Run for the Hills

Chapter 1—Thursday Night, Central Illinois

“Grandpa, tell me ‘bout the good old days…when people really fell in love to stay…”

Jake reached over and shut off the radio. What did the Judds know about love anyway? He could tell them a thing or two. “Good old days?” Those were the days when he had lost his upbeat approach to life, when he’d run smack-dab into the yellowed teeth of betrayal. Recalling the good old days for him meant remembering he’d lost the two people he cared about most—Annie and Joey.

A few days after her seventh birthday Annie had asked him, “Daddy, can somebody really break your heart?”  He told her that her heart was just one of the organs of her body like her liver or her spleen, and couldn’t actually hurt from sadness.  He knew better now.  She and Joey had been ripped away from him and all he had left was a cold, lead-weight pain deep in the core of his being, never ending, never letting him forget there was no way he could ever turn things around.

In a fleeting ghost of memory, Jake could hear his mother singing, “Count your many blessings…” and he smiled sadly in the dark.  Sure, he owned this shiny new tractor-trailer rig, free and clear, and he enjoyed his work—he could stay on the go, always on the move, and that suited him fine, but he didn’t feel blessed, not by a long shot.

He would never forget the day he decided to buy a truck and take to the road.  He’d been riding fences on his roan quarter horse when he mentioned to his ranch manager, Tom Andrews, that he’d been thinking of buying a team of giant horses—Percherons.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.

He could still hear Tom yelling at him. “Are you nuts? Percherons? On this spread? If you want horsepower, get yourself a truck.” So, he bought his first tractor-trailer rig and found out Tom had been right: Jake loved the hum of the high performance engine, the constantly changing scenery as he drove all over the country, and most of all, the energy—the absolute blast—of a huge turbo-charged diesel, 500 horses under his command.

A couple of hours ahead of him lay one of his favorite stretches.  Rolling hills and wild curves betweenSt. LouisandSpringfield,Missouri, challenged his skill, ensuring an adrenaline rush.  Probably fairly quiet tonight.  Now take that stretch on a hot summer afternoon—tourists mixing it up with loaded trucks—that could get a little dicey, but for a guy like Jake, who knew his stuff, it kicked like a giant video game at 75 miles an hour.

Jerking his thoughts back to the present, he slowed, eased down the off-ramp, and pulled into Traveler’s Haven, east ofBloomington,Illinois. He slotted his truck between a Peterbilt and a Kenworth at the diesel pumps. Sitting down and eating a full meal might make it harder to stay awake all night, and, besides, he didn’t think he could sit still that long.  No, he decided he’d be better off just cleaning up, picking up some snacks, and getting set for the long haul ahead of him.

When he’d filled the tank, he moved his rig away from the pumps and the rest of the trucks and parked on the edge of the pavement near the area where passenger cars gassed up.  He grabbed his shaving kit and a change of clothes before going inside.

A couple of truckers he had never seen before made back-handed compliments on his new truck while he browsed through the audio books for rent. He kept his eyes focused on the blurred words on the book boxes, avoiding eye contact with them. He knew most of the other truckers, if only by their rigs and CB handles. They considered him a loner, he guessed.  He supposed they were right.

On his way to the pay station, he excused himself past a ditzy-looking blonde turning over made-in-Taiwan Elvis junk, evidently looking for the price.

Marge, in a voice big enough to warn ships at sea, kept up a steady banter with the men hanging around her register. She rang up his fuel and “misc.,” took his T-check, and bellowed, “Hey, Jake! That your new condo cab out there?” Without looking at him or missing a beat, she immediately turned her attention to the driver behind him.

Later nobody remembered seeing him leave.

~~~~~~~~~

How long can it take to go to the bathroom and pick up a Coke, David wondered.  Here he sat, sick of waiting, the van engine running and using gas enough to have taken them fifty miles down the road, while Laura, who hadn’t even driven her fair share, trolled the aisles of a truck stop, looking for gifts.  He scowled at the dashboard clock.  Eleven o’clock at night and she’s shopping!

David planned his family’s vacations down to the last gallon of gas and McDonald’s meal.  A computer engineer with Lowell Paper Company inGreen Bay, he knew they called him a geek, but as long as they paid him well, he could live with the nickname.

What he found harder to get used to was that his wife shared none of his precision-loving qualities.  The way her mind worked, she figured if she still had checks in the checkbook, they still had money in the bank.  If some event started at 8:00 p.m., that’s when she would start getting ready. David liked to arrive early so he could size up the room.

He lost his train of thought as a big shiny semi rumbled to the edge of the pavement and stopped. Funny place to park, he thought. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, Laura and her sense of time.

She said he drove her crazy and she accused him of being a control freak.  He called her a blonde flake and told her she drove him nuts.

He really hadn’t been prepared for the complications of marriage to Laura.  He expected that she would bear their children and civilize them, manage the household, and generally take care of their little kingdom until he came home from work. He didn’t think it was too much to hope she would greet him looking like the cute little cheerleader he had married.  A real home-cooked meal served at a neatly set table should be part of the whole picture, too.

He could count on the fingers of one hand how often his ideal scenario appeared when he opened the door.  Instead, he usually found Laura in sweat pants and a ratty T-shirt, and the kids jumping up and down begging to go to McDonald’s.  Not his idea of a “happy meal.”

This could be a long night. He sighed and rested his head back on the high seat back. If he’d known she needed this much time he could have power-napped ten minutes and awakened refreshed—the way he sometimes did after the pastor dismissed the kids for children’s church.

David and Laura did attend church services occasionally, but three little children made it almost impossible.   Laura never could seem to have herself and the kids ready on time.  Not that he minded missing the opening exercises—all the standing and singing in the beginning—but it embarrassed him to drag in late.

Talk about late, what time was it now?  11:20!  That’s it!  He decided he’d go in and get her even if he had to drag her out by her hair.  He glanced in the back at the kids, unmoving, limbs spread every which way, like alligators on aFloridacanal bank. He slipped out of the van, careful not to slam the door. This wouldn’t take long.

~~~~~~

Austinhad only been pretending to sleep.  He was a biotechnicoid boy, he always told everybody.  He ran on plutonium batteries and didn’t need sleep.  He waited, counting, one, two, three, four…and sat up.  No sign of Daddy.

Hey!  This must be the biggest truck stop in the whole world! At least a zillion trucks.  And lights!  He bet they didn’t need this many lights even when they made movies and had to clap a blackboard thing and say “Action!” He grabbed his sunglasses.  He might need them for a disguise.

Austin, moving his stealthiest—faster than Spiderman—slipped out from under the quilt without waking his little sisters. Soft regular purring assured him of Allison’s undisturbed sleep.  Ariel nickered a little, the way she did when she had been crying hard.Austinfound her pacifier and stuck it in her mouth, wiping his hand on his pants to get rid of her drool.  “Yuck! Slimy baby drool,” he started to say aloud, but checked himself.  Allison didn’t stir.  Ariel sucked lazily on her pacifier and sighed back to sleep, saliva dribbling into the folds under her tiny chin.

He couldn’t believe his good luck! Daddy never ever before walked away from the van until Mama got back in.

WhenAustinstayed with his Grandma and Grandpa Page out on the farm, Grandpa sometimes went to the bathroom out in the field and toldAustinit was all right for men to do that.  Mama said it was gross, but he had to do it right now. Over there on that grassy place would be good.

No time for shoes.  He could move faster in bare feet anyway.  Quick as a cat, whisper quiet.  Diving into deep shadows behind a truck, he couldn’t suppress a giggle.

As he stood there shivering, preparing to relieve himself on a flattened cigarette wrapper, he knew this would be the best joke ever!  He could imagine Mama and Daddy coming back to the van and finding him gone. Mama would get all excited and cry and Daddy would act mad while really thinking his boy was the coolest.

Austinstopped stock-still and dropped his jaw in wonderment at the giant truck he had run behind.

All the way fromGreen Bayhe had gawked at the great trucks as they rolled along the highways, passing the trucks when Mama drove, being passed when Daddy was at the wheel.

He learned their names: Kenworth, Peterbilt, International, Volvo, Mack.  Drivers almost always returned his happy waves. Sometimes, when a truck came really close to the back of their car, Austin made an up and down sign with his fists, kinda like milking a cow, and the driver would blow his big air horn.  Daddy used his biggest and best swears then, and Mama always said, “Little pitchers have big ears, David.”

A shiny new Freightliner Coronado!

~~~~~

Satisfied with the smooth rumble of the idling 18-wheeler, Jake jumped down for one last walk-around before pulling out for a long night run. For only two minutes, maybe three at the most, while he tapped the tires with his hammer, the open driver’s side door was out of his line of vision.

~~~~~

Heart hammering in his chest, imagining himself moving with supernatural speed, like Superman, Austin Page, fearless six-year-old, crawled up into the cab through the driver’s door, and hid himself in a far back corner of the sleeper bed, pulling a plaid wool blanket over his head.  He wasn’t even breathing hard.

Austinclosed his eyes, pretending this was his daddy’s truck as his nose picked up familiar scents of the after shave Daddy used, coffee, and maybe chocolate.  Hugging himself with delight, he felt happy and safe, glorying in the wondrous smell of new truck. Not quite seven years old, he couldn’t think past the moment, and for this moment, he thought he’d reached heaven.

By pestering his little sisters, asking questions he knew the answers to, insisting Daddy read all the truck names to him, he had managed to stay awake until now, but in the warm darkness, the gentle vibration of the great truck did him in. For a fleeting second he wondered if he might be dreaming, and then, before he could plot his next move, he was.

~~~~~~

Jake rounded the trailer and as he moved to step back up into the cab, he pulled out his handkerchief to rub out little smudges he hadn’t noticed before. When he stood back to admire the perfect shine he’d accomplished, he noted that it reflected the distorted images of an obviously frustrated man and a woman arguing while getting into their van and driving away.

~~~~~~

“It’s about time.  Get in the car.  Now!”  David exploded as Laura emerged from the gift shop. “What took so long?”

“Excuse me? Don’t you dare use that tone of voice with me,” Laura demanded, her blue eyes spitting angry sparks.  “I’ll have you know I found exactly the right thing for your mom’s birthday.  You know how she loves Elvis stuff…”

“At a truck stop at midnight?  We’re headed forDallasand you had to shop in the middle ofIllinois? And where is this perfect gift?  Did you go and walk off without the package after all that time?”

“I had it shipped back toGreen Bay. It’s fragile and I didn’t want to have it in the car with us the whole time we’re inDallas.”

Without another word Laura got in the van, laid the seat back and closed her eyes.

Back on the highway, David set the cruise control and resumed seething while Laura slept or, David suspected, faked deep slumber, which made him so mad he felt as if he had a caffeine buzz.

He hated that his vacations had to revolve around her parents.  Just once he wished they could do something normal, like camping atYellowstone, or even spending a week at a lake cottage.

He liked Will and Gloria well enough, (Will, anyway), and they had a spacious house, so staying with them wasn’t the hassle it might have been, but driving toDallaschewed up two days each way. His company only gave him three weeks of paid vacation a year.  This time they had planned to take turns at the wheel and drive straight through rather than stopping at a motel.

His in-laws were an odd pair, he thought.  Will was a laid-back kind of guy even before he retired from Texas Mutual and Fidelity where he had headed up the Information Technology division.  We computer geeks are mellow, David thought, grinning to himself.  Laura said her dad had always been ‘the stabilizing force’ for the whole family.

Gloria, now, was not mellow.  Opinionated and not a bit shy about sharing her opinions, like when she told the preacher he needed a haircut before performing David and Laura’s wedding ceremony.  A “formidable woman,” his dad had observed when he first met her.

Laura let the kids run wild—no discipline at all—and David didn’t know whether she loved them too much to get after them when they needed it, or if it was because she leaned a bit toward the lazy side. His mother once said Laura seemed to have an unnatural fear of getting tired.

There had been an uneasy moment or two during their last visit when Will said David ought to be more involved in the care of the children.  Will even said he thoughtAustinacted like a brat, and that set Laura to crying and David to defending her, though he couldn’t deny it.  Everybody was mad at everybody else for a while there, but Gloria stepped in and sent them all—even him and Will—to their rooms to pray, and 30 minutes later no one wanted to talk about it anymore.

