Tuesday morning in the Ozarks
“You trying to draw attention to yourself?” Poppy asked when Denny stepped out of his ancient Army issue Humvee after it finally shuddered to a stop in front of the porch where Poppy and Jake sat in the matching rockers, watching the sun burn off the mist brooding over the valley below.
“That thing would raise the dead. I heard it rattle most of the way from your place.”
“You’re exaggerating, Poppy, my man. I take this old beast when I go down by the Buffalo River to count elk. They don’t pay me no mind—think I’m one of them, I reckon.” Denny slapped the old vehicle on the hood, knocking mud-clumps off on the ground. He reached in a grabbed a mitt-full of clothes and a pair of sneakers.
“Austin up?” he asked as he clomped up the three stairs to the porch.
“I’m awake,” Austin said, shuffling barefoot out on the porch to see what was going on.
Jake looked at him standing there shivering in his underwear and thought again about his own kids. He supposed he had messed it up thoroughly and he’d never be able to see them again. Austin’s skin was so white it almost appeared blue in the morning chill, while Joey and Annie both looked as though they had a tan the day they were born.
“Austin, you’re making me cold looking at you.” He took the clothes from Denny and slipped a faded dusty red Arkansas Razorback sweatshirt over the child’s head.
Somebody had told him that the Garret family had a few Navaho ancestors, though Jake doubted it—figured that idea was the invention of a relative trying to add a little spice to the monotonously ordinary lives of Nebraska dirt farmers. An image of the angry bruises on Joey’s smooth brown arms and legs flashed across his mind.
He knelt on one knee to help Austin into frayed denim overalls and slipped a pair of worn high-top tennis shoes, laces missing, on his cold little feet.
Austin rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and nodded. “Hey, these sneakers are neat, too. Am I wearing this stuff to go to Mama and Daddy at Nana’s house?”
“Yeah, you’re gonna wear this all day,” Denny said, pulling a red ball cap low over Austin’s forehead. “But until you are to your Nana and Papa’s house, somebody might try to talk to you and I want you to pretend. Now, can you do that?”
Austin nodded again. “I’m good at pretending. Remember? I’m a biotechnicoid boy. What am I going to pretend now?”
Denny squatted down on his haunches and gently put his arm around the boy. “That’s my man. Your name is Brandon VanderLeiden, okay? You’re still six years old, and Poppy and Kate are your Grandma and Grandpa. Your mama’s name is Vivian and you live with her in Rogers, Arkansas. Can you remember that?”
“Yes, who?” Poppy asked.
“Yes, Grampa. Where’s my dad?”
“Uh, you can make up something. Where do you want him to be?” Denny took over the game plan again.
“Can he be in the army?”
“Sure, only you never saw him and you don’t know his name.”
“That’s life, kid. Now, can you remember all about yourself?”
Gently, with more patience than any of them would have supposed, Denny went over the details several times.
Austin, yesterday’s recipient of a sound scolding by all adults, was in a cooperative frame of mind. “You’ll see. I’m good at remembering stuff.”
“Good. Now let’s get some breakfast in you and then send you on the way with Poppy and Kate—er, Grandpa and Grandma.”
Kate presided over a breakfast of hurriedly gulped glasses of orange juice and homemade granola bars. She packed more granola bars along with brownies and fruit in separate lunch boxes, ensuring none of the travelers would go hungry all day.
Poppy divided two dozen cans of soft drinks among them and took three cans of Dr. Pepper, his personal favorite, with him. He started the Jeep and motioned for Austin to climb into the back seat. Jake and Denny stood waiting to send them off.
“C’mon, boy. We need to start down the road so we can take you to your Nana and Papa’s house.”
Austin didn’t move.
“What’s the matter, Austin?” Jake knelt and took both of Austin’s hands in his own. “I’ll be all right, don’t worry about me. Remember? We talked about that. And then when our lives return to normal, we’ll see about you and me getting together again to talk about our adventure, okay?” He was as reluctant to say good-bye to his little friend as he had been shocked to find him in the truck Friday morning.
“That’s not it.”
“What is it, dear?” Kate knelt on the ground in front of Austin, brushing his hair back from his face. “What’s bothering you?”
“Well, you know how Jake has Jesus in his heart now?”
“Well, I do, too.”
“That’s wonderful, dear. But we knew that. Why is that a problem right now?”
“The pretending?” Denny asked.
“Uh huh. Is it really pretending? I mean, are we playing a game?”
“What do you think?” Denny’s eyes narrowed.
“Well, if it isn’t a game, then it’s lying, right? I bet Jesus never lied.”
Jake couldn’t be sure, but he thought even the birds hushed their singing, so profound were the few seconds of silence following Austin’s pronouncement.
Poppy turned off the Jeep. “I can’t argue with that.”
“Would you feel compelled by your conscience to volunteer unsolicited information?” Denny asked, his voice low and flat.
“Huh?” Austin screwed up his face. “I don’t know what you are talking about. I just don’t want to lie, is all.”
“What Denny is asking,” Jake explained, “is if you see somebody and they don’t ask questions about who you really are, would you have to tell them?”
Austin still looked bewildered.
“We’ll pray.” Kate said.
“Of course, we’ll pray,” Poppy said, impatiently, “but what if somebody does pull us over?”
“How likely is that to happen, realistically?” Kate asked Denny.
“Hard to say. Depends on if the sheriff sends somebody up here to check on you folks, and spots Jake’s truck. Then, if you’re gone, they’re gonna figure Jake might have hurt you or forced you to drive him somewhere. In that case, they might decide to put an APB on your vehicle.”
Denny may be paranoid, Jake thought, but he made good sense.
“They wouldn’t do anything to you, I don’t believe,” Denny said. “But they’d probably figure they had to take Austin in themselves, and I’m not sure that’s the best thing for anybody. You figure whoever the sheriff sent would probably be deputies, and on any given day, you don’t know who he might give a badge to, depending on who he owed a favor.”
“I’ll be Daniel,” Austin volunteered.
“You wanna be Daniel instead of Brandon? I’ll go along with that,” Denny said.
“No. See, Daniel. A long time ago. Only it’s a true story. My Nana sent me a book all about it. The bad king threw him in the lion’s den, but God didn’t let the lions eat him.” He spread his hands as if his point should be obvious. “God won’t let anything bad happen to me. I have to take care of my sisters. I have two baby sisters, you know.” He stood tall and proud. “I’m the big brother, and God won’t let anybody hurt their big brother.”
Satisfied at last, Austin climbed into the Jeep and slammed the door. Jake winced, wishing it hadn’t sounded so final.