“I can buckle myself,” Austin said, acting embarrassed when Tina adjusted his seat belt and closed it with a snap. “I’m not a baby, you know. I’m almost seven years old.”
“I know. This back seat never is used, is the thing, and I wanted to make sure the buckles were where you could find them.”
“Hey! Look at that guy!” Austin whispered when she finished. He pointed at a middle-aged man in boots and jeans.
A quick glance told Tina that the person Austin saw smiling at her appreciatively carried a thermos and a logbook. Probably a trucker, she thought. The clod.
“He’s staring at you.” Austin giggled. “I bet he thinks you’re a babe, just like Jake said.”
Tina could feel a blush crawling up her face. “I hope we don’t have to talk about old Jake the whole time we’re together. I don’t like to talk about other men when I’m out for a drive with a handsome dude such as your own self, Mr. Page.
She hoped that would keep him quiet for a while.
Tina had to wait a minute before driving back onto the highway. She grabbed a tissue, wiped the tears from her eyes and blew her nose enthusiastically. “Big baby!” she scolded herself. “Oh, don’t worry, Austin,” she said to his reflection in her rearview mirror. “I always cry a little when I leave them.”
Austin didn’t reply, just stared back at her, his eyes red-rimmed.
“What’s the matter, honey? Are you sad to leave them, too?”
He nodded and took the tissue she handed back to him.
Highway 69 through McAlester is not an expressway but Tina, who had grown up in Dallas, felt far more confident driving busy expressways than maneuvering out of the Texaco station on the east side of the road. She had to first drive across a two-way service road and then cross heavy northbound traffic. Dallas traffic didn’t trouble her in the least, but in this situation she felt vulnerable negotiating her little Saturn between 18-wheelers being handled by obviously short-tempered drivers with deadlines to meet.
She hadn’t paid much attention to the big trucks before she met Jake, but he had told her how drivers often became dangerously tired and how annoyed they often were with women drivers, especially if they hesitated when they should step on it. “Whatever you do,” he had told her, “don’t be tentative.”
Safely southbound and back up to cruise speed, she glanced at her passenger and noted with alarm that he was crying soundlessly, not even trying to stop or to keep up with his eyes and nose, both flowing steadily.
“Hey, partner. You’re really sad, aren’t you? Please forgive me if I said something to upset you.”
No change in Austin. He seemed not to have heard her. She watched for a decent place to pull over in order to give full attention to talking to him.
“How about some music?” No response.
Lord help me, she prayed silently. Tell me what to do. How can I help this little guy?
As if in immediate answer to prayer, she saw a side road just ahead. She slowed, but as she did so, Austin’s silent weeping erupted into full hysteria.
“What are you doing? No! No!” His voice stretched in terror.
“I just want to pull off—“
“No!” He cried. “A policeman will come and be mean to us and take me to the police station.”
“You poor kid! Who made you so afraid? Who did this to you?” She felt rage rise up like gorge. “Did Jake do this? Tell me! Was it Jake?”
“No, no, no!” He trembled. “A policeman stopped us and talked mean to Poppy and Kate and I don’t want to go to the police station. I just want my mama and daddy!” He kicked the back of the seat in fury and gave himself fully to a towering tantrum.
“Okay, okay. Settle down. I’ll keep driving and we’ll find your mom and dad as soon as we can.”
After a couple of minutes the kicking stopped and she heard him suck in a long shaky breath and let it out again. That last idea must not have come from you, Lord. Now what do I do?
She tuned her radio to the Christian radio station she usually listened to and discovered that during these after-school hours they played children’s programs. Today’s drama was a contemporary version of Daniel in the lion’s den. She glanced in the back seat in time to see Austin let out another shaky breath and rub his face with the sleeve of his T-shirt. He appeared to be listening intently.
As they rolled along she watched him calm himself and sit up straighter. Once in a while he took a furtive peek at her, and each time he did, he blushed and seemed to be embarrassed, frequently rubbing his arm across his runny nose.
By the time the radio story ended, Austin had regained full charge of his emotions and determined to seem taller, older and cooler than ever before. When he spoke it was in the lower, more mature voice he had affected at the Texaco, and he commenced to set Tina straight on any false impression she might have developed from his most recent persona.
“I maybe looked scared, but I’m not,” he began. “I’m a biotechnicoid boy and I’m Daniel, if you wanna know. Daniel, see, he knew God would take care of him so he didn’t ever be scared. Not a bit. Me neither. See, biotechnicoid boys never get scared neither. And,” he went on, “Me and Jake prayed together, see, so we both are brave.”
“Is that right?” Tina found herself curiously torn between wanting to hear more about Jake and never wanting to hear his name again. For the moment the want-to-hear-more-side of her won.
“So you and Jake prayed together? Or did Poppy pray and the two of you sat there listening?”
