3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oklahoma
Tina couldn’t imagine why anybody would be interested in her whereabouts, but Poppy had begged her to “keep it under the radar,” so despite the frantic fluttering in her chest she set the cruise control at exactly one mile per hour under the speed limit. What she wanted to do was floor it and try to beat her grandparents to the Texaco station where they’d agreed to meet, but being pulled over for speeding would only slow her down.
She usually loved this drive, especially on a beautiful April afternoon like this one. She smiled to herself as she became aware of certain pride of place as she crossed the Red River into Oklahoma. In the spring any area is new and lovely, Tina thought, and even Oklahoma probably inspires tons of calendar pictures, but she was a Texas girl, bred and born, and a Texas girl she’d always be.
The flat Texas landscape she traveled through as she drove north on highway 75, an extension of Central Expressway in Dallas, soon yielded to the somewhat more rolling terrain along 69 in southeast Oklahoma. Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, even an occasional stand of Texas bluebonnets blossomed beside the road, humming as usual with family cars and minivans, pickups with gun rack across the back and 18-wheelers—giant sleeper cabs like the one Jake drove, pulling tankers and flatbeds, closed vans and refrigerated trailers.
She had a hard time understanding how her grandparents could have given up the whole Texas bigger-than-life mystique for their hermitage in the hills of Arkansas. She knew her divorce from Richard influenced their decision—they had both been terribly disillusioned by the way attorneys and judges handled her case—but they never admitted that had entered into their move from their big comfortable house in Dallas. Poppy had said “Old age came up and bit us in the behind, Christina honey, and we’re too old to drive 635 any more.”
Tina had to laugh remembering what Kate said when she’d introduced the idea of “the Rapture of the Church.” Kate declared that if the Rapture actually happened and all the good people vanished, traffic on 635 would go on as usual.
Richard and the divorce. The D-word. I really know how to cheer myself up, she thought. For months after D-Day she would wake up in the morning feeling sad, knowing something terrible had happened. Gradually the reason for her heavy heart would roll back over her—loneliness, rejection, heartache. That morning when Jake had come to the salon to visit Alex she had been awake for a while before she’d realized that the sadness cloud had evaporated and in its place, for the first time, a new sense of expectation.
“Something good is going to happen to me,” she remembered singing as she walked into the salon, and there stood Jake wearing a funny smile. She’d smiled back at him, and his eyes lit up.
Now what? Were she and Jake over? When he left the voice mail telling her to forget about him she realized how little she knew him. She should have known better than to become too involved with a man who didn’t know the Lord. She did know better.
Who did she think she was kidding? Friday morning she had admitted to herself that she might love Jake. Not too involved.
What had been in Jake’s heart? Were they looking for the same kind of relationship? Did he know her? Why didn’t he trust her enough to include her in his crisis? Could he ever trust any woman? And now, going to meet Gloria Stoner’s grandson?
She couldn’t think, couldn’t sort it out. Something had clicked off in her mind and she didn’t dare to think, to feel. Even pray. Just drive. Look at the flowers. Almost there. Poppy and Kate would hold her and make it better.
Tina pulled into the Texaco station south of McAlester, Oklahoma, directly behind a mud-spattered pickup with two big black Labrador Retrievers in the back. Why don’t they jump out, she wondered as she always did. She stepped out of her car to joyful HAH-WOOFFFTs from the dogs, but thankfully they made no move toward her. One swipe from one of those long, dripping tongues and she’d spend the rest of the day covered with dog slobber.
She nodded toward the Jeep three cars away and the doors opened. Poppy came around to offer Kate his hand. Kate stepped down, ran to Tina and folded her close, patting her hair the way she used to do when Tina was a child.
“I’m sorry I’m late, Kate,” Tina murmured into her grandmother’s shoulder. “Were you waiting long? Were you worried?”
“We’ve been here about 20 minutes, but no, we weren’t worried. We prayed for you and you promised Poppy you wouldn’t speed.”
Kate released her and as they stood there, Poppy opened the back door of the truck and handed down a beautiful little boy in ratty clothes. His eyes widened when he saw Tina.
“Christina, this is Austin David Page,” Poppy said in a low voice, almost a whisper, “and he would be most grateful if you would take him to Dallas to be with his family.” He waited as Austin stood as tall as possible and offered his hand to Tina.
“How do you do, Miss Tina,” Austin said, making his voice as grown-up as he could and shaking her hand longer and harder than was absolutely necessary.
“Hello, Austin,” Tina replied gravely. “It would give me great pleasure to travel with you. Do you have a suitcase?”
Austin blushed, pink showing through his almost transparent hair. “Naw…I mean, no ma’am, Miss Tina.” He held up a plastic grocery bag. “Only my clean clothes. The stuff I had on when Jake and me went to visit…” he hesitated, looking at Poppy.
“You can call us Poppy and Kate again now, Austin,” Poppy said. “We’re all finished pretending.”
Poppy gave her a brief synopsis of the events so far including the fact that by 6:00, if all went according to plan, Jake would have given himself up to the FBI.
“I want you to give this phone number to the boy’s parents. It’s the jail where Denny said they would most likely lock up Jake.” He ignored Austin’s squeak of protest.
“Now you two head on down the road and make your real Grandma and Grandpa happy.”
“You’re right, Poppy. As much as I’d love to visit with you two for a while, I really should leave.”
Tina held her hand out and Austin grabbed it, still gazing up at her with naked admiration. She smiled back. “Don’t you want to change into your own clothes? You look like one of those foster kids the county used to bring us.”
“Denny dressed him up to look like a kid from up in the hills. We didn’t want him too recognizable,” Poppy said. “It’s a good thing, too. Up near Fort Smith we were stopped because I hadn’t put the new sticker on my license plate. If the boy here had looked like the picture of him they show on TV I don’t know what would have happened.”
“The rudest man I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a few,” Kate grumbled. She seemed inclined to go on longer but Poppy took her by the hand and drew her toward their SUV.
“Christina, honey,” he said, “You need to go now. About the boy, I’d feel better about it if he waited to change clothes until the Texas Port of Entry.”
“What are you going to do?” Tina asked, alarmed, “You aren’t driving all the way home now, are you? I can’t stand the thought of you driving those hills after dark!”
“No, we’re spending the night with Ted and Vivian right here in McAlester. Remember Ted Lewis, the foster boy? Well, he married a Vivian, a sweet little Oklahoma girl. We called them as soon as we got here and they told us to come right over and stay as long as we can.”
“Good!” She said, relieved. “I’ll drive up to the cabin soon. Maybe this weekend. I’d hoped we’d have a chance to talk about…what happened and all, but I was late leaving work, and—”
“That’s fine dear,” Kate interrupted, “We do have a lot to talk about, but be sure to factor in some time to meet with Jake, too. Let him tell you what’s happened to him.”
“We’ll see,” Tina said, and opened the rear door of her car for Austin. “I think I’ve said all I have to say on that subject,” she said as the boy ignored the door she had opened and went around to the passenger side.
“Nope. Sorry Austin,” she said. “You’ll have to sit in the back. Safety first!”
At his crestfallen look she said, “I’ll set the mirror so we can see each other; that way we can get better acquainted.”