He glanced over at his sleeping wife, beautiful as always, but quiet for a nice change. Enjoy the moment, he told himself, picturing her twenty years in the future, as bossy as her mother.  He’d better pay attention to his driving, too.  His whole world—Laura, his wife with whom he was still totally smitten, bossy or otherwise, the three kids sleeping in back—depended on him to take them safely through this dark night.

~~~~~

Tires all okay.  Indicators competent and ready.  Jake ran a hand through his short brown hair, still damp from a shower—free with a full tank of diesel—before jamming on his cap. He slid his Ropers onto the pedals and pulled the door closed.  Buckling his seat belt, he checked the time. 11:30.

He had hoped to load and leaveChicagoearlier, but this next stretch promised to be a steady 65-70 miles per hour.  Word was, the weigh stations would stay closed and he wouldn’t be delayed there.  Barring a big construction slow-down or a breakdown—the latter unlikely with a new truck—he should still be able to get all the way to Tulsa before pulling it off for a mandatory eight hours down.

Too much driving all in one stretch, but it couldn’t be helped.  He took a couple of deep breaths.

Strong black coffee in the thermos—check.  Tom Clancy technothriller on audiotape—check. Pound of Peanut M&Ms—check. CB tuned to channel 19—check.  Lonedaddy is ready to roll.

Jake skillfully piloted the big rig and folded it smoothly into the night traffic on Interstate 55, southwest towardSt. Louis.  He inserted the first Clancy tape, sipped his first cup of coffee, and passed his first minivan on this leg of the trip: a 2005 model white Honda Odyssey withWisconsintags.

Chapter 2—Early Friday Morning, Missouri

“Gotta quit that,” Jake told himself as watched the Wisconsin Odyssey diminish in his rearview mirror. He’d taken to counting minivans when he and Barb bought a Plymouth Voyager.  But that was before the divorce, and now every minivan on the highway reminded him of how much he missed his kids. Time to move on, he thought, hoping his new truck would help fill the aching void in his heart.

He had ordered a dark blue rig, just to try to keep a low profile. If Joey had still been in his life, he would have opted for a candy apple red truck.  With the back of his hand, he brushed a tear off his cheek as he remembered how Joey loved to sit in the back and call him on an old cordless phone, pretending it was a CB radio.  “Bweaker, bweaker, Joey to Daddy, come in pwease.”  Joey had a low, husky voice as a little kid.

If only he could hear his son call him Daddy again.

Once the truckers had picked up the scent of his arrest and trial, they grabbed their CBs and spewed the news all over the country.  He pounded his fist on the steering wheel in fury. Abject despair under a justice system that, once rolling, no power on earth could stop, still bound him like steel straps around a truckload of cinder blocks.

The sour taste of having the blame dumped on him wouldn’t go away. As far as he was concerned, losing the kids was the worst of it, the worst thing that could happen to anybody. Maybe it would have turned out better if they had stayed on the ranch instead of moving back toLincolnas she insisted. Maybe if they hadn’t been so young…

His looks didn’t help.  People seemed to instinctively distrust men who looked like him—dark brown curly hair with copper glints, smooth skin.  Too handsome for his own good, Ma used to say.

Ma should have warned him about girls like Barbara. He did remember Ma hadn’t approved of him and Barb going together since they were fifteen, but she never knew they got married right out of high school. She died of cancer in January, and Jake and Barb married in June the same year.

Barb had cured him of women, no maybe about it.  If he couldn’t have his own kids with him, he’d manage fine without a woman. His truck was a whole lot more predictable. Less hassle, for sure.

Unless…uninvited, another picture floated into his mind—the girl his brother had introduced him to in Dallas, saying he needed to get out and meet new people. Tina, the redhead with liquid green eyes, who reminded him of an almost-tame doe, letting him approach slowly, but ready to skitter off if he made a sudden move. He felt good just thinking about her.  Something about her kept him going back. Well, he could think of worse ideas than a nice city girl to spend time with on his weekends inDallas.

She had been humiliated as badly in her divorce as he had in his.  He would gladly string up that Richard character she had been married to.  What kind of an idiot would hurt someone as sweet as Tina?

Beautiful little Tina, red hair to her shoulders, all silky and shiny.  If only she wouldn’t try to shove her religion at him.

Be fair, Jake chided himself.  She didn’t exactly push it at him; she just explains why she’s so cheerful.  “God gives me peace.” Downright remarkable, given her history, he had to admit.  He winced as he remembered how she often said, “Jesus has given me a new life.”  He didn’t mind so much when she just talked about God in a generic sense.  But the Jesus stuff made him itchy.  Probably why she wouldn’t sleep with him, too, although he knew she wanted to as much as he did.

Can you get in trouble with God for fantasizing about sleeping with a religious person, he wondered.

He could picture a good life with Tina. After all she had gone through she deserved a man who knew how to treat a woman. He hoped she would let him close enough to find out she was safe with him.

“Watch yourself, Jake,” he warned himself.  If he wasn’t careful… He could feel himself beginning to care too much, and to his surprise it was a good feeling. He sat up straighter at the thought. A real good feeling! He had told Tina all about Barb and her crazy accusations, and he had been sure neither he nor Tina was ready to risk loving again.

It might be too late to be careful, he thought with a start.  He sure didn’t want to stop thinking about Tina and what it would be like if they were married. And to his surprise, it wasn’t all about what she could do for him. He smiled, picturing her face when he’d bring her a gift, or tell her a funny story, making her eyes crinkle up the way they did when she smiled. The touch of her hand on his face, the sound of her voice…He wanted to close his eyes and dream of her, to remember her scent…He didn’t want to consider life without her…

Despite the coffee, at 3 a. m. Jake found himself growing sleepy.  The Clancy book had bogged itself down with technical stuff—hard to follow when he listened with only half his mind. By the time he reachedRolla,Missouri, he decided he’d better ease off the road and take a nap. Several other truckers had pulled their rigs off at the Rolla truck stop, not uncommon in the pre-dawn hours.

“Are we stopping, Mister?”

Jake could feel the hair on the back of his neck crawl. He turned around to see a small blond boy standing behind him, steadying himself with one hand on the back of the passenger seat and the other holding his crotch while shifting nervously from foot to foot. Lighted digital indicators in the dashboard cast the child’s pale complexion a sickly green.

“I’m sorry, Mister, but I really gotta go.  I can’t hold it any more.”

Easing his truck onto the shoulder of the off-ramp, Jake turned and pointed wordlessly to the porta-potty he kept on board for emergencies.

Austinstood over it, aimed unsteadily, and relieved himself.

Jake, wide-awake now, scrabbled around inside his brain trying to place this beautiful little boy in his truck in reality.  Could he be having a nightmare, a flashback of some kind?  But this kid’s hair is blond—almost white, he thought, while Joey’s hair is more like mine, dark with reddish streaks. Where had this child come from?  When did he stop last? Bloomington? But that’sIllinois. This isMissouri.  Across a state line.

“Oh God oh God oh God…” He realized he was talking out loud.  The boy began backing away, staring at him wide-eyed.

“I’m sorry, Mister. I know I spilled some. I’ll clean it up for you, okay? Mama says I should sit down when I go but Daddy says that’s for sissies and he says…”

Jake heard the hiss of air brakes and the hollow rattle of an empty dry van trailer as an International exited and passed them heading straight toward the diesel pumps. A slight mist around the neon signs of the all-night café cast an eerie glow.

“Listen kid, I don’t know who you are and I don’t give a rip what your dad thinks one way or the other.  What in blazes are you doing in my truck?  How did you get here?  Why me? Why this truck?”

Jake realized his voice had grown louder with each question, and the kid was returning his anger glare for glare. He tried to speak more quietly, but frustration roughened his tone. “Kid, I want to know what your name is and what you are doing here.  And I want to know it now!”

Austinappeared to listen attentively, then pulled back his shoulders and stood as tall as he could.

“I’m here because I got out of the van to go potty and then I saw your new Freightliner Coronado.”

Jake noticed that he recited the truck name with pride.

“My whole entire life I wanted to see inside of one for real, so I just climbed in—and I guess I fell asleep.” He squinted his eyes. “And I don’t like to be yelled at, neither.”

“All right, I’m not yelling, but you’d better tell me your name and where you belong, so we can get you back to your folks.”  Jake wasn’t accustomed to being corrected by a kid. “So no more back talk out of you. Didn’t your mother tell you not to get into other people’s cars?”

“Ha!”Austinstuck out his chin. “I didn’t get in other people’s cars.  This is a truck. Don’t you even know what you drive, Mister?”

“Very funny. Just give me your dad’s name.”

The kid looked sullen and refused to make eye contact.  Now what?

“Listen, I’m a dad, too, so I know how worried your father must be.  Let’s see…my little boy, Joey is six years old now and you’re lots bigger.  How old are you?  Almost eight?” Jake didn’t think the boy was quite that old, but he knew boys like to think they look bigger and older than they really are.

Austinkept his chin in the air, and didn’t answer or look at him.

“Hey, I’ll tell you my name.  I’m Jake.  What do they call you?”

No answer.

“You’re gonna make me guess, aren’t you?  Okay, let’s see: Oscar?  Is your name Oscar?  No.  Willie Wonka? No. Uh…Leroy?  That’s it.  Leroy.  Okay, LEEroy, where’d you come from?”

The kid finally looked at him.  A trace of a grin.

“I’m six, you silly!  Well, almost seven. And my name is NOT LEEroy.  I’m not telling you my name.”

“Okay, six-year-old Not-LEEroy.  So when did you get in my truck?  Can you tell me that?”

“Last night. Before I went to sleep.”

“Do you know where you were?  Were you near your house?”

“We were at the place with all the trucks, only the other ones were farther away from my daddy’s van.”

“But was that near your house?”  This was like pulling teeth. He found himself clenching his.

“No.”

“That’s it, Not-Leroy?  Just ‘no’ it wasn’t near your house?  How do you know it wasn’t near your house?”

“Because we rode in the van all day already before we got to the place with all the trucks,”Austinexplained patiently, as if it were obvious.

As they idled there on the shoulder of the off-ramp, three other tractor-trailer rigs passed Jake’s truck, but didn’t appear to slow down or check him out. While it was more usual for trucks to rest on the edge of an on-ramp, sleepy truckers might occasionally take a short break on the off-ramp.  All the same, the longer he sat here, the greater the likelihood that someone might take note, and right now, staying out of anybody’s notice ranked as numero uno on Jake’s short list of objectives.

He had to give it another try, although extracting information from Not-Leroy was shaping up to be a job for a better sleuth than he considered himself to be.

“Well, Not-Leroy, did your mom and dad know you got in the truck with me?”

Pay dirt.  The kid enjoyed a bit of deceit; he could tell it by the twinkle in his eyes, as he bragged, “No I am a biotechnicoid boy…”

“Hold on there, Not-Leroy, I never heard of a biotechnicoid anything! Don’t you be making things up on me!”

“Of course you never heard of it.  I invented it, is why.  I’m faster than Superman, more sneaky than Spiderman.  I can swoop into a room before anybody knows it.”

Arms straight out as wings,Austindived and swooped to the limits of the cab.

Jake had to smile; the child had the commanding presence of a half-grown chicken.

Austinsat down and faced Jake, apparently sure he had made his case.  “You didn’t see me get in your truck, did you?  See, I told you! And if I wanted to get out of the truck I could do it and you wouldn’t see me then, neither.”

“You know what? You watch way too much TV. Your mother didn’t teach you any manners, either, did she?  You’ve got a lot of nerve sassing me right after you scared me half to death by showing up!”

“There!  You said you were scared.  I’m not scared.  Biotechnicoid boys do not get scared.”Austinhad apparently forgotten his alarm in those first couple of minutes when he woke up and Jake talked so loud.

“I always wanted to ride in a truck like this and now I can,” he went on.  “There’s plenty of room in here for me, and I can pour coffee for you and, and lotsa other stuff while you drive. We can be partners.” He crossed his arms, satisfied with himself.

Jake leaned back in his seat looking out of the windshield at the tired glare of the station’s lights, trying to think. He knew he should take the child to a police station.

Yeah, right, he thought, I’ll drive myself up to the next highway patrol car, and tell them this little blond boy just happened to show up in my truck, and anyway, that kidnapping deal two years ago was bogus.  Yep, that’s what I’ll do. And Mr. Patrolman, friendly peace officer in blue or khaki or whatever they wear around here, will say “That’s all right, Jake, my man.  You go on your way and God bless you.”  Sure he will. Right.  And then my fairy godmother will exchange this kid for my own boy and we’ll all ride into the sunset together.  Happy ever after, amen.

Another truck rolled down the ramp. He couldn’t stay here. He had to find a safe place to try to figure out what to do.

Safe. But where?

A gentle memory tweaked the corner of his mind. Crazy idea.

Maybe not so crazy. He’d only met them once, but there was something about them…He didn’t trust too many people, but he knew they were solid; trustworthy.

He made up his mind.

“You go on back there and get back to sleep.  We’ll talk later.”

“Easy,” he told himself, “easy does it.”

He coasted down the off-ramp and into the parking area of the truck stop.  In a neatly parked row, about a dozen big rigs idled while their owners napped in the sleeper beds.  Jake managed to position his truck between two others.

He reached for his cell phone and started keying in the number when he remembered what time it was. And how traceable cell phones were. Replacing the phone after clicking it to the “off” position, he ran his hand over his face and rubbed his palms on his jeans.

Ignoring the “No Drop Zone” sign, he kept the engine at a low idle speed, jumped out, unhitched his trailer—a flatbed loaded with pallets of five-gallon bulk paint cans covered with a tarp—and hopped back into the cab. Then still at a gentle, quiet speed that wouldn’t awaken other drivers, he glided away from them and headed back out to the highway.

At the next exit, he turned south into the Ozarks and disappeared.

Chapter 3—Friday Morning, Dallas

Tina reached out to shut off the alarm without opening her eyes, and rolled over on her back, glowing with rosy well being and joyful anticipation.  Today was Friday.  Tomorrow she’d see him. Stretching her arms above her head and inhaling deeply, she willed herself to remember his aftershave.  Mmmmmmm.  Obsession. Good name.  Intoxicating.  Or maybe Jake didn’t need help being intoxicating.  She melted—giddy—when he held her in his arms, looking into her eyes as if he wanted to see into her very soul.  He sometimes called her “kitten” because he said her eyes were as green as a cat’s.

He might even call tonight.

So far she had been able to resist his gentle attempts at physical intimacy, despite her own yearnings. It wasn’t easy.  When she let her guard down, like now, before she was fully awake, she played over and over again in her mind the way he talked to her, soft and low, his lips barely brushing hers, telling her how beautiful she was, how much he liked kissing her.

Tomorrow, when he holds me close against his chest, I’ll bury my face in his neck and breathe him in.  I’ll forget all the nights I’ve tossed and turned, longing for him.

“Stop it!” she told herself, sitting up straight.

Schotzie jumped when she spoke, but not in time to avoid being hit by Tina’s legs as she swung them out of bed and, without looking, into her green satin scuffs. Years of nothing moving unless she moved it, she thought, suddenly weary of her well-ordered life.  It would be nice to have somebody else with her in this apartment for a change, somebody who might bump her slippers out of the exact place she left them.  Even Schotzie left them untouched.

“You are a poor excuse for a dog, Schotzie.  What kind of a dog doesn’t drag his mistress’ slippers around the house?”

Schotzie, a trim Miniature Schnauzer, raised one eyebrow in a what’s-your-problem gesture, put his ears and tail down and backed away from her, obviously offended at being scolded so early in the morning.

“Awww, don’t pout. You’re good company, Schotz, and I do like a warm body around the place, but one of these days…”

One of these days, what? One of these days I’ll let Jake stay over?  I don’t think so.  One of these days, I hope, I’ll grow up.  I’ll know better than to lie in bed thinking about him until I’m all in the mood.  I need to go outside and walk this off.

She dropped the ribbon straps off her shoulders and her gown slipped down into an emerald-green satin puddle on the floor. She pulled on gray sweats and slid a wide headband over her straight, shoulder length red hair. After brushing her teeth she usually dropped to the floor for a few slow stretches before putting on socks and running shoes, but today she skipped her little warm-up routine.

Schotzie sighed resignedly and did a few lazy stretches of his own before Tina attached his leash and walked out the door with him.

She started off at a quick pace, risking leg cramps. By the time she had covered a third of her usual distance, her breath came in short gasps and sweat soaked her headband.

Walking around the apartment complex helped her wake up and pumped up her energy level before the day’s work.  At this hour, her neighbors were in a hurry to go to work and paid no attention to her. She felt free to pray aloud.

First she sorted out her thoughts.

“I blew it again. I can’t start that whole physical thing all over again; that’s how trouble started last time. Richard was a hunk, no doubt about it, and I fell hard. But after the wedding I found out that’s all he was.  It was such a hot romance that I never even noticed he that lied about everything, often when it would have been easier to tell the truth. When I think of all the times he worked late…”

If she ever married again, she determined, it would be different. Not that she discounted the value of the bedroom, but she remembered her grandparents sitting and talking at the kitchen table, her grandmother waxing enthusiastic about one thing or scolding about something else, her grandfather laughing and enjoying her spirit, both obviously fascinated with the other. They had a real romance! Tina wanted a marriage like theirs. She had no intention of going into another relationship if she couldn’t be sure that it had its roots in mutual love and respect, the kind of marriage that would carry them loving and laughing into a ripe old age.

Alex waved as he drove off. She’d see him at work later. Her first appointment wasn’t until 10:45, and she had time for a long prayer walk. Good thing, too.

“What’s the matter with me, Lord? I know what happens when I lie there, thinking of Jake, stirring up all those feelings. That’s what will be on my mind when I see him. Talk about setting myself up for a fall.”

She went through her usual concerns, praying for everything she could think of: safe travel for Jake, Jake’s salvation, Alex’s salvation, her grandparents’ health, her own work and safety.  She asked God to put a watch over her mouth to keep her from inadvertently saying something to Jake that might put him off the whole idea of becoming a Christian.

That’s when she cried.

“I’m so lonely, Father, I don’t know what to do. I know You love me, but how can I ever trust myself to a man again?  How can I believe a man means it when he says he loves me?  Am I going to be alone for the rest of my life?

And Jake! He’ll never trust another woman.  Why would he? And even though he wants me, he never mentions marriage.  He’s not a Christian and I couldn’t marry him anyway…oh, what’s the use?”

Sobbing, she could barely see where she was going and narrowly missed being hit by a car backing out of a driveway.  The driver honked and rolled down his window.

“Are you going to be all right? Can I do something to help?  Call somebody?”

“No, it’s just a bad morning,” she managed to say, “I’ll be okay in a minute.”

The driver waved and drove away, and before he raised the window, she heard a snatch of a song on his car radio, “He knows all about it…”

A wave of peace, like a cool breeze, washed over her.  God does know all about it, she thought, and He loves me even when I make dumb mistakes.

All at once she again felt the way she had that night, only about a year ago, when Jesus first made Himself known to her. Now it was if she and Jesus had their own wonderful secret, and she could believe she was completely accepted and loved.

So relieved she felt like laughing, she couldn’t wait to go home to read her Psalms for the day.

The phone rang as Tina and her dog walked in the door. It was Angie, inviting her to bring Jake to their apartment for dinner some evening while he was in town.  Tina told her it sounded like fun, then bit her lip for lying.

“So, girlfriend, is tomorrow night the night?” Angie asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do; for Mr. Right to spend the night.”

“No, it’s not, and I don’t know if he’s Mr. Right.”

“Then, isn’t it time to find out? What are you going to do—wait till you’re married to find out there’s no chemistry?”

“There’s plenty of chemistry, but…”

“Admit it; you’ve thought about it!”

“Of course I have. Why are we having this conversation—again?  I’m a Christian now, things are supposed to be different!”

“Yeah, yeah, but God knows we’re only human, and He forgives us for it.”

“Oh, Angie, let’s change the subject. Better yet, I’ll talk to you later—I have to go now.”

“Okay, hon. Just remember what Angie says—try before you buy!” Click.

Tina hung up the phone, cranky that her good feelings had evaporated.

She fed the dog before stripping off her sweats and sneakers and turning on the shower.  She stood in the shower a long time, inviting the hot water to clear her head.  As she rinsed out the shampoo, she thought about the phone call.

She and Angie, also divorced, met at church.  Tina had attended that evening at the invitation of one of her clients. Angie had gone to church all of her life. “Born and bred on a church pew,” she told anybody who asked.

