for places he had visited. Even at that, there were times in the last thirty minutes when he wasn’t a hundred percent sure he was on the right road. He had only been here other time. He had gone through several bad moments when he tried to find a half-remembered landmark, and it wasn’t exactly as he remembered it. The roads here all looked pretty much the same. Because of the sharpness and frequency of the curves, and the trees bordering the road, he couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead. The truck compass, of course, was useless.
Now though, he was sure. Here was the one-lane bridge he had been looking for, and an unpaved road to the right. The bridge spanned a narrow wash, usually dry except for now, in the spring. Yes! There was the troll painting on the middle post. “A droll troll,” she had called it.
He shook his head as if to shake loose parts into place. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he grumbled to himself. “Now I know I’m crazy for sure.”
As he crossed the bridge, made a sharp turn and proceeded along tire tracks through weeds that constituted the road, Jake thanked the powers that be that he hadn’t seen even one other vehicle for the last two hours.
He shifted down again; the truck growling its way up a short, steep grade into dense woods thickly leafed out in lush new foliage. The branches alongside squealed as they scratched the sides of the cab. Jake grimaced. He wouldn’t be able to keep a custom paint job on it if he were locked up, either, he supposed. Guessed that was some consolation.
He instinctively ducked his head as low branches scraped the top of the truck.
The thick foliage so effectively shut out the sun that the indicator on the instrument panel flashed ‘Headlamps Suggested.’
“Okay kid. Hang on now.”
They had reached a small clearing, and on the other side of it, a rocky, hardpan path up to the peak and another thick stand of oaks.
Austin’s eyes opened even wider. At last he broke his self-imposed silence.
“Yikes! Can this truck go straight up like that? Aren’t we going to tip over backwards?” He brought his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.
Jake pulled his sunglasses down his nose a bit and looked over them at Austin. He smiled. Cute little dickens.
“So, hotshot! The biotechnicoid boy can’t handle steep inclines? Watch this, Austin David Page. Big Blue is going to climb that thing like a monkey shinnies up a tree.”
He pushed his sunglasses back in place with his forefinger and shifted down once more for a steep, bumpy ride, slow and steady. About a mile along, the path grew narrower and the outside tires sent loose rocks tumbling down into the valley. No road markers warned about the degree of incline, but it seemed as steep as anything he had ever run into—nothing a sane person would try without a four-wheel drive. Oh, well. Since sane wasn’t a word anybody had applied to him lately…
For another half mile the main path continued upward to the peak, but Jake found a narrow alley, again through a dense stand of trees, turned left, beginning a short descent, bringing the truck to rest at last alongside a long, low barn-like structure, under a canopy of mature oaks.
Jake took a deep breath and turned off the engine.
He sat back, took off his cap, and exhaled for what seemed like the first time in twelve hours. He turned to see how Austin had fared the ride, and noticed he had already managed to release his seat belt and was on his knees on the floor of the sleeper unit. Was the boy praying, Jake wondered, then noticed he had opened the little refrigerator and was foraging around inside.
“You that hungry? Hang on for another few minutes. We’ll see if we can find you something decent to eat.”
Austin climbed back onto the seat, wiggling while he prattled.
“Yikes, Mister, I sure never was up so high under trees before, and that last road, you must have a biotechnicoid truck, Mister!”
Austin slid off the seat again and stood as close to the windshield as he could.
They both looked around, taking in the weathered wood barn they were next to, peering through the leafy canopy over them at a cabin and three smaller buildings. The cabin looked like something in a storybook, its logs dark and gleaming and separated by chalk-white chinking.
A reluctant nod to modern technology, a satellite dish raised its concave face to receive incoming sine waves.
As their eyes adjusted to the deep shadows, the weary travelers watched a tall, elderly couple emerge from the front door and stride toward the stairs leading off their porch. Jake stepped down from the truck and Austin followed him, grabbing Jake’s belt as soon as he hit the ground, and pulled himself behind his new hero.
Jake cranked his neck around, partly to loosen muscles taut from hours of tension, partly to look for a cell tower. He didn’t see any. He checked his cell phone. “No Service.” He shut it off and slid it onto the dashboard pocket.
“Well, here goes. In a minute I’ll know if I’ve screwed everything up beyond fixing—again—or if there’s a way out of it. No way that old man is going to beat around the bush. The old lady, either. They haven’t shot at us yet. I take that for a good sign.”