Monday Morning in the Ozarks
Monday morning in the Ozark Mountains sparkled and rang with birdsong and bubbling stream. Jake stood on the porch and inhaled the earthy smell of newly turned soil and the youthful promise of budding trees haloed in misty green. Limbering up and filling his lungs with clean air, he stretched his arms over his head and to both sides, welcoming the day with pleasure.
Funny, he mused. I sure feel different than when I stood here Friday morning. Hard to believe it’s only been three days. Not that I’ll ever forget a minute of Friday or any of the hours since then.
Jake had been absurdly comforted, considering the circumstances, just being here, seeing them again. He smiled to himself, remembering when Austin first met Poppy.
They had been traveling for hours, and by the time they arrived at the cabin high in the Ozarks, Jake knew he had made another bad decision but was at a loss to know how to go about correcting it. His brain felt like hot, wet sludge and Austin was pale and hungry. He stood beside the truck looking across the yard at the unsmiling faces of Poppy and Kate. He took a deep breath. Too late to change his mind now. He reached around and picked up a trembling Austin, swinging him up on his shoulders. It felt good.
He could sense tension in the way the boy pressed his knees against Jake’s neck.
“It’ll be okay, son. They aren’t going to eat us or anything,” he said. “These are good people and I’m pretty sure they’ll help us figure out what to do next.”
Poor kid. Even if he is a brat. He’s only a little boy; too young to understand what a huge mess he’s made by stowing away with me.
Reaching the porch steps Friday morning, Jake had knelt down to let Austin slide off his shoulders and stand on the top stair. He reached out his hand.
“Jake.” Poppy acknowledged his visitors with a nod and grabbed Jake’s hand.
“Poppy, this is Austin David Page, a biotechnicoid boy who can’t remember where he lives.”
“Austin, this is Mr. Peter VanderLeiden and Mrs. Katherina VanderLeiden. Shake hands, son.”
Poppy grasped Austin’s tentatively proffered fist in both of his own callused hands.
“You can skip all that ‘Mister and Mrs.’ stuff,’ boy. You just call me Poppy like Jake does, and I believe you can call this old sweetheart ‘Kate,’ like we all do. That all right with you, Kate?”
Kate stepped forward and knelt down, eyes level with Austin’s, and wrapped her arms around him as if she’d been waiting for him all morning. Austin hugged her back. When she straightened up and smoothed her apron with one hand she kept her other hand clamped around one of Austin’s dirty fists.
“Now you c’mon inside and get washed up,” she said. “You look like you could stand something decent to eat and a long nap. What’s Jake been feeding you? Probably a bunch of candy bars to rot your teeth and stunt your growth.”
She looked at him over the top of her glasses and sniffed, “A bath for you is definitely the first order of the day.”
Austin looked back at Jake with something like hope in his eyes, needing Jake’s okay to follow her inside.
When Jake gave him thumbs up, Austin happily disappeared inside the cabin.
That left Poppy and Jake alone on the porch. They both stood, each man looking at his own boots for a while, suffering a severe attack of masculinity evidenced as the inability to wrap spoken word around thought for the purpose of communication.
It had been hours since Jake had heard anything that didn’t have his truck engine’s purr in the background.
Now his ears tuned in on an Ozark morning in full concert. Bird songs unfamiliar to him sang counterpoint to the low grunts and chuckles of farm animals.
He remembered learning how Poppy and Kate tried to be as self-sustaining as they could be, and raised a little bit of everything animal and vegetable for their own provisions. The breeze wafted through pear and apple trees as well as oak, hickory and maple.
He could see rows barely peaking through the earth in a thirty-foot square clearing on the south slope of the property. They would eat fresh vegetables from this garden in the summer, and then freeze and can the rest. Their harvest would last through the winter and into the next summer when the new crop came in.
VanderLeidens, ecologically conscious all of their lives together, composted all vegetable waste. Combined and systematically turned with manure accumulated from their small collection of livestock, this rich compost fertilized their gardens.
In Jake’s opinion, Kate qualified as a gourmet cook. Every meal consisted of some kind of meat with potatoes or pasta and wonderful homemade bread. His mouth watered as he thought of Austin in the kitchen, Kate buzzing around him like a kindly bee, making sure that he had plenty of whatever he wanted to eat. The kid probably wouldn’t have a chance to talk even if he would decide to be more forthcoming with Kate more than he had been with Jake.
“We sure could use some rain,” The old man finally found his voice and moved toward one of the high-backed rocking chairs, motioning Jake to sit in the other, identical rocker. Even the seat pads were exactly alike. “But it doesn’t look to me as if we’re going to be getting a drop,” he continued.