Angie, like Tina, was 27 years old, and, also like Tina, involved with a man she truly cared about.  She often brought Ted to church with her, and didn’t try to hide the fact that they were living together, although Tina had a hard time believing Pastor Frank and Dottie would approve if they knew.

Angie actually talked about having a baby with Ted, even though she knew he didn’t want any more than the two children he had with his first wife. “He’d get over it,” Angie claimed.  “I’d tell him it was an accident.”

When Tina asked about Ted’s spiritual life, Angie had laughed off the question. “He believes in God, of course.  He just doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve the way some people do. I don’t like that, either. I hate it when people talk religion all of the time.  Can’t they ever be normal?” She went on without waiting for an answer.  “He’s a good person, Tina.  He gives money to Children’s Hospital and the animal shelter, and…well, he’s a better man than most of those stuffy old church people.”

As Tina stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel turban around her wet hair, Angie’s remarks bounced around and echoed inside her head, sounding even more inane now than they had the first time she heard them.

“And why is she so concerned with my love life, anyway?” She asked the dog.  “You aren’t much of a conversationalist, are you?” Schotzie cocked his head in a quizzical look.

Tina turned her attention back to thoughts of Jake. With a clear head now, not clouded by physical desires, she had to concede that he treated her with utmost respect.  A strong man, muscular—especially his arms and chest—he always held her gently, as if she were a fragile treasure.  She dabbed away tears with a corner of the towel. “You are a wonderful, sweet man, Jake. I think I might truly love you.”

Chapter 4—Friday,ArkansasOzarks

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?”Austinasked, 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?”Austinwas 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 persuadingAustinto 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 seemedAustindidn’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?”

Austinlooked 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.”

Austinpressed 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.

Austinglared 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 atAustin.  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 howAustinhad 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.”

Austinclimbed 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!”

Austinslid 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 andAustinfollowed 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5—Friday Morning, Dallas

Alex James patted his back pocket and preened before the full-length foyer mirror of his luxury apartment. Not bad for 41: face unlined. Flat belly. Dark brown hair receding gracefully.

He strapped on his sable leather fanny pack and checked its contents: three pairs of gold shears and five razors, four combs, all cleaned, sharpened and sanitized for his clients. Before sliding his appointment book into his back pocket, he glanced at the day’s schedule and frowned.  Friday: Gloria Stoner at 10:00. Permand trim.  That should take him up through lunch.

Tina once told him Gloria was only about thirty pounds overweight.  Only thirty pounds?  He’d be an absolute blimp with thirty extra pounds, and he had too much self-respect to let that happen.

Backing his black Trooper out of the garage he saw Tina walking Schotzie, a perky Miniature Schnauzer who strutted like a tiny bearded pony. Alex supposed half the Schnauzers in the world bore the affectionate German name, Schotzie.  How trite.  She must not have scheduled any early morning appointments, he guessed.

Traffic on 75 Central expressway proceeded at a sluggish crawl, as usual.  He congratulated himself again for moving to a salon atCollinCreek, thus avoiding having to spend his first morning hours dodging the morning madness.  If anybody ever wondered where “road rage” originated he’d nominate this engineering nightmare.  An obvious choice for commuters, it aimed at a diagonal for downtownDallas.  Already more vehicle traffic swarmed over it every day than the planners designed it to carry in a week, and they had only recently finished the huge so-called improvement project.

He hit his brakes as taillights flashed red up ahead, stopping behind a Lexus driven by a 30-something brunette stretching toward the rearview mirror while applying lipstick.  As he waited for traffic to move again he mused about Tina.

She had been late to work a few times in recent weeks—a whole day late returning from a “short trip to visit relatives”—and he sometimes caught her staring dreamy-eyed at nothing in particular. If he didn’t know better he’d suspect a new romance, but she told him everything, he was sure of it, and she’d never mentioned a new man in her life.  He had introduced her to his brother a few months ago, but then never heard any more about it from either of them.  He thought they’d make a good pair—both recovering from painful divorces, but then his brother made no bones about being a rank heathen and Tina probably couldn’t handle that.

Tina truly was a good person, of that he had no doubt.  Despite being one of those “born-agains,” she had an open and tolerant way of dealing with people. After her divorce from that wretched Richard Hilbert, she moved into building six atFultonTowers, across the courtyard from his apartment.

Last week he told her that he thought she spent too much time reading murder mysteries, especially since her habit seemed to have led to Tina and Gloria Stoner, of all people, developing a friendship of sorts. Whenever the two women happened to be in the salon at the same time they chatted endlessly about the books they enjoyed.  “A good puzzle,” he’d overheard Gloria tell Tina.  She didn’t want to be frightened, she’d said, she simply loved a good puzzle.

Besides the addiction to murder mysteries, Gloria and Tina had that born-again foolishness in common. They stopped talking whenever he walked near them and that made him uneasy.  He certainly couldn’t see anything in Gloria even vaguely interesting to anybody, never mind a drop-dead gorgeous little firecracker like Tina, but he didn’t want to lose her as a client, either.

Truth is, Gloria nettled him on several levels. Beginning with her first appointment, she openly expressed her disapproval of people who lived what she called “an alternative lifestyle,” obviously implying, because he had never married, that she thought he was one such person. Her assessment was correct, but he had no intention of educating her about it. Let her think what she wants to, he thought. In fact, he deliberately fluttered around her in the manner she likely would expect of a male hair stylist, just because he knew it confirmed her prejudices.

She never missed a chance to talk about “the Lord,” or to say she was praying for him. But she didn’t quite fit the pattern of the Christian right-wing nut.

They—right-wing screwballs—all hated him, of that he was sure.

A tiny memory cloud wafted its guilty path across his mind.  “Right wing screwballs” might be a little harsh, he supposed.  True, his mother had used her Bible as a cudgel on him, but she didn’t hate him, and calling her a screwball dishonored her memory.  He had no wish to do that.

It didn’t add up. Gloria seemed to truly enjoy his company.  When she came in she always said, “Dish the dirt, Alex. What’s happening around here?” He could usually come up with an anecdote or two, and the more he camped it up, the harder she laughed and the more she egged him on.

He didn’t understand her.

“Of course you don’t understand her, genius,” he told himself as the traffic inched forward, “she’s a pain in the neck; just leave it at that.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6—Friday Morning, Dallas

Gloria Stoner maneuvered her silver Volvo into the alley, made a mental note to remind Will about selling some of his o-gauge train collection before it took over her side of the garage, and drove east towardCollinCreek.  On the way to the salon she needed to drop off dry cleaning, buy books at the half-priced bookstore and then pick up a strawberry-banana-yogurt smoothie to sip while Alex rolled her perm.

Alex.  A real piece of work. He probably has unresolved issues with his mother, she mused, vaguely grumpy about the slight tension she felt in his presence.  Gloria guessed Alex’s mother might carry a few extra pounds, too. “You think I don’t know how you feel about me, but I do,” she imagined herself saying to him. “You always talk about being tolerant. Well, that should mean that you can tolerate me as well as I tolerate you.”

“What a great witness that would be!” She scolded herself aloud.

More than tolerating him, she’d actually grown rather fond of him, and not simply because he styled her hair better than any stylist she’d ever had. She wondered how her mother had managed her elaborate coif—a 1940’s version of the French twist Gloria now wore.

Her mother, Alicia, had been 81 when she died last year, mentally sharp until the stroke a few months before her death.

Gloria remembered, with shame, that she had been barely aware of her mother’s existence during those earlier years when she and Will were raising their children.

For months after the funeral she’d frantically tried to recall the last time she and her mother went shopping together, or lunched together. But she couldn’t remember. If only she hadn’t been so busy.  No, it wasn’t about being busy. Not during these last years, with no children at home anymore. It was about seeing her mother as a person, someone with something unique to say.

Her mother had a great sense of humor; she knew she would never forget that. Gloria wished she had inherited her mother’s sunny disposition instead of her father’s propensity for depression.

She would give anything right now to go out for lunch with her.  She’d ask her about her friends and hobbies, and her mom would make amusing stories of every encounter.

No, no, no!  She suddenly realized she was doing it again, thinking of ordinary conversation, talking about mundane matters, avoiding genuine, heart-to-heart communion. What she really wanted to hear was her mother’s heart. Had the young Alicia had dreams?  How had it turned out for her? Did she ever find, as Gloria had, that faith in God carried one through broken dreams and times of sorrow?

When Laura is with me these next days, I hope she and I will be able to chat about these things.  I hope we can share our hearts with one another. She shook her head and smiled at her fanciful thinking.  As if, with children underfoot, they’d ever have a chance to go from one end of a sentence to the other!

Nearing her first stop, her thoughts went back to Alex.  He thought she hated him, she knew that. Well, she didn’t actually know that, but he often used the word “haters” when referring to Christians. It grieved her to realize he couldn’t comprehend the baseline truth that, as a follower of Christ, she couldn’t afford to hate anybody. She couldn’t pretend she approved of his lifestyle of course, but it wasn’t disapproval so much as knowing he’d been created for a richer, fuller life.

Ahmed, a handsome young Pakistani, began writing her ticket before she stepped out of the car, and when she dropped her armload of dry cleaning and laundry on the counter he had only to count Will’s shirts and hand her the claim check. When she asked about Shoab, their new baby boy, his eyes sparkled as he told her that the baby slept four hours without waking the night before. Ahmed had the prettiest eyes and the longest eyelashes she’d ever seen on anybody, male or female.

As she drove away she smiled to herself.  By this time tomorrow she’d have her own babies with her.  She missed them so.  Where were they now? Laura said they would drive straight through—David didn’t mind driving all night. That way the kids could sleep at least half of the eleven hundred miles fromGreen BaytoDallas.

Perfect Image Salon and Day Spa inCollinCreekbuzzed with activity this Friday morning, its mirrored walls gleaming, reflecting neon tubes encircling center pillars.  Gloria looked around as she walked in, disappointed when she couldn’t spot Tina.  Gloria enjoyed the way Tina teased Alex, managing to slip in a comment about the Lord whenever she could.

“You and I, Tina,” she once told her, “will reach this arrogant young man, you mark my words.  Alex needs to have the Lord in his life whether he knows it or not.”

Tina had winked at her behind Alex’s back.

When Gloria had her hair done last week she remembered thinking Tina looked happy and relaxed.  Must have a new man in her life.  She hoped he was a believer.  Happily married herself, she was convinced that matrimony was the preferred lifestyle, and an entitlement for anyone as beautiful inside and out as Tina.

Chapter 7—Friday Morning, Dallas

“C’mon over here, Sugar,” Alex called from the shampoo sink.  “Leave all your bits and pieces at my station and we’ll begin. See? I already have the Synerfusion ready. That perm works so well on your gorgeous hair.”

She complied, placing her big black purse, umbrella and the smoothie on the spot he had indicated, walked over to the sink and sat down.  Leaning back, she rested her neck on the thick towel Alex provided, and began to relax as he pulled the pins out of her hairdo and ran his fingers through her long, thick hair.  She sighed happily as he began running warm water over her head.

“How have you been this week, Darlin’?  Have you been to the big linens sale at J.C. Penney?” He went on without waiting for an answer.  “I haven’t had a chance yet though Lord knows I need new bed linens.  It’s just that, with a king-sized bed, each sheet simply costs too dear.  I can’t bear to sleep on anything less than 400-count pure cotton, but now they are on sale for only $45 each, isn’t that marvelous?  I saw identical linens for $149 at Niemanns just last week.”

“Yes, Alex, it is truly marvelous the way the Lord does know what you need.  He knows all of your needs, and your greatest need is spiritual.  I’m not saying that’s true for only you, dear. For all of us, our spiritual needs are greatest.”

Alex cursed himself inwardly for even a casual mention of “the Lord.”  He might have known she’d jump on any chance to preach.

“Oh, honey, I know that,” he chortled, “that’s why He sent you in here for a perm today.  He knew I’d need the extra money.”  She was a great tipper, he remembered.

“I didn’t see Tina when I came in.  She still works here, doesn’t she?”

“Why, how sweet of you to ask about her!” he enthused, patting her on the shoulder to emphasize the word ‘sweet’. “You know she lives in our apartment complex now, don’t you?  Well, I saw her as I left to come here today, walking her dear little doggie as she does every morning.  I’m sure she’ll be in soon.  She probably didn’t have a nine o’clock.”

She didn’t hear her cell phone when it rang.  Alex had set the timer and put her under the dryer to process her perm.  It took three rings before he figured out that the sound emanated from his station where she’d stashed her purse.  He brought it to her and made the phone call signal with his thumb and pinkie.  He lifted the dryer hood to minimize interference, and frankly eavesdropped on her side of the conversation.

“What’s the matter? Why are you calling here?”

“What do you mean, missing?  Missing from where?”

“LostAustin?! How could they loseAustin?”

“Have you called the police?”

“I’m not screaming!”

“Never mind my tone of voice, Will! Tell me what’s going on!”

As her voice increased in volume with each remark, all stylists and customers in the salon stopped whatever they were doing, probably so they wouldn’t miss anything about a juicy story that had the makings of becoming more exciting with every telling.

“I can’t leave right now, I’m in the middle of processing.  I’ll come as soon as I can.”

“Processing.  I’m having a perm.”

“You’re handling it?  You’re handling it?  What are you doing to handle it?”

“Where are the girls?  Is anyone watching the babies?”

Alex clamped his hands to his cheeks helplessly, listening with an open mouth. Gloria’s voice had launched itself into whole new octaves.

“I am not hysterical!  Stop telling me how to feel!”

She pulled the phone away from her ear, stared at it, and fainted, slumping gracelessly in her chair and sliding to the floor in slow motion, oblivious to her nosy audience.  After a few seconds they all regained their voices at the same time and rushed over to her.

Alex fluttered his hands ineffectually while moving first to one side of the dryer chair and then the other, making little mewling noises, beseeching Gloria to talk to him.

“Is she dead?” he cried out to Tina as she walked into the salon just in time to hear eight stylists yelling questions and instructions at each other while ignoring the woman who lay in a heap on the floor.

“Back off,” she barked. She knelt down, gently straightened Gloria’s legs, and considerately pulled the unconscious woman’s long skirt over her knees.

She grabbed a couple of clean towels to put under Gloria’s perm-rod-covered head, and began fanning her with a magazine from a rack beside the dryer chair, all the while laying one hand on her shoulder and talking softly, almost crooning.

Alex heard a word or two now and then.  He guessed she might be praying and felt relief in spite of himself. He caught himself wishing he remembered how to pray.

Everybody jumped when the timer went off, and it apparently brought Gloria back to full consciousness, too.  She began sobbing.

“My grandson.  My beautiful grandbaby boy.  He’s gone. I can’t do this again.”

For a few rare seconds, the salon was silent, but quickly erupted again in a general buzz of disbelief.

Alex stepped forward and offered his hand to help her up, his affected speech abandoned.

“Listen, Sugar, we have to finish this perm and send you home.  C’mon now, you can do it.  I’ll work ever so fast and we’ll have you looking fabulous in no time.”

One arm over her shoulders, he led her back to the shampoo sink so he could pour on neutralizer and finish the perm. As she sat down he patted her arm awkwardly.

Questions came at her from every side.  All she did was weep, murmur thank-yous and grab the tissues offered with each question.

Alex, confused and incredulous himself, shooed away the noisy gallery with “I’m sure you all mean well, dears, but Gloria is my customer and I must insist you afford her some privacy in her hour of need,” and applied himself to finishing her perm as fast as he could. Poor woman! As tiresome as he usually found her, he hated for anyone to be so terribly upset.

“Will your handsome hubby be coming here to pick you up, Sugar?  I don’t want you to be driving out there in the condition you’re in.”

That seemed to be the wrong thing to say.  Her shoulders shook with sobbing.

“Tina, honey, can’t you do something?” He stared at his hands as he realized he’d been rubbing his head with both of them.  He rinsed them off before continuing to remove perm rods while Tina talked to her.

“What about Will, Gloria?  Shall I call him and tell him to come for you?”

Tina’s questions were answered with furious head shaking, greatly distressing Alex, and renewed sobbing.

One by one the stylists returned to their stations, and Gloria gradually calmed down but she still couldn’t speak, or wouldn’t, nor did she raise her eyes to look at anyone.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Tina paused for a moment, but she couldn’t see any way to help Gloria at the moment, and her own client waited at her station, hair parted off and ready for color application.

Tina’s shiny, new-copper-penny-colored tresses inspired her less gloriously crowned clients to beg her to transform their mousy-drab locks, hoping that by copying her hair color they could somehow become as stunning and winsome as Tina.

She tried.

She had developed a number of tints and toners, depending on the shade the client presented, and frequently the reflection in the mirror pleased the subject.  Just as frequently, she would receive a phone call a week or two later complaining that after shampooing it just wasn’t the same.

That was a mystery to Tina until she carefully observed one woman after another, as she styled their hair after coloring, and found that a woman’s eyes invariably met her own in the mirror, rather than looking at her own face and hair.  Evidently her clients somehow expected to look like Tina when they returned to their real lives.

This morning she wasn’t concerned about that.  Of course she tended with great care the intricacies of mixing colors and toners, but her mind never strayed far from her friend Gloria, so very grieved, in Alex’s station.

Alex cast quick glances at Tina, his eyes begging for understanding, but Tina felt as befuddled as he seemed.

Missing?  Gloria’s grandson, missing?  She searched her brain, and as nearly as she could remember, Gloria only had one grandson, a little boy.  A very young boy, if her memory served.  How awful.  No wonder Gloria was beside herself.  Who wouldn’t be?

Perhaps Jake would have some ideas about how to find the boy.  She made a mental note to ask him about it when she saw him tomorrow.

On the other hand, that question might be too painful for him.  He had told her all about his son, Joey, of course, and the terrible thing Jake had been accused of doing to him.  She remembered saying something like that to him—“the terrible thing you were accused of,” and of Jake becoming very upset.

“The terrible thing I was accused of wasn’t nearly as terrible as what was really happening to him—maybe still is,” he’d said. Because of the pain in his voice, she had thought it was time to change the subject, so she began chattering about something else.

He’d touched her cheek so tenderly then.  “I’m all right, Kitten. Don’t be afraid to talk to me about Joey, or Annie, either.  I can’t help thinking about them all the time, but being with you helps me feel better.”

That same evening, while they sat outside on a bench, waiting for an available table at Macaroni Grill, a young family with three little boys—stair-stepped in height—waited with them.  When they became impatient and whiny, Jake had dashed into the restaurant and emerged a minute later with paper cups. He then sat on the concrete in front of the family, and engaged the boys in a sleight-of-hand game, hiding a quarter under one of three cups. He slid the cups around as fast as the pavement allowed, and asked them to tell him which cup hid the quarter. The boys’ wide-eyed amazement gave way to giggles when Jake occasionally “found” the quarter behind one of the boys’ ears.

“Are you a Dad?” one of them asked.

“Naww, he’s an uncle, I bet.  Dad’s don’t do stuff like that; uncles do,” his brother countered.

At that moment their buzzer had gone off, indicating their table was ready.  Jake rubbed the nearest kid’s head and started to walk away, but the other two insisted on having their heads rubbed, too.  “Bye, Uncle!”

“I know you’re a great Dad,” Tina had whispered.

She remembered that he’d held her hand more tightly than he ever had before.

“I could be,” he’d said.