“Yeah, me and Jake both prayed all right. We both got Jesus in our hearts, see, so we’re not scared, neither one of us, see, and…”
“Jake has Jesus in his heart?” Swell. Now that he dumped her he’s a Christian. Great timing.
“Yeah, he does. So now you can get married with him.”
She saw him cross his arms and nod his head, a self-satisfied grin revealing two emerging front teeth.
“What makes you think he wants to be married with me?”
“He got really mad when Poppy first talked about you coming to get me. He said ‘No! No danger for Tina!’ He said it real mad like that. His eyes get all crink-el-ly and funny when he talks about you. And he smiles funny, too. Like this, see?” He mugged for the rearview mirror, his eyes half closed and a goofy half smile touching the corners of his mouth.
She had to laugh at his version, but she certainly recognized the look.
“You do a pretty good impression, Austin. What do Poppy and Kate have to say about it, can you tell me that?”
“They like Jake. Now that he got Jesus in his heart, they call him ‘Brother Jake,’ like they pray and say ‘God please help Brother Jake, here.’ Stuff like that.”
“So they pray for Jake now, do they?”
“Yep. We prayed for all kinds of stuff, like for you and for safe travel and everything.” He thought for a minute. “You know what? Jake and me are going to ride in his truck together again sometime. You wanna come? There’s a lot of room.”
Now how on earth was she supposed to feel? Tina’s throat constricted, as if the beating of her swollen heart might choke her. She had prayed so hard for Jake to receive the Lord, and now, after he had told her to forget him…
The spirit of never-want-to-hear-his-name-again rose up and took over.
“I don’t think so. Now,” she said, ready to change the subject, “let’s get better acquainted. You’re almost finished with first grade?”
“I’m on vacation. I don’t want to talk about school. What’s a foster kid?”
How had foster kids entered this conversation? It took her a minute to remember that she and her grandparents mentioned the foster kids when they met in McAlester.
“I lived with Poppy and Kate when I was a little girl, and we always had foster kids. Those are children whose parents can’t take care of them so we made them part of our family.”
Until this moment she hadn’t realized how those children had enriched her childhood, even the occasional one who presented real problems. She suddenly ached for a child of her own. If only Jake…
“So they were like your brothers and sisters?” Austin brought her back with his happy chirping. “I’m a big brother, if you wanna know,” he said proudly. “I have two baby sisters and I’m their big brother. That’s why God won’t let anything happen to me ‘cause I have to take care of my baby sisters.” He paused, staring out of the window.
“Which one are you going to get married with, do you think?”
“Which one, Jake or Denny? They both love you. Poppy and Jake said Denny is in love with you, so who are you going to marry? Jake or Denny? Or probably you have more guys what want to marry with you, so who are you going to get married with?”
“I’m not marrying anybody right now. I’m riding in the car with a handsome young man and if ever I marry anybody I think I’ll wait for you to grow up and I’ll marry you. What do you think about that?”
“Cool? That’s it? Just cool?” She could see his impish grin in the rear view mirror. “And Denny is not in love with me. He’s like a big brother to me and he loves me that way. I love him too, just like you’re a big brother to your sisters and love them.”
As they approached the Texas point of entry, Tina slowed the car, explaining to Austin that this would be a good place to stop, go to the bathroom, and for Austin to change into his own clothes.
“Except for shoes. I don’t have my own shoes, only these ones Denny gave me.” He held up his foot proudly. “Texas policemans won’t grab me?”
“No. And even if a policeman might talk to you, he won’t be mean, I promise.”
Their mission safely accomplished, they drove back onto 75 and rode together in silence for about ten minutes before the next phase of interrogation began.
“Poppy and Kate are your grandma and grandpa, right? Your mama and daddy are dead?”
“That’s right. You know a lot about me already. I want to know more about you.”
“Why?” Austin seemed to not have heard her. “Why would God let your mama and daddy die?”
“I don’t know, honey, but I do know that I grew up in a wonderful family and I thank God for them.”
“Why don’t you call them ‘Grandma and Grandpa’? That’s what I call my Grandma and Grandpa Page. I call my Texas grandma and grandpa Nana and Papa Stoner.”
“Good question. I don’t know, it just happened. I probably started calling him Papa, but the foster kids made it ‘Poppy’ and then they heard Poppy call my grandmother ‘Kate’ and pretty soon we all did. I think they enjoy being called that. It’s a little bit different—special, as they are.”
Austin appeared to consider that before asking his next question. “How long before we are at my Papa and Nana’s house?”
“You’re full of questions, Mr. Page. That’s one I can answer. We’ll be there in about one hour. We should be there at 6:00.”
“Jake will be in jail then. 6:00 o’clock. That’s when he said he’d be in jail.”
She thought she saw his lip tremble ever so slightly.
“But he won’t be scared, if you wanna know. ‘Cause he’s got Jesus in his heart now, and he won’t be scared.”