The two men still didn’t look at each other.
“Funny thing with farmers. If it isn’t too dry it’s too wet, and if it’s just right and the crops are good they worry about it being hard on the machinery. Kate says they aren’t happy unless they can complain about the weather, one way or the other.” He chuckled dryly. “She says God provides some bad weather so people who like to complain have a good day now and then, too.”
Jake looked at the azure blue sky and didn’t see a single cloud.
As long as I’m checking out the sky I might as well make sure the truck can’t be seen from overhead, he thought. Once they figure out what happened they’re sure to send choppers to try to find it—and me.
Poppy ran his hand over his thinning salt-and-pepper hair and cleared his throat.
“When do you think you might be able to let us in on what’s going on, here, Jake? That’s not Joey. He’s no kin of yours; anybody can plainly see that. And you’re tied up tighter than a coiled rattler. Why in the name of all that’s right and holy is that boy with you?”
Jake didn’t know where to start. He hadn’t slept for thirty-six hours, and what happened during the darkest hours of last night didn’t seem real. He felt like an actor in a television show written by a drunken screenwriter who hadn’t bothered to give him lines for this next scene.
He leaned over in his rocker, elbows on knees, chin on clenched fists, staring into the woods. He watched a female cardinal scratching around in the undergrowth, looking for seeds, probably, and finding material for her nest. It was spring; time for birds to build nests and start families. Even birds have families, he thought.
“Y’know, Poppy, when I think about how fiercely mother animals protect their young—like, I remember one time when we were kids on the farm and my Dad couldn’t find one of the cows. He knew that ornery Holstein was going to have a calf any time, and he really wanted her locked on the barnyard because he knew. He knew. And sure as shootin’, that old cow dropped her calf in the pasture. She birthed it okay, the calf was healthy and spunky, but man, there was no getting near mama cow to take her baby away for weaning. She was one of the best milkers, and Dad needed to separate her from the calf. You’d think she was a wild bull, the way she charged at Dad when he tried to coax her back to the barn.”
For a moment he struggled for control and failed. He stared at his feet, idly noting the trail made by a couple of tears sliding down his dusty boot.
“I guess I can understand why Barbara went so crazy when she gave Joey a bath and saw all those bruises. She’s a good mother, or at least I used to think she was. But how could she believe I’d do that? Didn’t she know me any better than that? I love my kids as much as she does, more than I love my own life.”
Poppy just listened, nodding.
Jake had to talk it out, to hear himself try to make sense of it.
“The worst part is, somebody was pounding on him. Somebody was beating my son and everybody thinks I’m the one! And now this! Nobody, nobody is going to believe I didn’t take this little boy with malicious intentions.” Jake stood up abruptly, knocking his rocking chair over sideways and kicking it for good measure.
Leaning against a porch pillar it all caught up with him, the whole night of driving scared, of worrying about his uninvited passenger, of worrying if Joey was still being hurt, of remembering the trial and Barbara’s stony face when she told him he got off too easy with three years probation. As far as she was concerned, she had told him, she wouldn’t have minded if he’d been given the death penalty. She had agreed to the plea only because she had been afraid the support checks might be smaller with him in prison instead of out on the road hauling loads. A sorrowful groan rose from his gut, “Aaaaarrggh!”
“Are you crying, Mr. Jake?” Austin asked, freshly scrubbed, his cheeks glowing pink. He looked up into the unhappy face of his hero. “It will be O-kay! See, I’ll tell my Daddy what a good driver you are and how you let me use your potty, and you wouldn’t let me eat your M&Ms ‘cause they aren’t good for kids even though my Daddy lets me eat them, but I know you were just being careful, see, and you gave me milk and juice and made sure I was warm and everything.” He hugged Jake’s leg. “Don’t be sad anymore. We’ll take care of each other, okay?”
Jake picked him up and clutched him to his chest, burying his face in the child’s neck, gratefully breathing in the puppy-like scent of freshly washed boy.
Even the smell of him is healing, Jake thought. They rocked back and forth until finally Jake exhaled shakily.
“I’m not crying; I’m real upset is all. It’s not your fault, little guy. Please, Poppy,” he said over Austin’s shoulder, cupping his head in his hand. “What can we do? Austin, here, climbed up into my truck just because he’s a curious boy, and I didn’t know it until hours later—he fell asleep, I guess—and now we’ve crossed state lines and I don’t know how to get of this mess.”