~~~~~~

Alex worked feverishly, but it was nearly an hour later by the time Gloria’s heavy hair was dry and coifed stylishly in her customary French twist.  In all that time she never said a word. He oohed and ahhed, the way he always did, about how beautifully streaks of her graying blonde hair, almost white, folded into the twist and made the soft curls surrounding her face “positively glow.” But she didn’t respond as she usually did with proclamations of his styling proficiency.

Wordlessly she paid her bill, gave him a handsome tip, and left.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8—Friday noon, Dallas

At first Gloria couldn’t remember where she’d parked her car, but when she punched the security lock button on her remote key entry device, the lights began blinking, the horn sounded, and she walked toward it, surprised she could walk at all, or breathe.

She struggled to rein in her racing thoughts to keep from imagining what horrible things might be happening toAustinright now.  Yes, he was an unruly little boy, and mischief oozed from his every pore, but his big blue eyes were just like Laura’s. AndBryan’s. She started weeping again, remembering her children’s eyes growing red-rimmed before the tears began to flow. Austin’s eyes did that, too, and his eyelashes were long and wispy, and white—almost invisible—like Laura’s. AndBryan’s.  Like a breath and just as fragile.  Where could he be?  What could have happened to him?

She positioned herself behind the wheel, started the car to turn on the air conditioning, then dug into her purse to find her cell phone, blessing the person who had thoughtfully returned it to her handbag.

Suellen Kelly answered her cell phone on the first ring. Will had already called to tell her aboutAustin, and to say that he was worried about his wife.

“I am not hysterical. He already accused me of that when he called.  And besides, my reactions are quite beside the point, as I told him on the phone.”

“Where are you right now?  I’m on Park and Alma and I’m coming to drive you home.”

“I’m in my car, ready to leave. I can drive my own car. But I need to see you. I’ll wait here—I’m in the parking lot outside ofCollinCreek, on the west side. Oh! I see your car already.  Slow down, lady, you’re driving like a crazy person!”

With all the eagerness and warmth of a time-tested friendship, Suellen and Gloria jumped out of their cars and flew into each other’s arms. They held one another for a long moment and then Suellen took Gloria’s hand and led her back to the Volvo.

“This is scary,” Suellen said simply. “Real life scary.  And so much unknown.”

Gloria nodded, fighting tears.

“Are you sure you’re all right to drive?” Suellen asked.

“Yes.  I’ll be fine. In fact, the drive will be good for me.  I’ll be glad for the time to pull myself together before I see Will.  Driving relaxes me, in a way.  When I was younger and it all got to be too much for me, I loved to head out to a country road and drive fast; somehow it helped clear my head.”

“I suggest you call Will before you go looking for a country road. If you try to find a long stretch where you can drive fast you won’t be home before morning.”

“Now.”  Suellen placed her hands on Gloria’s shoulders and locked onto her eyes, compelling her to listen.  “Stop and think: Remember all the roads we’ve gone down before this one? Remember the times we thought it was hopeless—like Eric’s accident when they told us he’d never live, and now he’s strong and healthy, pestering the fool out of his sisters and giving us all fits because he’s so active and smart?”

Gloria nodded, remembering. “And God was faithful.  Always.”

“Yes. Remember how often we’ve talked about finding the quiet place,” Suellen went on, her voice filled with compassion. “Remember?  The place where we’re held safe in Jesus.  ‘The place’ doesn’t simply remove fear—it transcends fear, and the emotions of the moment. I’m praying for you, my dear friend, and reminding you that you are safely in His care. He’s on the case, isn’t He? We have history, you and I, with God and with each other.  We can rest our trust in Him. We wouldn’t willingly go through any of it—Bryan, Eric, and now this—but He has turned those things, as He always does and always will, into rivers of living water. You know you can draw from that well now.”

There was silence for a minute or so while both women wept quietly.  Suellen was the first to regain her voice.   “Now take a few deep breaths and call Will. Tell him you’re okay.  He’s awfully worried about you.  He needs you, Gloria. Will adoresAustin.  I’ve watched when they play together with the trains, and I’ve never in my life seen a more patient Grandpa. It’s as if Will feels privileged to have a little boy to play with again.”

“You’re right. Austinis his favorite. Not that he doesn’t love the babies, but you know how men are.  The babies make him nervous andAustinis older. He’s so different withAustin, as if maybe he thinksAustinis like him, which he isn’t, not in the least.  Will is so controlled and calm, whileAustincan be awfully naughty sometimes…” She stopped herself from rattling on.

“I’m sure I would have picked that boy up by his heels and given him a long overdue spanking,” she said, “but not Will.  He just fixes whatAustinbreaks and cleans up whatever he spills.” She could feel her heart slow down as she pictured the two of them playing model railroad games of pretend.

“You need to go home now and take care of Will. Stephen and I are praying for all of you,” Suellen said.

“Thank you!  You’re a real friend—I love you!”

Gracious, beautiful Suellen, polished and refined—“a classy dame,” Will called her.  Although Suellen and Stephen moved in much more upscale circles than did Gloria and Will, she was the most uncompromisingly Christian woman Gloria had ever known, hardly empty-headed or superficial.

For all the years they’d known one another, she and Suellen deepened and enriched their friendship by reminding each other, during times of crisis, of God’s great love and faithfulness. They always helped each other find “the place,” no matter what was going on.  “The place” was the term they used to describe a dwelling place in the Spirit where they knew they were close to the heart of God, “sheltered in His pavilion.”

When Will and Gloria’s sonBryanwas diagnosed with cancer, Suellen’s unflagging prayers for the family inspired all of them to trust and hope.

Not that she’d felt all that spiritual during the long weeks of waiting and watchingBryan’s life slip away.  One night Will had gone to the hospital without her, insisting that she stay home and rest a few hours. She’d waited until the garage door had closed, and then had stomped around the house, raging, howling with grief.  Tears coursed down her cheeks now, remembering that Will had reappeared then, sensing that she needed him.  They held on to each other until their arms ached, weeping, praying.  They prayed earnestly forBryan’s healing, but neither one ever had an “inner knowing” that he was, in fact, going to be healed this side of Heaven.

“Oh Father,” Gloria had cried, “I know there’s a place of quiet rest near to Your heart, but I can’t find it by myself.  Help me, Lord.”

One hard, cold morning, she and Will met Suellen in the family waiting room at the hospital to tell her it was over.Bryanwas in the presence of the Father.  Gloria would never forget the moment.  She and Suellen, tears streaming down their faces, spoke in unison. “God is good.”

Eric’s near-drowning in the backyard pool plunged the Kellys into a crisis just a year afterBryandied.  No one knew exactly what happened. Will thought it was likely that nine-year-old Eric and his friends were playing cannonball or just horsing around, as boys do, and Eric accidentally hit his head on the side of the pool.  Suellen had turned her back for only a minute it seemed, when she heard the boys screaming in the back yard.  She ran out to find her son face down in the water.  By the time paramedics arrived nobody knew how long he’d been unconscious, not breathing.

Paramedics revived him and took him to the hospital where Dr. Ben Rogers, Will’s college classmate, told the Stoners confidentially they might have been better off not reviving the boy at all.  The prognosis was grim.  If he ever came out of the coma, which Ben deemed extremely unlikely, Eric would probably have severe brain damage and might have to live out his life in a vegetative state.  He certainly would never walk again, Ben and consulting physicians predicted.

Gloria remembered holding her trembling friend in her arms, crooning over the shattered woman as if she were a babe in arms. Suellen couldn’t stop blaming herself.  From a well of faith deeper than she’d ever known before, Gloria, weeping, told her that God loved Eric and that somehow she knew that God was touched with her pain, that He wept with her.

After the first week, Suellen came to her and said, “My friend, I want to declare something in your hearing, and if I waver, I want you to remind me. It’s this: If God heals Eric, God is good.  Whether Eric lives or dies, God is good.”

Gloria had been a friend to the family during that time, by the grace of God.  In addition to driving the 11-year old Kelly twins, Eva and Gail, to music lessons and volleyball games, she had arranged a round-the-clock prayer vigil. In fact, if Suellen or Stephen couldn’t be at Eric’s bedside, Will or Gloria filled in.

This time God gave them a true miracle. It took a while. Day by day, one little victory after another, until finally, Eric was completely restored.

After all they had been through, she should know that falling to pieces in time of crisis was a normal reaction, but she still felt grumpy for being so frantic and weepy. She expected better from herself. She hated knowing she looked foolish.

If only she could make her emotions cooperate with her resolve. Traffic on 190, the most direct route west, was light and for that she was grateful. She knew she was not a good driver right now, but she had better success controlling the car than in taking captive her own wildly raging imagination.

Still struggling for control, she pulled her car into their driveway. The sight of Will standing there in the garage, obviously waiting for her, brought a fresh torrent of tears.  Dear, sweet, solid Will. With a familiar hand gesture, he brushed back the reddish-blond hair that now existed only in his memory. He opened the car door and helped her stand until she could collapse against his tall, lean body.

He held her, patting her back, murmuring “hmmms” and “hmmms?” at her until she pulled back a bit to look up at his beloved face, into his solemn, deep blue eyes. He took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt.

“Well, Glory-girl, we have us a real mess on our hands. Let’s go inside.  I made a fresh pot of coffee.”

“What happened, do you know?  Oh, Will! I am so sorry for acting dopey when you called earlier. You were right, I did behave like a foolish, hysterical woman.”

Setting mugs of steaming coffee on the antique oak breakfast table, they sat down and he began to explain.

“Laura called here asking for you, and when I said you were having your hair done, she started crying and couldn’t talk, so David took the phone from her and told me that when they had driven as far asSpringfield,Missouri, it was almost light out. That’s when they noticedAustinwasn’t in the van.  Allison woke up crying for her brother.”

They each took a sip of coffee and stared unseeingly out of the window. On the one hand, she wanted Will to hurry and explain it, and on the other hand, the whole world seemed to be moving in slow motion and even at that, the facts of the very real crisis they were in came at her faster than she could absorb them.

“Of course I asked him when they last saw the boy, and he got all worked up and started giving me a lecture on being supportive instead of critical. After talking to him it occurred to me that I probably should have handled my call to you a little better,” He looked over the top of his glasses with a sheepish half-smile. “Especially since I told him my reactions weren’t the issue.

“They called theMissouriStatepatrol, but neither David nor Laura can say for sure when they last sawAustin. They had been on the road a long time, and after a while, one hour seems to run right into the next one. They did remember stopping at a rest stop nearRolla,Missouri. David said he was driving, but he thinks everybody stayed put while he went to the rest room. Laura didn’t even wake up that time.” He paused, scowling into his coffee.

“The thing is, Gloria, they didn’t have the little girls in car seats either.  David’s mother gave them some big old quilts, and they laid the back seat of the van flat, making a kind of bed with all three of the kids lying side by side, expecting them to sleep through all the time it was dark, which they supposed they had. The girls did, obviously. Sometimes I wonder if those two are responsible enough to raise children.”

“Isn’t that beside the point right now? And where are they, anyway? They should be here soon, shouldn’t they?”

“They’re still inSpringfield. The police want them to stay there and wait until they can figure out what might have happened—if somebody grabbed the boy out of the van or what.

“If somebody grabbed him. Grabbed him?  What?  She heard her voice becoming shrill and didn’t care.  “Do you mean kidnapping?  Why would anybody do that?  What kind of a crazy person grabs a little boy sleeping in his parents’ van?” Her eyes widened as the possibility registered. “Who has him and what has that animal done to my baby!”  Her best intentions forgotten, she laid her head on the table and sobbed.

Will reached across the table and patted her hand. “Come on, Glory-girl.  We have to figure out a way to findAustin.  Try not to think of the worst-case scenario.”

He cleared his throat and continued in his getting-down-to-business voice. “This not knowing is driving me crazy, too. I can’t think about anything else, of course.  I have an idea or two about how we might find him.  First of all, I think they should come here and make this their base while theMissouriStatepatrol goes about their business. When they are here you can help Laura take care of the little girls while David and I try solve this mess.”

While the thought of having the kids here was of immediate comfort, she felt vaguely irked at the presumption that the women were expected to take care of things in the house while the big strong heroes go out to slay the dragon.  She wouldn’t mind killing a dragon or two herself right now, preferably with her bare hands.

“Are they going to call back soon?  How can we tell them to come here?” Gloria asked. “Did they ever get a cell phone?”

“No, no cell phone, but David did give me the phone number of the police station where they are right now, so I’m going into the den to call there and see if they know anything new.  It’s still quite a drive here fromSpringfield, but I can’t see the sense of them staying there.”

“Of course not.  How can they stay there with a four-year-old and a nine-month old baby?  That’s a perfectly wrong combination.  Remember what a bratAustinwas when he was four years old?  Impossible! Well, not that he’s an angel now, and he’s almost seven.  Oh dear, the baby must be completely off-schedule by now.  The best way to keep a child calm is to keep her on a schedule, although I can’t honestly say Laura has kept any of them on much of a schedule; it’s not as if she is on much of a schedule herself…”

Will interrupted, “I’m hoping you will schedule yourself for a deep breath here! I know you’re upset, but you’re rattling on and on about nothing. Now, don’t you think we ought to pray together before we call the kids?”

Following a calming few moments with her head on her husband’s shoulder, Gloria followed Will into the den where they sat side by side on the sofa, holding hands while Will, in his matter-of-fact, respectful way, addressed his Heavenly Father, asking Him for insight and wisdom.  As they bowed to pray, they naturally, after so many years of praying together, inclined their heads toward one another.

Gloria had only a momentary thought of what her husband’s heavy head was doing to her freshly coifed hair.

Chapter 9—Saturday morning, Dallas

When Gloria opened the front door at 8:30 she saw Suellen walking back to her car, having deposited a box of warm bagels on the morning newspaper where she couldn’t miss it.

“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?”

“You’re up? I knew the kids would come in late and y’all might still be sleeping.”

“You know me.  After about 7:00 the bed won’t have me anymore.  I’m a moving a little more slowly than usual this morning, though.  Come on in.  I just made a fresh pot of coffee, and I need a best girl friend to share it with me.”

“Starbucks?”

“What else? Would I serve ordinary coffee to you, my dear?”

“You’re on. Everybody else still in bed?”

“Yes, I hope they can rest now.  We’ll be quiet.” Gloria’s eyes were swollen, dark circles making her look years older than 58, her cheerful veneer so thin it had worn off by the time she shut the door behind them.

In fact, part of the reason she was up was that she hadn’t been able to sleep most of the night anyway.

David and Laura had driven in about midnight, exhausted, bickering, each accusing the other of being an unfit parent. She couldn’t blame them for yelling incriminations at each other.  Who wouldn’t?

The little girls, mercifully, barely stirred while being carried upstairs. After everyone else had gone to their rooms, she stood by their beds a while, thinking about how those tiny little bodies, barely bumps under their blankets, contained great big personalities, captivating so many hearts and dreams, and wondered if Austin safely slept, wherever he was.  She pulled Allison’s blanket up and snuggled it around the child’s shoulders, hoping, praying someone was doing the same thing for her grandson. He hated being cold.

I’m taking every thought captive, she reminded herself.  I will not worry about him.  God is able to keep him safe and bring him back to us.

I wonder if he has his curly lamb with him.  Does he still keep it with him wherever he goes?  “Lammie’s” long-playing, music box tinkled out “Jesus Loves Me” until the most doubtful should be convinced.

By the time she’d crawled into bed, her tired head spinning with the words flying around all day, she couldn’t close her eyes. Just kept staring into the room, searching the darkness for something to anchor her mind so she could sleep.

“Were they able to tell you anything?  Do you know how it happened?” Suellen called her back to the moment.

Gloria set steaming mugs of rich, strong coffee on the table, sliced bagels and retrieved cream cheese and jellies from the refrigerator before sitting down and filling Suellen in on what little information they had gleaned from the distraught young parents.

“The first order of business was to persuade them to stop yelling at each other.  Each of them was so intent on justifying his or her own actions; we couldn’t get a sensible word out of either of them. Those two have always squabbled.  I’d hoped they’d grow out of it, at least at a serious time like this.”

“So I’m guessing Will spoke about three words and the whole place fell into order, am I right?”  Suellen had enough history with this family to know how it functioned. Will was the undisputed family axis around whom whole galaxies could spin, but only until a gentle word or two from him brought them out of whatever tizzy they’d managed to work themselves into.

“Of course.  He took them into the family room, sat them down on the sofa together, and pulled his chair right in front of them in his standard come-now-let-us-reason-together position.  He reminded them we all love each other and the only thing any of us care about right now is findingAustin.”

“Then he prayed with them, thanking God for bringing them to our house safely.  Of course we all started crying again, remembering the one of them who might not be safe. Will told us hysterics were simply ‘not acceptable’ at a time like this and told us all to ‘stop emoting and start reasoning,’ was how he put it.” She smiled ruefully.

“The big hang-up is that they did leave the children alone in the van for a few minutes and neither one of them wanted to admit it, even to the police inSpringfield, which may be why the authorities don’t seem to be very interested in the whole matter, at least that’s what it sounds like to me. Of course Will says I’m always making something out of nothing.” She frowned at her coffee mug and continued.

“The important thing is, they finally did tell the authorities, so now they’re pretty sure they know where they were whenAustindisappeared.  What we don’t know is what actually happened.”

For a moment she considered not telling Suellen about Will’s absurd idea, but she’d never been able to keep anything from her best friend.

“Will thinks someone may have taken him out of the van,” she said, almost in a whisper.

“You mean kidnapped him?” Suellen asked, astonished. “Does Will really think that’s what happened?  When I think of kidnapping, I think of the child of a very wealthy family kidnapped and held until a ransom is paid.  Surely that doesn’t apply here.”  She shook her head. “David and Laura are comfortable financially, sure, but I don’t think of them as wealthy.  And even if they were rich, kidnapping implies premeditation. How could a would-be kidnapper know the child would be at that place, hundreds of miles from his home, at that time?  No, kidnapping doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Right.  And how could he demand a ransom?  How would he even know where they live?  How would he call, or where would he send a ransom note?” She’d gone over these questions in her mind all night, and the only answer she could come up with was one she couldn’t bear to contemplate.