Kate called out to him and told him to come into the kitchen for breakfast. The aromatic, melodious blend of bacon hissing on the griddle and hot, yeasty cinnamon rolls welcomed his mind back to this beautiful Monday morning.
When Jake, Poppy and Austin were all seated at the big square oil-cloth-covered table, Kate joined them and extended both hands beside her, palms up. They quickly responded and joined hands to pray.
“Lord, you see us here and you know what’s going on,” Poppy prayed. “What’s more, you know the end from the beginning, and you want us to do what’s right. We want to do what’s right, too, but we aren’t real sure what the right thing is. We know this boy needs to be back with his people, but we don’t know how to do it. Protect our brother Jake, Lord, and grant him mercy. Be with us here while we fellowship together. We trust in your wisdom to direct our conversation. When we arise from this meal, Father, we pray we will know what to do next.” He paused.
“Be with and comfort our Christina today, Lord. Heal her broken heart and give her peace.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jake noticed Kate nudge Poppy, nodding her head toward the cooling food. Poppy shook his head, understanding, and went on:
“Lord, I guess I’m supposed to hurry this up, so I’ll just thank you for this delicious breakfast and for the precious hands of the one who prepared it. Bless the food to our use and bless us unto your service. We lay our prayers before you, not because we are worthy to approach your throne, but with the forgiveness of our many sins, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”
“Amen,” they echoed, including Austin, who couldn’t help sneaking a look at Jake.
Kate beamed proudly as the three males piled their plates with scrambled eggs, crisp bacon and cinnamon rolls. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like some fried potatoes with your breakfast? It’s no trouble, really.”
Austin looked as if he wouldn’t mind more of anything Kate might cook, but Jake reminded him he’d have trouble eating all the food he already had. “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach, kid, you know that?”
“Yeah, I know. That’s what my Nana always says.” He paused, then resumed, quietly, “My Nana makes dinosaur pancakes for me, and monster pancakes. With eyes.”
“Austin,” Poppy cleared his throat, “we’re going to try to take you back to your mom and dad, and your grandmother, too. We need to start on that project today.”
Jake nodded in grim agreement. “Any idea how we are going to go about it? I’m thinking I should just go turn myself in. No,” he said, waving away their protests, “this has already gone on way too long. It’s only a matter of time before this hits the news—I can’t imagine why we haven’t heard something by now.”
He tackled his breakfast enthusiastically, amazed at himself for being hungry, considering the fix he was in.
“Too many people are suffering because Austin and I are missing,” he continued between mouthfuls of scrambled eggs, “and I’ll just have to deal with whatever comes. I’m not any crazier about tangling with the authorities again than you are, I guarantee you that, but,” he paused, a wonderful new warmth rising from his heart, “for some reason, I think I can handle it better this time.” He tore off another flaky swirl of cinnamon roll, looking up to meet Poppy’s eyes. “So, you figure you know the ‘some reason’ I’m hopeful?” he asked in response to Poppy’s grin.
Kate quickly refilled Poppy’s already depleted bacon supply and answered Jake’s question. “You’ll find everything looks better now. Even your appetite is improved,” she said, patting his shoulder after adding three more slices of bacon to his plate.
Poppy glanced at the big oak school clock beside the door. “You know, Jake, it’s time Christina knows what’s going on, too. She’s one who is suffering; you can tell that from her emails.” He looked over at Jake, but Jake kept his head down.
“She’s so mad at me right now I doubt if knowing more would help her. She still thinks I’ve run off with another woman or some dumb thing.” His throat suddenly tight, he met Poppy’s eyes. “She’s a special woman, I know that, and she can do better without me. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her, but I don’t know what I’m going to be doing one way or the other anyway.”
Poppy and Kate exchanged a look. After a pause while Kate refilled his coffee cup, Poppy spoke.
“Kate, I know we have a rule about having the television running while we’re eating, but I think we should suspend that rule, just for today. We are all savoring every morsel of your marvelous culinary expertise, but if there’s any report about our brother Jake, we might gain insight for our situation. Kate, dear, what do you think?” Poppy nodded to her, almost a bow, as he posed the question.
Kate sighed dramatically and swatted his arm. “All right, I will turn it on, but not because of your fancy speech, you charming old windbag. To tell the truth I was about to mention it myself. I feel a sense of urgency today.”
She stood up to retrieve the remote and tuned the small TV on the kitchen counter to the Springfield, Missouri station. After the a minute of commercial, the news program began.
“At the top of the hour today,” Rick Belling, the news anchor began, “we have a story about a missing little boy and the convicted felon who authorities believe abducted him out of the minivan in which his family was traveling to visit his maternal grandparents in Dallas, Texas. This is Austin David Page and his family, from Green Bay, Wisconsin. If anyone knows anything at all about the whereabouts of this six-year-old boy, please contact your local police station, highway patrol, or an office of the FBI.”
The camera zoomed in on a picture of Austin and his family, with Austin’s face circled in red, then switched to another photograph.
The anchorman’s impassive face was unremarkable in every respect, but he couldn’t have struck more fear into Jake’s heart if he’d been holding a noose instead of the FBI photo taken when he’d been arrested for taking Joey out of Nebraska.
“The picture on your screen now is the FBI file photo of convicted kidnapper, Jacob Philip Garret, formerly of Lincoln Nebraska. He is a trucker, believed to be driving a new, dark blue Freightliner with a sleeper cab. This truck will not be pulling a trailer. Authorities have traced the trailer to a truck stop in central Missouri. According to our sources, it is believed Garret dropped the trailer and that he has the Page child with him. If you see this truck, do not approach. Repeat: Do not approach. It is not known if Garret is armed or dangerous. If you see this truck, call one of the numbers you see on your screen.”
Jake, Poppy, Kate and Austin sat in freeze-frame, forks in mid-air, hardly daring to breathe, as the newsman recited details about what Jake looked like as well as Austin’s appearance.
The scene switched to a long shot of a large, elegant home, then gradually closed in as the camera walked viewers through the door and focused on four adults posed stiffly behind what appeared to be their kitchen table.
“Our affiliate in Dallas is working with us to find Austin Page. We take you now to the home of Will and Gloria Stoner, where they wait with their daughter Laura Page and her husband David. Can you hear me, Marcia?”
“Yes, Rick. Good evening. I’m Marcia Amos with CBS news in Dallas. We are here in the fashionable North Dallas home of Will and Gloria Stoner whose grandson is Austin Page, allegedly abducted from his family’s van sometime late Thursday night. With them are Austin’s distraught parents, David and Laura Page.”
“Mama,” Austin breathed as the screen filled with Laura’s face, her eyes tear-filled.
“Laura, tell us if you can, what happened to your little boy?” Amos thrust a microphone in Laura’s face.
She sat up straighter, cleared her throat and spoke to the camera, her voice cracking on the first few words. “We believe our son was taken out of our van when we left it for only a couple of minutes. We know we shouldn’t have done that, and we won’t be able to live with ourselves if something terrible has happened to Austin.” She dabbed at her nose with a wadded up tissue. “If anybody out there knows where he is, or if you know anything, please, please contact the authorities. We love him so much…” her voice gave out, and
Marcia moved the microphone to David.
“Austin, if you can hear this, you be a big brave boy. I love you, son, and I’ll make it up to you, I promise. I’m so proud of my biotechnicoid boy.” His voice cracked, but he raised his fist in a power salute he and Austin often shared when playing super-heroes.
Marcia Amos faced the camera and repeated the request for people to be on the lookout for the boy.
As the camera closed in, she wound up her interview in her best Barbara Walters voice of concern and wisdom, and admonished, “And parents everywhere, let this be a wake-up call to you. Never leave your children unattended for even a moment. This little lost boy could be your child. The anguish these parents and grandparents are experiencing this morning could be your pain. We’ll hold a good thought for you, Laura. That’s all for now. This is Marcia Amos, CBS news, Dallas.”
After giving the local police and FBI phone numbers, Rick Belling and his co-anchor engaged in meaningless blather. When it became clear there would be no more news about her two guests, Kate hit the off button on the TV remote.
She remained standing and looked at the three of them, their faces still staring at the blank screen. Then her gaze fell into Austin’s remarkable blue eyes, frightened yet trusting, and she understood that, despite his bravado, he was only a little boy, and he missed his Mama. She smoothed his hair with her hand.
Kate broke the silence. “Well, gentlemen, it seems we have a gnarly little problem here. Who has a plan?”
“That’s it. I have to turn myself in.” Jake stood up and began pacing. “We have to take Austin to Dallas somehow, and not in my truck. I won’t have him falling into the hands of bunch of badges with an attitude, and that’s what’s likely to happen anywhere from here to wherever we might be stopped.”
“Taking the boy back to his folks is the first priority, I’ll grant you that,” Poppy said thoughtfully, “but I can’t see you driving yourself in. That sounds dangerous to me.”