Suellen ran her hands through her shiny chin-length brunette pageboy and shook her hair loose as if clearing it of an unpleasant possibility. “How do they knowAustindidn’t simply climb out of the van to go to the bathroom?” Suellen knewAustinfrom the Page family’s visit toDallas, and would have had a hard time picturing the boy in any kind of victim role.  “Maybe he climbed out of the van himself and they left before they noticed.  I hear about that happening all the time.  Usually it’s a husband leaving his wife and it is a big joke when they tell it later.”

“Since when is leaving your wife a big joke?” Will walked in and poured himself a cup of coffee.  “Good morning, Suellen.  Are you responsible for these bagels?”

“I have to pass Einstein’s on my way here, anyway, and hoped y’all might be good for a cup of coffee and an update.  You look terrible!” Suellen said. “Did you sleep at all?”

“Not much.  None of us did, but I trust we made some progress.  I heard what you asked, Suellen, and that’s exactly what David and Laura first thought; they’d leftAustinand he was still there waiting for them.  They even imagined how mad he’d be—he’s not accustomed to being ignored.”

He and Gloria exchanged glances; they were well aware ofAustin’s ability to keep himself at the center of attention. “Laura charged the gifts she bought there on her Visa, and the receipt showed the phone number, so before contacting theMissourihighway patrol, they called back to theIllinoistruck stop to find out if anybody there had seen a little boy wandering around looking for his parents.”

“Nobody had seen him?”

“No. Not only that, but the night manager gave them a piece of his mind for ‘misplacing their own child,’ in his words, which wasn’t too helpful, given their frame of mind.”

Gloria’s shoulders slumped wearily as she remembered how utterly shattered her daughter had been when they’d arrived last night. She and Will encouraged them to re-direct their anxiety and anger away from each other and toward finding something that might lead them toAustin.

“Will, did you have the impression either theMissouriorIllinoishighway patrol was taking this seriously?  From what the kids said, they were more concerned with scolding them than in finding their son.”

“Oh, I still think you may be reading too much into it.  Remember, both Laura and David were awfully defensive. Still are. In a little while I’m going to call one of the numbers David gave me and find out what, if anything, the patrol might have come up with.  They said they’d call if anything turned up, but I want to keep their feet to the fire.”

Sounds of waking babies drifted down to the kitchen.  Suellen said she’d wait and say hello but then had to go on her way to church. She usually found an excuse to make herself scarce when small children entered the picture.

“Before I go, though, I want you to know y’all don’t have to concern yourself about what to feed everybody.  You have enough to think about. When I told the women from church about what y’all are going through, they immediately began calling the prayer chain, and Dottie, Pastor Frank’s wife, put together a meal schedule.  Someone will deliver dinner by 5:30 every evening until this predicament is solved.”

She acknowledged Gloria’s gesture of protest with a nod, but went on.

“I know you are new to our Body, and that you are much more comfortable baking cookies than receiving them, but we need to reach out to you as much as you need to be loved and enfolded in fellowship right now.  We love the Lord and want to serve His people. It’s why we exist, and most of us already know and love you both.”

“That’s wonderful, Sue, thank you.”  Gloria hugged her.  “What a remarkable church.  I can’t believe such a small group can accomplish all that they do.  We are so glad we made the decision to join.  It feels like we’ve come home.” The Stoners had only recently become members of Maranatha after years of attending a large church where they had felt increasingly unconnected.

General mayhem followed the entrance of the Pages, and Suellen made her

exit.

Will stood up. “David, I’m going into the den to make some phone calls and see if we can light a fire under the highway patrol and get them involved in helping us.  Join me when you’re ready.”

David followed him out of the room.

Chapter 10—Saturday, Dallas

Gloria’s heart feasted on her granddaughters’ presence as if by filling all her senses with them she might drawAustinfrom wherever he was. In mystic communion with women through the ages, she felt a tug in her womb as Laura nursed her baby.

At nine months, Ariel was the prototype for a perfect baby, in Gloria’s carefully reasoned opinion. Sunshine emanating from an east window wreathed a halo of hair so fine and golden it might disappear in a breath. Sapphire blue intelligence returned her gaze, silently beholding her grandmother as if they shared a secret, just the two of them. “An old soul,” Gloria’s mother would have said.

Allison’s eyes were an even darker shade of blue than Ariel’s and in them sparkled the innocent little girl delight of a cherished child. Her thick reddish-blond hair fell over her face as she spooned Cheerios to her mouth with mixed results.  Gloria noticed Sassy, the apricot toy poodle, kept herself busy under the table, eating the evidence.

Allison asked aboutAustinand Gloria assured her that he would come to Nana’s house soon, her eyes begging Laura’s forgiveness for the hopeful little fib. Allison resumed eating, talking, and pushing her hair back.

“Would you like Nana to find you a hair-pretty so you won’t get hair in your cereal?”

“Yes, please, Nana. Not the blue brush, okay? The b-LOO brush pulls my hair.” Her pink rosebud lips held a prolonged O as she carefully worked her tongue around a B directly followed by an L.

“Are you still using the evil blue brush, Mother?  That thing is older than I am.  You should throw it out and buy a new one.”

“It most certainly is not older than you are!” Gloria laughed. “And it’s a good one. Natural bristles.  I take good care of it and I am not going to throw it out.”  She finger-combed the child’s hair away from her face. “You are as beautiful as your mama, Allison.  I used to brush her hair until it glowed like the moon,” she said, remembering the feel of Laura’s hair on her hand, the way it fell in smooth flaxen waves, and how she gloried in those days of full contentment.

“Did you put hair-pretties in Mama’s hair, too, Nana?”

“Yes, she did,” Laura answered for her, “and sometimes she even braided it so I’d look like a Swiss miss.  Remember, Mother? You wanted me to wear big bows, too, but I thought they were silly and pulled them out as soon as I left the room.”

Will stomped back into the dinette, pulling his hand down over his face. “I think you may be right, girl.  We aren’t making any progress with the highway patrol.  They’re barely civil to us.  One guy told me some of the same things you and Suellen were talking about.  He said there’d be no reason for somebody to grab a child out of a family car, and he doubted they could check on all the people who stopped at the truck stop Thursday night.  But somebody must have seen him.  He didn’t disappear into thin air.”

Obviously miserable, David pleaded with his in-laws. “You believe us, don’t you?  You know we didn’t do anything toAustinourselves, don’t you?”

“Of course we believe you, David,” Will said.

“It is monstrous to even think such a thing.” Gloria exclaimed. “They aren’t accusing you, surely?”

“They aren’t exactly accusing, but I think it is safe to say they’re implying there’s something fishy about the whole story, especially because you two weren’t real clear yourselves on what happened,” Will said, frowning at the chagrined parents.

“Couldn’t the truck stop at least check the gas receipts for Thursday night?” Gloria wondered aloud. “There has to be a way to find out where he is.”

“Sure, but as the guy on the phone pointed out, there’s no guarantee every vehicle there bought gas.  Some might have stopped to use the rest room without buying anything.”

“That makes sense.  It’s what we do sometimes.  We don’t need gas every time we make a potty stop.” Gloria observed.

“What can we do now?” Laura pleaded

“All I know to do is to keep calling the authorities and maybe they’ll get the idea they should check out a few things.”

“And pray,” Gloria reminded them, “we can pray,”

“Mother! You think prayer solves everything.”

“Yes, I do.  God is good and He loves us. Austin and all of us here, too. I think we should pray together and ask God to give us wisdom.”

“What I want to know is,” said Laura, biting off each word, “if God’s so good, why did He let this happen?”

Chapter 11—Tina’s Apartment, Dallas

Something’s wrong.  I hope he didn’t wreck his truck. His new truck!  He was so excited… Even if he did, why doesn’t he call?  Unless he’s hurt.  Unconscious.  In a hospital somewhere. No one would know to call me.

Tina tried to brush away her worries.

I know he didn’t simply decide not to see me anymore.  Did he? Maybe I push him too hard about being a Christian. She checked the clock.  10:00 a.m.  He should be here by now.  Or at least have called.  He planned to sleep inTulsaand then drive here.

Maybe he woke up too late to call.  He wouldn’t call me in the middle of the night.  But then he should be here.  And why didn’t he call yesterday afternoon to let me know he made it toTulsa?

“Something doesn’t make sense, Schotzie.”  The dog lifted one ear, obviously not really into the conversation. He shifted positions on Tina’s bed, making sure he stayed in the warm sunshine streaming through the east window.

He loves me, I know he does.

Well, no, he hasn’t exactly said so.

Tina couldn’t even agree with herself today.

Maybe I’ve been too cautious.

Maybe he thinks I’ll never love him and he’s just giving up.

She remembered the weekend they had spent up at the cabin. A bit shy at first, he soon warmed up to her grandparents, and they, suspicious to the point of paranoia about new men in Tina’s life, were won over by his gentle, almost courtly manners. Could they all have been wrong?

Maybe he’s just another lying jerk and he doesn’t love me at all.

Saturday had already been a long day for Tina.  She had taken Schotzie for his exercise and her prayer walk early.  After showering she donned the new knit slacks and blouse outfit she had purchased for the occasion.  Green, of course.  She knew how certain shades of green—this one a soft sage—emphasized her eyes and set off her coppery-red hair. A light splash of perfume and she was ready for Jake by 8:00 o’clock in the morning.  Too early, she knew, but she wanted to be ready to leave the minute he called.

His truck cab was much too big to drive into the apartment complex, and besides, Alex might recognize it and for some reason Jake still wanted to keep their relationship a secret from his brother, so they’d developed a regular routine. She would drive her car to meet him at the hotel and then they would go out from there; after breakfast at LaMadeleine’s, they’d have a leisurely day of wandering around the Galleria or art museums.

At first he’d dragged his feet about going to art museums. “I’m a country boy, Tina; just a trucker from the country. My brother is more the artsy type.”

When he finally relented and went with her to the Dallas Museum of Art, he found, to his surprise and her amusement, a whole new world of enjoyment and tension relief.  It amazed her how quickly he recognized individual artists by their paintings.

At the Amon Carter museum inFort Worth, he’d been fascinated with the Russell and Remington sculptures.  The instant he spotted The Rattlesnake, a Remington bronze, he couldn’t seem to command his feet to move.

“A man and a horse,” she’d laughed.  “I might have known you’d fall in love with a horse.”

He’d grabbed her hand and pulled her close.  “Uh, no, Pilgrim, I’m not in love with any four-legged critter, I can promise you that,” he’d growled in a perfectly awful imitation of John Wayne. If the museum guard hadn’t cleared his throat at that precise moment, Jake might have kissed her right there in front of God and Fredric Remington and everybody.

Now it’s 11:00 and still no word.

She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she flashed by on one of her circles around the apartment, her faithful companion panting happily at her heels.  “You’re getting your exercise today, aren’t you Schotz?  I’d better slow down or I’ll wear you out.”

She wondered if the reason Jake didn’t want to tell Alex was because he wanted to be able to dump her without anybody caring.

She continued to pace, aware it was pointless.  From the east bedroom window looking out on the golf course, back through the living room to the balcony and the view there into the woods, no door or window opened out to the parking area where he would be if he were going to show up there, which she didn’t expect him to do.

At noon she sat down in her den alcove and turned on her computer. Jake seldom used his laptop for email—said the whole idea of cyberspace spooked him—and had only twice written her a note that way, but it was worth a shot.  Her heart leapt hopefully at the cheery “you’ve got mail” message. Alas, all she found in her inbox were three multi-forwarded jokes from Angie, two of them a bit crude, in her opinion.

When 3:00 p.m. came and went without the phone ringing once, not even a wrong number, Tina took the cordless phone off the stand, just to check if it was working.

Dial tone.  It was working all right.  She had been royally stood up.

She took a deep breath.  Okay, what’s the harm in trying one more thing?  She’d call his cell phone.  He didn’t like the thing very much—said he only had it for emergencies—hated to try to talk while driving. She had to try.

It rang once.  Twice. Three more times and then the pre-recorded Alltel operator said “The Verizon customer you are calling is out of the area or has turned off the phone.”

The dam burst.  Tears stored up all day broke through, coursing down her cheeks and dampening her new blouse.  She stomped around the apartment, talking aloud to the absent Jake until the dog began to whimper.

“Okay, Schotzie, you’re right.  It is time to wash my face, change into civilian clothes and take you for a walk.”

She scrambled around in her dresser. The gray sweats were out.  She didn’t have to look like a reject even if she felt like one.

She put on khaki shorts and a pale yellow T-shirt, stepped into an old pair of Keds and pocketed the mail key.

“Wanna bet all I have in the mailbox is bills?” she asked her dog.

She took the long way around the complex, in no hurry now.

The little Schnauzer pranced beside her, his ears and tail held high in canine joy at being out of doors, sniffing for messages left for him by other dogs. When they came to the kiosk shelter for all the apartment complex mailboxes, Schotzie groaned ecstatically at all the new scents on the brick walls. Tina found only her cable bill and a coupon flier for the new pizza place onIndependenceand Parker.

“Well, that’s it, Schotz.  Just as I supposed.  C’mon.  I’ll race you home—back the long way.”

She kept herself in great physical shape, but both of them were panting when they walked in the door. Unhooked from his leash, Schotzie gratefully buried his head in his water bowl, slurping noisily.  Tina poured herself a glass of filtered water and drained it as fast as she could swallow.  With her head tilted up to catch the last few drops, the blinking light on her answering machine caught her eye. She dropped the glass in the sink, and ran over to hit the button:

“I’m sorry, my beautiful kitten.”

“Jake!” she cried, as if she could call him back.

“It’s not you.  It’s me. I’m no good for you. Please, please try to forgive me.”

He sounded as if he was cupping the mouthpiece of the phone, the way he might do if he didn’t want to be heard by anybody on his end of the conversation.  He wasn’t alone, in other words.

She clapped her hand over her open mouth.

“You deserve a better life than I can give you. I’ve never loved anybody the way I love you Tina, I know that now. But I’m in too much trouble…” His voice broke. “I’ll never forget you.”

She played it again without breathing. She looked around; frantic, unbelieving, then played it through once more, gasping at last. The caller ID screen read “unavailable.” She punched *69 but the recorded message told her the callback function was unavailable for this call.

She threw herself on her bed and pulled the comforter over her, too despondent to cry. The dog stood beside her, nosing her shoulder gently, his big eyes reflecting her sorrow.

Finally she sat up and looked around. 5:00 p.m. The silence in her apartment mocked her. She desperately wanted to call her grandparents and hear the heart-healing voices of the only two people on earth who loved her, but she stopped herself just before calling their number. What could they do? They would feel terrible for her, and there wasn’t a thing they could do to change anything.

But she couldn’t just sit there, waiting for nothing to happen.

She went online and keyed Jake’s screen name into the “new mail” screen.

What kind of a message is “I love you baby, get lost?” I deserve more that that, Jake.  Where are you?  What have you done?  AND WHO IS THERE WITH YOU?

She punched the “send” key, slapped her laptop closed, and marched into the bathroom where she splashed cold water on her face, dabbed concealing cream under her tear-swollen eyes, and touched up her lipstick. The shorts and T-shirt landed in a pile in the corner with her kicked-off Keds, and the green sweater and pants went back on over a fresh spritz of perfume.

“Tear stains don’t show much,” she told her mirrored self.  “It’s a perfectly good outfit and Jake won’t ever see it anyway, so I’m wearing it right now and taking myself out for the evening.  I’m good company.  Who needs a man, anyway?”

She gave her dog a treat and patted his head.  “You be a good dog, Schotzie.  You’re all I have.  I’ll be home later.”

She hung her handbag on her shoulder, retrieved her keys from its depths, slipped through the door and into the garage. She backed her car off the driveway, hit the remote button, closing the garage door, and drove away.

Inside her apartment, Schotzie paced nervously as the phone rang four times until the answering machine kicked in.  The dog’s ears perked up at Tina’s outgoing message. When there was no response, he settled himself on the rug beside the garage door, rested his nose on his front paws and snoozed lightly, waiting for his mistress to return.

Chapter 12–Sunday afternoon, Tina’s Apartment, Dallas

            Tina skipped the prayer walk routine Sunday morning, opting to walk Schotzie only as long as required.  She skipped church, too. The prospect of Angie’s inevitable prying questions removed any hope she might momentarily have entertained of finding comfort there. Besides, Jake had promised to go with her this week, and since he’d opted out of going to church or anywhere else with her, well, she wasn’t in the mood, either.

By noon, having exhausted the rest of The Dallas Morning News, she caught herself reading the classifieds and decided she’d given this particular blue funk more time than it deserved.

She removed her left leg from the arm of the sofa where she’d slung it when she flopped down with the paper over an hour ago.  “Chin, up, girl. Pull yourself out of it.”

Only one problem: she didn’t know how to pull herself out if it.  Facing a lunch comprised of half the Greek salad she’d taken home from Spiro’s last night, a microwaved cinnamon roll, and reheated coffee, didn’t do much to cheer her up.  Food never did strike Tina as a way to feel better.  Not even dinner at Chez Charles, which she and Jake wouldn’t be doing now, either. With every thought, the list of without-Jake events grew longer.

“C’mon, Schotzie, I’m sinking fast; I need fresh air. Let’s chase the ball around for a bit.  We’ll stay out until time for our weekly visit.”

Tina glanced at the clock when they returned, out of breath but refreshed. Almost 1:00 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon: Instant Messaging time with Poppy and Kate.

As her computer booted up, she tried to not hope there might be a message from Jake. She tried, but failed, and when she heard “you’ve got mail” her heart responded with an extra beat.

“Uh oh.  It is Jake.”

At the sound of her voice, Schotzie lifted his snout from his water bowl. When he realized she hadn’t called him, he resumed replenishing precious bodily fluids, thus ensuring frequent walks.

T.  I got your email.  I tried to call (2nd time!) but you were gone.

            For the best, maybe.  I never meant to hurt you. Love, J.

She blew him a raspberry, then hit “reply.”

She wrote: That’s what they all say.  Now WHO IS WITH YOU?  And sent it.

The sound of a creaking door signaled that PopnKate were online and ready to Instant Message.

Tina double-clicked on the screen name and smiled to herself as she began.

TinaTX: Hi! Are you both there?  How are you?

The reply came quickly.

PopnKate: We are fine, dear.  We prayed for you this morning.

TinaTX: I’ve been thinking about you—wishing you were here with me. It’s been a rough couple of days.

PopnKate: Did you go to church this morning?

TinaTX: No.

PopnKate: This is Poppy writing, Christina.  Now don’t you lose touch with the Lord.  He loves you and can give you strength and wisdom.  You taught us that much.

TinaTX: Oh, don’t worry about me; I’ll be all right.  Just in a bad mood. What did you two do today?  Did you watch a church on TV?

            She wondered why they nagged her about church; they preferred to stay home themselves. They “attended” church via satellite or, on those rare occasions when there were visitors, they had their own little worship service, complete with music (Poppy on the piano) and preaching (Poppy with frequently inserted comments by Kate.)

PopnKate: We had church right here in our living room, honey. We had a grand time.

TinaTX: Do you have company?

PopnKate: We’re together and that means we’re in good company.J

TinaTX:  LOL! You two are incorrigible.

PopnKate: Just remember, dear, we love you and pray for you every day, and whatever you’re going through right now, God knows all about it and He will work it out for your good. 

TinaTX: What do you know about what I’m going through?  I told you, I’m just in a bad mood.  Was in a bad mood.  I’m all better now that I’ve talked to you!

PopnKate: We enjoyed meeting your young man, as we’ve mentioned before. Thanks again for bringing Jake up here to meet us.

TinaTX:  That’s a sore subject right now.  Besides, He’s not a Christian, you know; I couldn’t marry him anyway.

PopnKate: Nothing is impossible with God. Don’t give up on Jake. He’s a fine young man. We’re praying for you. We have to go now.  XXX000

TinaTX: Is something going on there?  Is there some special reason you’re praying for me?

PopnKate signed off at 1:31

Tina scowled at the screen for a moment.  “That’s weird, Schotz. Jake’s a ‘fine young man?’ Does that mean they think it’s all right for me to marry a non-Christian?  Not that it matters anyway. That whole conversation was weird.  And what’s up with their hurry to quit?”

She shut down the computer and turned on the TV. TheTexasRangers. Baseball bored her to pieces. She watched all nine innings.

Chapter 13—Sunday afternoon in the Ozarks

Jake, standing behind Poppy and Kate, stared at the computer screen.

TinaTX signed off at 1:35.

Poppy turned in his swivel chair and looked up at Jake.  “She’s right, you know; she can’t marry an unbeliever.  Well, she could, but she’d live to regret it.  It would be like hitching one of your big loads behind a mule and trying to pull it across the country that way.”

“It doesn’t matter now, does it?” Jake asked, miserable down to his toenails.  “Besides being a heathen, according to all of you, I’m in trouble with the law.”  He glared at Poppy, willing him to contradict. “And how much good has being ‘born again’ done Tina?  She gets mixed up with a loser like me—“

“Whoa!” Poppy interrupted. “None of that ‘loser’ talk in this house.”  Looking around he saw Kate and Austin taking it all in, eyes wide. “Kate, why don’t you takeAustinout to see Hyacinth’s new kittens?  I think they’re old enough for a gentle visit from you two.”

Kate nodded in the direction of the bench next to the door.  “I borrowed some tennis shoes for you, Austin.  Now slip them on and we’ll sneak a peak at the sweetest little baby kittens you’ve ever seen.  But they are awfully tiny; we’ll have to be extra careful.”

Jake, after waiting silently until Kate and Austin left the room, stood up and began pacing.  “I am a loser.  What else would you call a guy that drove around the country feeling sorry for himself and not having balls enough to figure out a way to take care of his own little boy?  A loser, that’s what.  Or worse.”

Poppy started to speak, but Jake shook his head violently, “No!  I’ve been a fool.  A self-centered, immature fool.  I should have seen the divorce coming. I could have figured out that something was messed up. Then maybe I wouldn’t have been such a good target when the police didn’t believe me about Joey’s injuries. I set it up for them.”

Jake saw Poppy raise his eyebrows.  “You know how they say an armadillo will jump up in the air when a car’s lights hit him so the grill smacks him head-on?” He pounded his fist in his hand to demonstrate the impact.  “Well, that’s about how it went down.  Two years ago, when I freaked and drove Joey out of state, it was a perfect set up for the cops—crossing a state line automatically makes it a felony.  Now I did the same thing withAustin. Who is going to believe that I didn’t even know he was in my truck until I’d driven out ofIllinoisand intoMissouri.”

He pulled his hand over his face again. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept thinking of Tina, and ofAustin’s family, and of you, and I thought it would be simpler for everybody if I just drove my truck off one of these cliffs and got it over with.  You could callAustin’s people to come and get him, Tina would forget me, and the whole world would be better off.  Much simpler all around.  No trial, no appeals, no prison time.  Save the taxpayers money and everybody could get on with their lives.”

At Poppy’s shocked expression, Jake said, “Yeah, well, I’m still here, right?  Because even if I had the guts to take myself out, which I probably don’t, I can’t! I can’t, because…” his voice faltered, “Joey,” he whispered hoarsely. “My boy.  I have to find a way to help him.  There has to be something somebody can do for a little boy who is being hurt.”

He dropped into a chair and slumped over, head in his hands.

“Surely there’s a way to find out what’s actually going on with the child,” Poppy said, his hand on Jake’s shoulder.  “Where is he living?  Couldn’t you hire a detective or an attorney to look into it?”

“My attorney told me there was nothing I can do to have the court injunction set aside,” Jake answered, “But you’re right.  Maybe a private detective from a different city—one who wouldn’t know where all the bodies are buried or which powerful people to avoid.”  He sat up straight and looked at Poppy hopefully. “It could work, don’t you think?”

But before Poppy could answer, it hit him again.  “It’s too late! It’s been two years.  Two years! No matter what I find out, it’s probably too late to help Joey.”  He groaned.  “What if it’s too late?  What if nobody will do anything because I’m in jail for this mess I’m in right now?” He flinched as a new thought hit him.  “What if Joey hates me for leaving him there?”

“Don’t go what-iffing yourself into depression,” Poppy warned.  “You have to stay strong and focused, for your own sake as well as your son’s.”

“My own sake?  I don’t give a rip about my own sake! But I don’t know if I have what it takes to pull this off. What am I going to do? I don’t know what to do.” He stood up and slammed both hands against the wall, hanging his head down to his chest.

“Oh, GOD!  HELP ME!”

“Now you’re talking, Jake.”  Poppy put his arm over Jake’s shoulder and led him back to his chair.  “You have more than you can carry; you need help.  You need the Lord’s help.”

That made him mad.

“Look:  My mother was one of your so-called ‘born-agains.’ She went to church every time the bell rang and sometimes she was the one ringing the confounded bell. She led the church choir and forever ran around the house singing hymns. ‘I will sing of my Redeemer…’ ” he sang in falsetto.  “Where was ‘the Lord’s help’ during all those months when she lay dying, in horrible pain, from cancer?  Where was He?  I can live without that kind of help, thank you very much.”

Silence hung in the room, yet Jake’s own voice echoed inside his head, angry, miserable. “Where was He?” he had mocked. He felt sick. Sick of himself. Of his life.

“Where was He, Jake?” Poppy asked quietly.  “Did your mother ask where He was?”

Jake shook his head.  “No,” he said, his voice tear-filled.  “No. She said ‘He’s here, Jacob.  Jesus is here.  I’m not afraid.”  He looked up at Poppy.  “Honest.  That’s what she said.  And she didn’t seem to be afraid.  In fact, she…” he swallowed hard,  “she wanted me to sing with her at the end.  ‘Sing Jesus Loves Me, Jacob,’ she said.”             Tears ran freely now, and he didn’t bother to wipe them away.  “But I didn’t.  I wouldn’t.  I couldn’t sing!” he gulped.  “And now it’s too late.  Too late!”

“Oh, Jacob,” Poppy said, brushing Jake’s forehead like a blessing.  “It’s not too late, son.  It’s not even too late to sing for your mother.  I’ve an idea that she would know, somehow, if you could acknowledge that Jesus does love you.”

“Can you help me, Poppy?” Jake whispered, wiping his eyes on the backs of his hands. “No matter what happens with a detective or with Joey, or even Tina, I can’t live inside this head of mine, knowing all the pain I’ve caused. I can’t stand it! I don’t know where to go with myself. I’d rather be dead than live like this.”

“I don’t want to mislead you,” Poppy said gently. “Opening up your heart and your life to the Lord will definitely bring you peace and hope.  Even joy.  But that doesn’t mean all your troubles will go away.  I can’t guarantee that Tina will marry you or that you won’t go to prison.  But if you let Him, God can give you direction and the strength to do what you must do.  He’s the One with ‘the stuff.’”

Jake nodded with every sentence Poppy spoke.

Neither man noticed Kate and Austin standing quietly by an open window while the Great Burden Bearer reached into a sunny late afternoon in the Ozarks, collected tears shed there, engraved a new name in the palm of His hand, and branded Jake’s new, clean heart with His own Name.

Chapter 14—Sunday Night, Dallas

            Laura heard her mother pull into the garage, and by the thump of the Volvo on a

tire Will had hung there for just such occasions, she knew Gloria was ticked off.  Laura sighed.  Now they were in for it.

An angry Gloria presented a formidable sight.  Really angry and she trembled.  What riled her further at such times was that when she reached a certain level of anger she couldn’t control herself; she cried and her lips quivered so much she could barely talk. And then, when she walked into the house and discovered how her family occupied themselves in her absence, she was nearly incoherent.  Laura might have thought it was funny if she hadn’t found it so tiresome.

She recognized the instant her mother picked up a whiff of the strong aroma coming from the corner of the kitchen. Ariel, half-asleep in the highchair, urgently needed a diaper change, but that had just happened.  Trust Gloria to walk at that precise moment.  Allison, one hand massaging mashed potatoes and peas into her champagne blond hair, her other hand busily finger-painting Gloria’s prized antique oak table with the same mess, still wore last night’s pajamas. Well, it wasn’t as if they had gone anywhere.  What was the point of getting the kids dressed up?

In an effort to ease her own strung-out nerves, Laura sat in the family room, one leg draped over the arm of Gloria’s favorite rose damask chair, reading a romance novel while twirling her fingers through her hair. “At least she doesn’t have pureed vegetables on her hands,” Laura heard her mother mutter.  She chose to ignore her. She had her own deal to worry about; she couldn’t concern herself with her mother’s problems.  Laura needed support now, not her criticism.  This situation was aboutAustin—her son—not about her parents.

Laura watched idly while Gloria checked out the big-screen TV in front of which David had parked himself.  At the moment, a full-screen close-up showed Tiger Woods addressing the ball while the gallery around him waited in a reverent hush.  The golf channel had David under its spell but the whole scene seemed to ratchet Gloria’s anger up another degree.  She looked around frantically, as if hoping to locate a whip to chase them out of the house.

“What is the matter with you two?” she managed to grind out between clenched teeth. “You’re all acting as if you don’t have a care in the world!  The babies are at the table and nobody’s taking care of them, you two sit here like you think you’re vacationing on theRiviera, and meanwhile your mother is at Albertson’s buying groceries and getting cheated out of parking places by silicone-enhanced babes in their SUVs. I could be lying in a hospital with a broken neck and you wouldn’t miss me until the next time you wanted to eat.”

“Mother, honestly!  Calm down! You are totally out of control.  What do you think we should be doing?  Daddy is taking care of…things.  David and I need our rest so we can handle whatever we might face in the next couple of days.”

Laura barely looked up from her book. “And what in the world were you doing shopping on a Sunday afternoon.  Isn’t this family day?” It still bugged her that, during Laura’s high school years, when she had wanted to go out with her friends, her mother had pulled the ‘family day’ thing, but when Gloria wanted to do something it was all right.

“How can you sit there with your nose in a silly book while your little girls need care?  David’s in front of the TV in a vegetative state and you’re off in la-la land with a cheap love story.  The kitchen and dinette are a disaster area. Any minute I expect the health department to walk in and condemn the place. Where’s Will? Are these poor children orphaned here?”

Good night, she really is on a tear, Laura thought.  “Don’t you have a housekeeper?”

“She’s a housekeeper, not a hotel maid, and she doesn’t come until Friday.  Surely you aren’t planning to leave the table in a sticky mess until then!  You could begin by getting up off your silky little boohiney and giving those babies baths before putting them to bed where they belong.”

The woman clearly needed a reality check. “Put them to bed?  Mother!  It’s only 6:30.  Do you want to take care of them when they wake up at 6:00 in the morning? You might as well know I have no intention of dealing with them at the crack of dawn.”

“How was your afternoon?” Will asked as he came in from the patio.

The man is a glutton for punishment, Laura thought.

A bit taken aback when his wife dropped her purse where she stood and grabbed him in a bear hug, he raised his eyebrows at the bemused Laura.

“There are no words to express to you what a relief it is to lay eyes on a sane human being,” she declared. “Your daughter and son-in-law apparently think they are at a resort, and the State ofTexasis giving driver’s licenses to complete idiots.”

“Oh, now, Gloria. Isn’t it possible you weren’t at your best?  You may have been a bit preoccupied.”

“Now it’s my fault?  I drive down the aisle between cars, minding my own business…”

“My, my, this is a rare day!” Laura remarked without looking up.

“Laura! You know I don’t stick my nose into other people’s business. And you could stand to be more respectful. I am your mother.” Gloria protested.

“Don’t you think you might be over-reacting just the teeniest little bit?  You need to switch to decaf.” Laura quipped.

“Enough, both of you.  We’re all under a lot of stress; we don’t need to squabble.”  Will seldom spoke this forcefully.  Even David looked up from the TV.

“And Gloria, while I understand you are upset, I don’t think it does you or any of us any good to rant on and on about other drivers.  We need to stay in God’s corner here, and I don’t think it is in anybody’s best interest to focus on the shortcomings of others.”

Laura rolled her eyes but only David noticed.

Will continued. “Laura, your mother is right; now get busy cleaning up the kitchen.  David, you take the girls upstairs, bathe them and put them to bed.”

“Oh, man,” David said. “I have a real problem with that.”

“Daddy, David cannot bathe the girls.  He doesn’t know the first thing about safe bath water temperature, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be able to hang onto their slippery little bodies when it is time to lift them out.  He’s absolutely useless with the kids.” Honestly, men could be so totally out of touch, Laura thought.

“Laura’s right, Will,” Gloria said with a great weary sigh. “How about you put away the groceries while I help with the babies?”

“Okay, fine.  You take the girls upstairs, and David, you clean up the kitchen and dinette.”

David mumbled something about waiting for the next commercial.

Will reached behind the TV and pulled the plug out of the wall.  “You have a commercial break until the kitchen and dinette shine.  Don’t forget the floors.  Have a problem with that?”

“No, sir,” David said quietly.  He started toward the kitchen, hanging his head like a scolded puppy.

“When we’re finished, come with me to the den.”  When David paused, Will explained.  “One thing keeps nagging my brain. I can’t figure out why somebody would take the little boy and not the girls. None of this makes sense. I want us to step it through together again.  Maybe if we go over it another time or two you’ll remember seeing something or someone near the van.” He sighed tiredly.

“Anyway, they tell me at the truck stop, so many vehicles go through there it is going to take a long time to figure out who was there at the same time you were. And even if they know who was there, it’s almost impossible to find out where the people who were driving those cars are now, so I’m trying to rule out some of the possibilities. We need a shorter list of people to work through.”

Laura glanced back at her mother, a bit ashamed for her own attitude as she began to understand that Gloria’s passion, as seen in her seemingly irrational anger, was the strength upon which Laura relied. She could feel safe enough to check out with a romance novel as long as her mother expressed the pain they were all feeling. Mother as designated emoter.  What a concept.

“I’m sorry for being such a crab,” Gloria muttered. “I don’t know why those women in their SUVs—every young woman inDallasdrives an SUV, you know—why they make me so mad.” She followed Laura up the stairs, Allison at her side.

“You’re just venting, Mom.  Better those anonymous drivers than your own family, though. You could have yelled at them while you were there—they wouldn’t have heard you if you kept your windows up.”

“Thanks.  I’ll remember that next time.”

Chapter 15—Later Sunday Night, Dallas

Still smarting a bit from having the plug pulled on his couch potato routine, David only reluctantly cooperated when Will began questioning him.

“Look, David, I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier.  I know you’re worried sick aboutAustin. We all are. We need to cut one other a little slack, okay?  I don’t blame you for what happened.  It happened. There’s no point wasting our energy assigning fault.”

“I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to my son.  I’d rather something happened to me than forAustinto be harmed.”  He looked up at his father-in-law, eyes swimming in torment.