“Dangerous?” Austin jumped off his chair. “No! Jake didn’t do anything wrong! I won’t let him go to jail. That’s where bad people are. Can’t he stay here?” Crying, his voice rising higher with each thought, “You can take me to Nana’s house, Poppy, and we won’t tell them where Jake is. Nobody could ever find him here. Cars can’t drive up this mountain, can they, Jake?” Arms stiff at his sides, he trembled in his emotional plea. “I won’t tell anybody. Cross my heart! Please, Poppy?”
Jake grabbed one of his clenched fists and led him over to Poppy’s big leather recliner in the living room. He pulled the little guy onto his lap and held him close, rocking gently while soothing him with reassurances.
“We’re going to figure out a way, son, for you to be back with your family.
“Now, I will have to be arrested—no, there’s no way around that,” he said when Austin squirmed to protest, “but I don’t want you to be afraid for me, because I’m not afraid anymore.”
He heard the words coming out of his mouth, and knew at once that they were true. Even the prospect of prison, while not exactly on his A list, didn’t make his skin crawl with dread, as it had before.
Austin sat very still.
“You know why, don’t you?” Jake asked him.
Austin nodded his head, and then, still without speaking, pointed straight up, and then poked the same finger at Jake’s heart. “Me, too,” he said.
“Really?” Kate asked. “That’s wonderful! Did you ask Jesus into your heart yesterday when Jake gave his life to the Lord?”
She shot Jake a look, “I wish you’d let us tell Christina!” Jake didn’t answer. “So Austin, did you pray with Jake?”
“Naw. Jesus came into my heart at Christmas time when my Nana was at our house.”
“So that’s why you’re so brave, huh?” Jake said. “All this time you led me to believe it was because you’re a bionic boy.”
“BioTECHnicoid, you silly!”
“I stand corrected. Okay, so neither one of us is scared. Now let’s decide how we’re going to do this. We’ll find us a good attorney and figure something out.” He looked over at Poppy and asked “There is such a person, isn’t there?”
Poppy looked down at his boots, thinking, and when he looked up at Kate the two of them locked eyes for at least a full minute before both of them nodded in unison, as if they’d been talking all that time and had come to an agreement. Kate nodded at Poppy again, apparently appointing him as the spokesperson. He cleared his throat in the way Jake had come to know as Poppy’s way of breaking in a new subject.
“Brother Jake, I’m sure there are fine attorneys. There are even Christian attorneys, but you’ll have to excuse us for being a bit wary of those characters.” His voice showed strain as he went on, “After all, we wouldn’t be living up in this remote wilderness if we were pleased with how the system works.”
He went on, “When our Paul and Kathy were killed by that drunk driver, we hired an attorney so Christina would have something for college. It wouldn’t have replaced her mother and father, but at least she would have been able to find a job that paid better than fixing ladies’ hair. Then later, when her marriage to Richard went sour, he had a high-priced lawyer from his firm handle the divorce, and poor Christina wasn’t even able to keep her pretty little house.” He walked back and forth in front of Jake and Austin.
“I’m thinking there might be somebody who could help us.” He looked at Kate again, and when she nodded, he continued. “We know this man who used to be in the FBI,”
“FBI!” Jake interrupted, “I thought you were coming up with an idea that might give me a chance. You hand me over the FBI and they’ll revoke my probation so fast I’ll be in Texarkana before sundown.”
“Hear Poppy out, Jake,” Kate said in a tone of voice he hadn’t heard before. “He said he used to be with the FBI. This fellow we’re talking about is retired.”
“That’s right. He had some heart problems, but mostly I think the stress of the job got to him. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, he doesn’t work for the government anymore, but he knows the ins and outs of this kind of a thing. If anybody can come up with a reasonable way to handle it, he can.” Poppy warmed to his subject. “I’ll call him right away and have him stop over to talk to us.”
“Will he come just because you asked?” Jake didn’t see how anybody could find the place, much less drop over just because he these old people called.
“We won’t tell him exactly what we want, in case there’s somebody in the room with him who might get suspicious.” Poppy said, as much to himself as anybody. He looked Jake squarely in the eye. “Now, I don’t want to mislead you, son. We’ve been telling you he can help, but we don’t know if he’ll be willing, and when this fellow we’re talking about does show up here, you might be tempted to underestimate him.”
Austin watched the two of them, following their conversation as if it were a ping-pong match. “He isn’t a mean man, is he?” he asked.
“No, I wouldn’t call him mean, exactly,” Poppy answered.
Kate finished his thought, “I don’t believe I’d lie to him if I were you….”