Will sat next to him on the sofa and put his arm over his shoulder.  “I do know what you mean.  When ourBryandied I didn’t even want to live anymore. AndAustin…  Sometimes when I look at him I can see Laura when she was his age.”

“Yeah, he sure does look like his Mama.  Especially when he cries.  His eyes fill with tears and then go kinda red around the edges.  I can’t say no to him when he does that, just like I give up with Laura. If she looks at me with those eyes, man, I’m finished.”

Will chuckled, remembering.  “I hate to admit this, but there were times I thought Laura did the eyes thing because she knew how well it worked on me.” He stood up and moved to a chair directly across from him. “Now David, I want you to relax. Let’s work together.  How long was Laura gone before you went in to find her, can you remember?”

Laura, having assured herself that the little girls were fast asleep, came down the stairs and entered the room just in time to hear, and began to protest.

Will held his hand up to silence her, “We’ve talked it to death, Laura. Now let your husband and me work on trying to reconstruct the scene.”  He turned back to David.

“Now think: Try again to remember, will you? Details, like how long had Laura been inside before you went to look for her?”

Laura stood behind the chair and massaged her husband’s neck.  “Try to relax and let it all come back to you, honey. Shut out everything but Thursday night.”

Will groaned inwardly; he hadn’t intended to put the guy into a trance, but decided David’s wife knew him better than he did; maybe this relaxation exercise would help.

“I remember watching the clock and by 11:00 I’d already been waiting a while. I went to look for her at 11:20, so I’d say she was gone about half an hour.”  David closed his eyes, yielding to Laura’s touch.

“What were you doing all that time?  Were you listening to the radio?”

“No, it was quiet in the van.Austinhad finally settled down about an hour before we stopped and I didn’t want to disturb him.  The girls went to sleep as soon as it got dark outside.”

“So you’re sureAustinwas sleeping?” Will asked.

“Yeah. You know when he’s sleeping.  If he isn’t sleeping he’s talking.  Nearly drove us crazy asking questions all day.”

“What were you doing while Laura was gone?  Were you watching people? What were you thinking about?”

“It’s funny; I remember thinking about how much you and I are alike, Will.  How we computers guys are mellow dudes and keep a cool head when the women go all hormonal on us.”

At that, Laura snapped her finger on the back of her husband’s head.  David smiled, keeping his eyes closed, concentrating.

“I guess I was pretty mad at Laura, thinking about how she’s always late, and how she loves to shop wherever she is, even if it’s a truck stop in the middle of the night.”

At Laura’s silence he looked up at her. “I’m sorry, honey, it is what I was thinking, but ever since your dad yelled at me to clean up the kitchen I realize I haven’t been too helpful with the kids. I haven’t paid much attention to all the things you do for them—and me.”

“All right, you kids probably want to discuss it when you’re alone together.  If you are anything like Gloria and me, you can stand some heavy relationship work every once in a while. Communication can break down with the pressures of every day life closing in on us.”  Will was glad to see them pulling together but he pressed in harder.

“But that’s for later, when you’re all safely back in your own home. Too much time has elapsed already, and I won’t try to hide how concerned I am.  We have to figure out what happened and find our boy before it’s too late.”

David reached up to grab Laura’s hands, still on his shoulders.  They nodded solemnly and gave Will their full attention.

“Let’s go back to Thursday night.  You must have been watching for Laura all the while you sat there.  What else did you notice?  Anything unusual, anybody out of the ordinary in the area near your van?”

“No, just the usual cars and trucks, people going in and out. I remember feeling really tired and wishing we hadn’t had such a long drive ahead of us.” He paused. “I’m trying to go back in my mind and experience it again,” he told Will apologetically. “Let’s see, the smell of gas, the oily shine on the pavement, so many big trucks—dozens of them, the noise…wait!  There was something!  Why didn’t I think of it before?”

He jumped up, excited. “You know what?  I’ll bet I know what happened!” He paced, slapping himself in the head as if to activate his brain cells.  “You know howAustincan drive you nuts with questions, right? Well, he’s wild about the big trucks, can’t talk about anything else.  Made me read every name on every truck we saw, especially the big cabs with a camper-kinda deal on the back! Remember?  He said we should buy one and we could all live in it.”  He grabbed Laura by the shoulders.  “A truck, honey!  It looked brand new—big, huge thing, with a sleeper cab.”

“Where was the truck, David?” Will broke in.  “Was it near the van when you went in after Laura?”

“It must have been him!  I saw this truck come and park right at the edge of the pavement, the parking area, between our van and the grass. Odd—he was the only truck to stop there while I was waiting. I didn’t think much of it at the time, so I didn’t pay much attention, but I don’t remember seeing him leave. It was new, I know it was—really shiny—and dark-colored.  Could have been black or dark green or maybe even dark blue. I don’t think it was there when we left. I’m sure I would have noticed…Yes!  It was still there when we left, remember honey? Right near our van!”

He hugged Laura. “That will help, won’t it?” he asked Will.   “If it was a trucker, then all we have to do is find out which trucks were there between 10:30 and 11:30 Thursday night.”

“How can we find out?” Laura wanted to know.

“It should be a lot easier if we can eliminate passenger cars,” Will said, picking up some of David’s enthusiasm. “He probably re-fueled and he almost certainly used diesel.  I’ll call and see if they’ll go through the diesel receipts for that night and work with the police to find out if they know anything about those guys.”  He clapped David on the shoulder.  “I think we’re on to something, computer guy.”

Chapter 16—Monday morning, Dallas

“Nana! Here I am!”  Allison announced as she danced into the kitchen, her heart-shaped face aglow with joy at the sight of her grandmother.

Gloria set her freshly baked coffeecake on the cooling rack and folded the four-year old in her arms. “Good morning, sweet girl! You even smell clean this morning. Mama made your hair so pretty,” she gently poked her tummy, “and what is this on your T-shirt?”

“Pooh, Nana. You know Pooh! The mailman brought this to me, from YOU!” She stuck out her chest and traced the chubby bear figure with her pink-tipped fingers.  “My Pooh huggy-bear is in the car and Daddy says he’ll get it pretty soon,” she said, dragging out the ‘soon’ in an imitation of the way David told her to wait. “Daddy and Papa are playing with the ‘puter,” she complained.

After settling Allison in a chair and tying a ruffled apron over the Pooh shirt, Gloria moved around the table to where Laura stood securing Ariel in the sparkling clean high chair.  Laura stepped into her mother’s open arms, tried to remain calm, and gave up, crying quietly on her shoulder.

“Laurie…” Gloria smoothed her only daughter’s spun-gold hair and wept, too.  “I know what you are going through, I really do. When your brother was sick I felt helpless and guilty, and all alone, as if nobody understood the seriousness of the situation. Let me tell you again how sorry I am for crabbing at you yesterday afternoon. I know you are worried sick aboutAustinand I don’t blame you for reading a book to keep your mind off it temporarily. It’s exactly what I’d do.  Or worse, feed my face.”

“But you’re right, Mama, we shouldn’t have been ignoring the girls and sitting around reading and watching TV.”

“Mama.” Hearing her use the childhood form of address she knew, as only a mother knows, how lost and afraid Laura felt.  She said it last night, too, Gloria remembered, mindful how long and darkly lonely the night seems when one’s child is in danger.

“We all need to take care of the girls, honey, not only you. We want them to feel safe and secure.  And as for the condition of the kitchen, who cares about a mess right now?  What does it matter in the long run?  I do want to thank David for cleaning it up, though. Remind me, will you?” Indicating a glass on the table, “By the way, I poured a glass of grape juice for you.  I know how much you love purple grape juice.”

“You are never going to let me forget that one, are you, Mom?” She grabbed a tissue and nudged tears from under her eyes.  “I still don’t know why they use grape juice when the Bible talks about the bread and the wine, but I’ll admit licking out the communion cup might have been a bit tacky.”  Laura managed a teary chuckle.  “Even at eight I should have known better.”

It hadn’t seemed funny at the time, Gloria remembered, but it probably should have.  The Lord took no offense, surely, and if she’d had her head on straight she would have told the deacons wives in the row behind her to mind their own business.  A little girl who loved Jesus with all her heart was something to be proud of, not apologize for.

She turned her attention to Allison, wide-eyed at her mother’s tears.  “I see two beautiful young ladies who have come to have breakfast with us.  I hope you like pancakes, baby,” she told the serious child.  “Do you want me to make bunnies or bears this morning?”

“Bears! Bears!” She crowed.  “Like Pooh!”

The batter hissed as Gloria poured it on the griddle, carefully making shapes she hoped might convince Allison, recalling how Austinalways wanted his pancakes to look like snakes or lizards, one time specifying a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Boys, she suspected, gloried in reptilian critters partly to make their grandmothers nervous, so she liked to tell him that the bubbles rising to the surface were eyes and she needed him to stand close to her because “all those eyes are sca-ree!” She swallowed hard, blinking against tears begging for release.

“We aren’t saving this coffeecake for the men, I hope,” Laura said, picking crumbs from the streusel topping and licking them off her fingers.

“No, dear.  I made it especially for you.  Is apple streusel still your favorite?”

“It sure is.” She helped herself to a generous portion. “I could smell the cinnamon from our room.  Yum!”  Adding another piece to her plate, “I’ve tried baking it but mine doesn’t turn out as good as yours. Why is that, do you suppose? Did you deliberately leave out a secret ingredient?” She sat down and dug in.

“You wouldn’t respect me if I didn’t keep some secrets, would you?”

“Sure I would.  But if you don’t want me to tell anyone else, I won’t.  I think you do owe it to your very onliest daughter the truth about your coffee cake recipe, though.”

“I’m sure it’s fine the way I gave it to you. I don’t leave out ingredients when I share one of my specialties. I wouldn’t do that.  We’ll go over it after while and try to figure out what you might be doing incorrectly.”

Gloria took pride in her baking and was glad to see her daughter showing an interest. She also thought talking about coffeecake was a good way to be together without discussing the worry uppermost in both of their minds.

“I’m so glad you aren’t mad at me anymore, Mother.  I need you on my side.” Gloria reached over and patted her hand.

“Oh, I know David’s on my side,” Laura went on, “but I think a woman needs her mother no matter how old she is.”

“Funny you should say that,” Gloria mused. “Only this morning I was thinking about my own mother and how much I miss her. Next Wednesday it will be a year since your Grandma died, and yes, I still need her.” Odd, she had been thinking about her mother as she drove to the salon Friday morning, too.

“Grandma was a hoot.  I miss her so much.”  Laura said, licking sugar off her fingers.  “She always acted as if I were her favorite person on earth.  I loved it when she ‘interfered’—that’s what you accused her of doing—when you scolded me.  I used to plan to run away from home and I always knew I’d go to Grandma’s house.”  Laura smiled, remembering.

“Oh, I know.  She told me you and she were such buddies because you were united against your common enemy—me!” She hadn’t found it so funny at the time, but now that she had her own grandchildren, she completely understood.

“But you’re right, dear.  As much as our husbands love us, I believe we women need to be able to talk things out with another woman. I do wish Grandma were here right now, though I’m grateful she’s spared the worry.” She refilled her coffee mug, sat down between the girls and went on:

“Thank you for telling me you need me. Hearing you say it means more than I can possibly tell you. Mother-daughter relationships can sometimes be strained.  In fact I remember someone saying mothers and daughters are often locked in a love-hate relationship, and it seems a shame, doesn’t it?” She reached out and held Laura’s hand. “You’re a rich blessing to me and I thank God we can be together right now.”

They held hands and looked into each other’s eyes for a long moment, then grinned, as both had to grab tissues.

“We’ve never been great with these touching scenes, Mom.  We should be on TV. We need to fade to commercial right now.”

Standing up from the table, Gloria murmured agreement.

“I don’t think men fully understand the bond between women. While your dad appreciates my friend Suellen—actually she’s a good friend to both of us—she and I, who both have good marriages, often express how there are some things only a woman can understand about another woman.  I wish your dad had a friend who could be the same type of blessing in his life Suellen is to mine.”

“How long have you and she been friends?”

“As long as I can remember.  Shortly after we moved here, I guess.  You were only a baby.  We’ve been through a lot together.”

Allison patted her Pooh shirt with a sticky hand.  “Pooh needs more.  He says he’s hungry for MOUSES!” She laughed at her own joke, and Gloria kissed the top of her head as she walked to the stove to accommodate the child.

“Did Daddy tell you I tried to talk to you last night?” Laura asked, watching her mother intently.

“Yes, he told me you wanted to tell me that you might have an idea about what happened toAustin. You might find it hard to believe, but I was too tired to talk anymore.  Please forgive me?”

“Of course.” Laura, apparently not finished, went on. “Your door was locked.  I couldn’t believe it.  First I thought you were still mad at me, but then Daddy said he locked it, so I said, okay, Daddy’s the one who’s mad, but when we were in the den together, he was sweet as anything, didn’t seem upset with me at all.”

Gloria busied herself putting on a fresh pot of coffee, making sure she kept her back toward Laura as she felt the heat rise in her neck.  The curse of being fair-skinned, she thought.

“Are you blushing? Mother? Oh NO! Please don’t tell me you locked the door because…oh, this is ridiculous!” Laura covered her face with both hands.

“Would you like another piece of coffee cake, dear? I baked it just for the two of us.  I don’t think the men care for it.  Where are they keeping themselves, anyway?”

“No, I don’t want more coffeecake! For pete’s sake, Mother! The idea of you and Daddy having sex at a time like this!”

“Laura! The children!”

“They don’t understand what we are talking about, thank goodness. Never mind the girls. I’m the one who’s shocked.  Honestly!  How could you?” She stood up as if to leave.

“Shocked?  Excuse me? Sit down, young lady and grow up! You and I never had a ‘birds and bees’ talk, as mothers and daughters are supposed to do, but you need to hear what I have to say right now.”

“I do not want to hear about you and Daddy having sex, not in the middle of the day with all of us in the house…”

“You may be quite sure you won’t hear any such thing.  I don’t even want you thinking about us that way. I really wish this subject had never come up,” Gloria admitted.  “But if you find the idea ridiculous and shocking, well, that bothers me. Why are you so shocked, Laura?  How do you think you came into this family?  We didn’t find you under a cabbage leaf, you know.”

She took another sip of coffee and stood back up suddenly, hands on her hips.

“Shocked?  You’re shocked?  Who was it, I’d like to know, two weeks after your wedding, who ran around this house making cute little remarks to each other, as if we wouldn’t know what you were giggling about, as if you’d invented the whole idea.” She waved her hand in the air, sputtering.  “Then you’d fly up the stairs together and 20 minutes later you’d be back downstairs, giggling again—absolutely shameless.” Gloria couldn’t help smiling. “We tried to remember ever having that much energy.”

“Mother! Really! Sit down.  I’m not really shocked that you…you know, do it, not that I even want to think about that, but I am surprised that you would do it now, when your grandson is missing and we don’t know where he is.”

“Oh.” Gloria felt terribly uncomfortable—she didn’t think it was refined to talk about such personal matters—but she wanted Laura to understand.

“First of all, it wasn’t in the middle of the day; it was 9:00 in the evening, but I’m sorry if it embarrassed you.  As for your implication that it’s inappropriate to make love in a time of crisis, well, I think you’ll find, as you grow older and have been married a long time, there’s something remarkably comforting about…um, intimacy.”

“Okay, fine.  I really don’t want to think about my parents having sex.”

“Then don’t think about your parents having sex.” “Ah,” she paused.  “I believe I understand part of the problem.  You say ‘having sex,’ as if that’s all there is to it.  I think that cheapens an important element of marriage.”  Gloria hesitated, listening to sounds coming from the computer room.

“Listen, honey, we can’t talk about this anymore this morning; it sounds as if our husbands are coming in for breakfast, and if you think you’re uncomfortable now, you don’t want to be here if your Dad hears what we’re discussing. I do want to say this: I hope you and David will still be making love when you are old and gray, because by then you will know it’s infinitely more precious than ‘having sex.’  It is about comforting one another, and communication. It’s about loving and caring for each other far beyond our own needs.”

“Is it still fun?” Laura asked, mischief sparkling from her smiling eyes.

“Better than fun.  It’s sweet.” she answered, laughing at her daughter’s suddenly perplexed expression.

 

Chapter 17—Later Monday morning, Dallas

Will and David walked in slowly, almost hesitantly.  Heads down, not making eye contact, they sat down. Gloria looked from one to the other and felt a chill, a foreboding bordering on panic. Ashen, both men appeared to have aged in the last few hours.

“Sit down, Gloria.”

She complied, noting Will had used her formal name, not his usual “Glory,” or “Glory-girl.”

David pulled Laura’s chair closer to his, lifted Ariel onto her lap and coaxed Allison to come to him. With a collective sigh, they melded together as he tenderly gathered them in his arms and buried his face in Laura’s hair.

Will cleared his throat. “As you may know, David and I spent most of the night on the phone with the people at Trucker’s Haven.  I think I told you, Gloria, after you went upstairs with the girls last night we went over everything again, and when we did, David remembered a truck near the van. We jumped at the possibility that the driver of this truck might know something aboutAustin.”

“You know how Austin will latch on to something,” David said, without releasing his girls, “like Will’s trains, or prehistoric animals, and then want to learn everything he can about his current interest. Well, when we left home, he zeroed in on 18-wheelers.”

Will continued, “So, we called the truck stop later, and the woman who’d been in charge of the cashier’s desk happened to be on duty again, same as Thursday night.

“At first she didn’t want to tell me anything. She talks about the truckers as if they are her sons.  ‘My boys,’ she calls them. She said ex-wives and girlfriends call to check up on their men, and they were enough of a pain in the neck, along with creditors, she didn’t want to be involved. She told me a couple of sad stories—I think she knows the life histories of all the regulars—and said that’s why she didn’t want to make trouble for anybody; most of them have enough trouble of their own. I could see I wasn’t making any progress, so finally I put David on the phone.  You should have heard him Laura, you would have been proud.”

“If I hadn’t heard Will call her ‘Marge’ I never would have guessed I was speaking to a woman,” David picked up the account.  “You know—one of those women, when you listen to them you can hear years of unfiltered cigarettes and cheap booze.” He shook his head. “Tell you what, if she’s as tough as she sounds, I’d sure hate to be the guy who crosses her. Anyway, I told her who I was and why I needed her help. Her manager had told her we called before, and first she acted real cagey.”

“Probably worried about being sued,” Will said.

“Well, I assured her we knew they weren’t at fault, we just wanted our boy back.  I told her all aboutAustin, about his little sisters, how he’s cute and bright and spunky, and how he’s fascinated with big semis. I poured it on, butAustinreally is a special little guy.” He swallowed the break in his voice.

“She didn’t talk for a minute; I could almost hear her thinking. Then she told me, ‘boys and trucks belong together, it’s the most natural thing in the world.’ She offered to try to go through the diesel charges between customers, but they were real busy right then, and she didn’t know how much good it would do.”

“I’d told her before I thought it was a place to start,” Will said, “but she told David not all the drivers pay with a credit card.  Some of them use what they call T-checks or other company checks they use like a cash or debit card, and those are a lot harder to track.”

“Turns out, none of that matters anyway,” David said quietly.

“What do you mean? What do you know?” Gloria asked, hand on her heart.

“All of the sudden Marge remembered something,” Will said.  “She asked if we were thinkingAustinmight have been kidnapped.  We had avoided using the word ‘kidnapped’ because we didn’t want to even think it, and besides, we were afraid she might be defensive if she thought we were going to call in the authorities.”

“When we admitted the possibility had occurred to us, she told us she knew about this one driver who kept to himself, didn’t joke with her or the other drivers.  I don’t think she liked that—she seems to enjoy a certain good-old-girl reputation with the drivers. Anyway, Jake Garret is this driver’s name, and she said she heard he’d been arrested on a felony kidnapping charge but was still driving because for some reason he wasn’t in prison, just had to serve probation.”  David’s voice quavered.  “She gave us his name and the state where she thought he lived at the time, and Will looked up the case on the Internet.”

David, though exhausted, seemed to have become a man overnight, Gloria observed. He sheltered his wife and daughters in his embrace and their confidence in him was apparent in the way they fitted themselves together against his chest. All at once it came to her: She loved her son-in-law.  She didn’t expect that!

Why has it taken me so long to realize it, she wondered.  He’s a wonderful young man, and Laura loves him.  What am I afraid of? Letting go of Laura? Is it aboutBryan? Am I afraid that if I love David it means being disloyal toBryan, that I might forget my own son?

“And?” Laura urged them to finish.

Will cleared his throat again and tried to sound matter-of-fact. “I found the case inLincoln,Nebraska, where he lived.  He may still be based there. Some of what I discovered is encouraging.  He was accused of abducting his own son.” He looked around at their reactions and continued, “He and his ex-wife were in the middle of a custody battle.  He took the boy with him in his truck, and they crossed state lines, which is what made it a federal kidnapping case, a felony.  Since it was his own child and there were certain other questions about the case, the charge was reduced to a state felony charge of domestic battery.  The judge gave him time served plus five years probation.

Battery? Gloria had to know. “Was the child in that case—his son, you said—returned unharmed?”

Neither man spoke at first; finally Will said “No.  His arms and legs were severely bruised.”

Before they had time to absorb this news, he explained. “One of the reasons he didn’t have to spend any time in prison was that the prosecution couldn’t make the case of Garret being the one who hurt the boy.  Garret contended all along somebody else had been abusing him, and it was for that reason he took him away—to keep him from being hurt again, but the little boy claimed ‘Daddy did it.’ The thing is, evidently this kid’s word wasn’t all that reliable because at the same time he’s saying ‘Daddy did it,” he’s hanging on to his father for dear life. So even though they couldn’t prove it one way or the other, the case is still on his record and the charge of kidnapping is still there.”

“Now what?” Gloria asked. For no reason she could explain, peace buoyed her up, surrounded and comforted her. Over their house and the people in it she perceived—almost heard—a great benevolent, brooding presence.  Even as she inwardly thanked God for the assurance that He was there with them, she knew it didn’t necessarily mean this would be one of those happily-ever-after stories. She only knew God’s intense concern for her family and that whatever happened, He’d be there with them.

“Now,” Will said, “we wait. As soon as we called the highway patrol with what we’d learned from Marge they went into action.  I don’t think they ever took us seriously before.  They notified the FBI because if it is kidnapping it’s automatically a federal case on the assumption state lines were crossed.”

“The FBI?” Laura asked, astonished.

“They have amazing resources, Laura,” Will said. “For one thing, they checked to see if they could find out what company this trucker hauls for.  If he had been working for one of the big companies they might have had GPS on his truck.  Problem is, this Garret fellow is an independent owner-operator…”

“Wait,” Laura interrupted.  “What do you mean when you say this guy is an owner-operator?”

“GPS means Global Positioning Satellite.  Wonderful technology!” David came alive as he explained.  “When you have one of these gizmos, you can determine, by satellite, your precise position. Altitude, latitude, longitude, the whole works.  These days most big corporate trucking firms have them on each of their units, along with cellular phones, so they can track what their drivers are doing at all times.”

“But guys like this creep who hasAustindon’t have this thing?” Laura wanted to understand.

“They can.  Some of them do, but it isn’t a cheap toy, and if a guy is confident of where he’s going, like if he usually travels regular routes on the interstates, he might not feel he needs one.  As far as we know, Garret doesn’t have one, but even if he did, he’s not hooked in with any company’s system.  We know he has a cell phone, but there doesn’t seem to be any record anywhere that he used it since Thursday night.”

The doorbell rang, and before anyone could answer it, Suellen walked into the room and pulled up a chair.  “I was on my way to Tom Thumb to pick up a pie for tonight and I felt impressed to pop in and pray for y’all.”

            Chapter 18—Monday Morning in the Ozarks

Monday morning in theOzark Mountainssparkled 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 whenAustinfirst 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 andAustinwas 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 tremblingAustin, 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 letAustinslide off his shoulders and stand on the top stair.  He reached out his hand.

“Morning, Poppy.”

“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 graspedAustin’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 withAustin’s, and wrapped her arms around him as if she’d been waiting for him all morning.Austinhugged her back.  When she straightened up and smoothed her apron with one hand she kept her other hand clamped around one ofAustin’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.”

Austinlooked back at Jake with something like hope in his eyes, needing Jake’s okay to follow her inside.  When Jake gave him thumbs up,Austinhappily 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 ofAustinin 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 orneryHolsteinwas 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?”Austinasked, freshly scrubbed, his cheeks glowing pink.  He looked up into the unhappy face of his hero. “It will be OH-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 overAustin’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 andAustinwere 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.”

Austinlooked 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 theSpringfield,Missouristation. After 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 inDallas,Texas. This is Austin David Page and his family, fromGreen 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 ofAustinand his family, withAustin’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 ofNebraska.

“The picture on your screen now is the FBI file photo of convicted kidnapper, Jacob Philip Garret, formerly ofLincolnNebraska. 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 centralMissouri.  According to our sources, it is believed Garret dropped the trailer there 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 andAustinsat in freeze-frame, forks in mid-air, hardly daring to breathe, as the newsman recited details about what Jake looked like as well asAustin’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 inDallasis 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 inDallas. We are here in the fashionableNorth Dallashome of Will and Gloria Stoner whose grandson is Austin Page, allegedly abducted from his family’s van sometime late Thursday night. With them areAustin’s distraught parents, David and Laura Page.”

“Mama,”Austinbreathed 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 toAustin.”  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 intoAustin’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 takeAustintoDallassomehow, 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?”Austinjumped 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 whenAustinsquirmed 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.

Austinsat very still.

“You know why, don’t you?” Jake asked him.

Austinnodded 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.

“SoAustin, 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 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 inTexarkanabefore 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.”

Austinwatched 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….”

Chapter 19—Monday afternoon, Dallas

“I can finish up in here, Laura.  Thank you for loading the dishwasher and picking up.  I’ll clean and dry countertops, and then I’m going to sit down with my Bible for a while.”  Ariel rested her head under her grandmother’s chin, eyes half closed, as Gloria stood, rocking back and forth, patting the baby’s bottom.

“Okay, thanks. I’ll take the girls into the family room for some quiet time. Both of them will probably fall asleep if I read to them.” Laura gently moved the almost-asleep Ariel to her own shoulder.

In Laura’s opinion the kitchen already would pass the most stringent requirements of the clean police. Her mother’s devotion to cleanliness struck her as bordering on the obsessive, but today the order and attention to detail evident throughout her parents’ home reassured her. It felt like an island of safety. As she left the room she looked back and in that moment understood her mother’s satisfaction with a job well done.

“Allison, tell Nana ‘thank you’ for lunch.” After her daughter obeyed, she took her hand and they left the room.

~~~~~~~~

Gloria stood back, folded her arms and admired her kitchen. Funny how quiet it seems now, she thought, after all the noise and activity of the last few hours. She agreed with whoever had called the kitchen the heart of the home.  Beginning this morning when she had awakened early to bake Laura’s favorite coffeecake, and continuing through the last couple of hours when all of them sat around the table, all activity radiated from the kitchen.

She supposed it was so satisfying to her because, no matter what anybody said, she remained convinced that a woman is most satisfied, most fulfilled when she is doing something to nurture her family.

She thought of her mother again.  She couldn’t remember her anywhere but in the kitchen, bathed in the heavenly aroma of her famous bread or flaky pastries.

Gloria admired her mother’s ability to immerse herself in baking, giving her children a sense of security. Thinking back, she remembered her mother as keeping herself busy, probably to avoid feeling fearful, wondering if Dad would make it home from work and if he would have anything left of his paycheck if he did.

As an adult, Gloria came to realize that her father had been an alcoholic, but her mother had never admitted it. It might have been better if she had.  It would have explained her father’s long absences and his abusive behavior when he finally came home. She might have been less inclined, at least intellectually, to feel his actions were personally directed at her. When he did stay home, Gloria felt as if she were in the way, a nuisance. As if her father’s actions and the turmoil around the home were somehow her fault.

Gloria longed for the only safe feelings of early childhood, when she had come home from school to yeasty rolls so fresh and warm that the butter melted between her fingers and ran down her arm.

Cooking and baking are extensions of nursing babies, a continuing commitment to their nurture, she thought, smiling at the idea of what Will would say if she told him. He would probably ask if she had been watching Oprah again.

Gloria acknowledged that she needed a solid, even-tempered man like Will—she would probably fly to pieces without him, but she couldn’t help wishing, sometimes, that his mood swings would swing a bit wider.

To be fair, he had often told her how much he enjoyed her enthusiasm and energy. They were perfectly suited to each other!

“Come away my beloved…” Remembering the words from Song of Songs always warmed Gloria’s heart.  A picture of Christ’s love for His bride, the church, touched deeply her need to be wooed, cherished.

This wonderful feeling called for a celebration!

She put a kettle of water on to boil, set the table with one tea cup and saucer, a bowl of honey, and a cinnamon scone from the “care package” the neighbors brought over earlier.

Moving from the stove to the table to the sink and back again, she found herself humming a little chorus they sang at the closing of midweek church services. When she recognized the tune, she sang it, pleased with herself for remembering the words.

She sat down. “I’m so glad I’m a part,” she sang, stirring honey into her tea as she sang. “of the family of God…”

It was early on a golden spring afternoon, the sun high overhead. No actual rays of sunshine penetrated the cool, elegant kitchen or she might have been distracted by dust motes, but it was bright and cheerful as she sang, and her heart was at peace.

~~~~~~~~~

Into this idyllic scene Will stormed; tired, pale, dark circles under his eyes. The first thing he noticed was her hair and the way the soft light seemed to illuminate her elegant hairdo from within. Elaborate rituals, from which he was excluded, involved Gloria’s hair, and her hair stylist.

He next became aware of the refined tableau in front of her.  The incongruity of bone china teacups in the midst of distress that began at a grimy truck stop offended him in a way he couldn’t have explained.

Furthermore, though Will hadn’t defined what he would have considered appropriate behavior for waiting out the long hours of their crisis, he was dead certain that singing wouldn’t have made the top-ten list of best possibilities.

Without bothering to greet her in any way, he licked his lips a couple of times, waiting for her to take note of him.

He slapped several pages of a computer printout on the table, rattling her cup.

“O my dear, I am so pleased you’ve joined me.  Would you like a cup of tea?  And I think there’s another scone.  Wasn’t it kind of Nancy Martin to bring us these goodies?”

“No, I do not want any tea nor do I care for one of those dry things from the neighbors. Don’t let me stop the music. I hate to interrupt your little tea party, but while you’re here having a good time, some of us are trying to find your grandson.”

Her astonished expression convinced him that she was completely out of touch with him. Not on the same plane at all.

“What’s the deal here, Gloria?” He demanded.  “What is going on?  I’m calling and FAXing all over the country trying to findAustin, and here you sit, dreaming about God only knows what.”

He looked around, made a move toward sitting down, but changed his mind and remained standing, rigid. “At least, mercifully, you were singing in here and not in front of the rest of the family.”

“My goodness, dear, I know how tired…”

“Don’t patronize me,” he cut her off. “Of course I’m tired, but my feelings are not the point right now.” He paused, “You always do that!  You can’t stick to the point.  You come up with one of your touchy-feely observations and that’s supposed to calm me down. This is a serious situation, and trying to calm me down is inappropriate! Not everything is about feelings, you know.”

“What’s wrong with feelings,” Gloria interrupted, but Will cut her off.

“Our grandson is actually missing, and, you might be interested to know, this Jake Garret guy, who probably has him, is the brother of your hairdresser.  How’s that for a coincidence?  MaybeAustin’s kidnapping isn’t such a random thing after all.” He glowered at her.

“Alex’s brother hasAustin?  How do you know that? I didn’t even know Alex had a brother.”

He opened his mouth to answer her, but before he could say anything, Gloria charged off in a different direction.

“Our grandson is missing and now it is somehow my fault?” Her anger rose up to meet her husband’s. “I’ve never figured out how you do it, but when anything bad happens it’s my fault. Am I responsible for bad weather, too?”

“See, there you go again, exaggerating.  You always do that!”

“And you always do that! You’re always saying ‘always’ or ‘never.’ You’re the one who makes a whole sinister syndrome out of one situation.”

She stood up and took all of her tea things to the sink, slamming them down with just enough force to make the cup rattle against the saucer without breaking anything.

“That’s right.  Turn it back on me,” Will grumbled. “You’re sitting here with tea and crumpets, pretending I don’t know what, while I’ve been up for two nights straight, tearing my hair out, trying to find a single ray of hope aboutAustin, and you turn it around so that I’m the bad guy, here.  You know something?” he asked, looking at her as if he’d just discovered a profound truth.  “You’re just like your mother!”

“My mother?  How does my poor dead mother have anything to do with our grandson’s kidnapping?” Her voice rose to match her anger. “What did my mother ever do to you?  She was a wonderful woman!” Gloria’s voice was quavering now, obviously about to lose control. “And they’re scones, not crumpets.”

“Whatever. Your mother was a piece of work, I can tell you that!”

“It wasn’t her fault!”

“Your father hung around the periphery of her life with his tail between his legs, and she was an island of calm.  Saint Alicia.” Will shook his head sadly.

“My father, my…” Gloria protested.

“Watch it,” Will interrupted.  “Let’s not make this situation worse by using crude language.”

“I was going to say, ‘my father, my foot!’ What do you think I was going to say?  Is your mind so consumed by fear that in your anger you transfer your rotten motives to everybody else?”

“Now you’ve decided I’m consumed with fear? Or is that one of your psychobabble insights? Did you watch Dr. Phil again today?”

“What other reason could you possibly have for being so angry with me?”

When he didn’t reply, she fished a hanky out of her bra and blew her nose. He hated it when she kept a hanky there, which was probably why she did it rather than grabbing a tissue from the box on the counter.

“My father couldn’t have kept bread on the table if my poor mother hadn’t hid his pay check as soon as he brought it into the house.” She dabbed her eyes.  “I’ll tell you something, William Stoner.  My father was the kind of man who was totally disinterested in his daughter. He never came to a single one of my school concerts or plays.  Not once in twelve years.”

She turned to face him and stepped closer. “And here’s another insight: You know how I’ve always bragged about what a genius you are at problem solving?  Well, I was wrong.  Your true genius is timing.”

He fixed her with a glare, daring her to continue, which she did, in a soft, rational voice, such as one might use on a very young, not overly bright, child.

“One of the things I was thinking as I sat here for a couple of minutes after clearing up lunch things, was how blessed we are to have each other, how thankful I am for you.  It’s a wonder my heart didn’t stop when you roared in here like a grizzly bear, talking to me as if I were your enemy.”

He wouldn’t meet her eyes, but neither did he relax his stiff posture.

“You and I have talked about what a good marriage we have, and it is.  It’s still an exceptional marriage, but you aren’t yourself right now and just this minute, I can’t stand to be in the same house with you.  No,” she said, holding up her hand as he opened his mouth to try to reason with her, “I can’t handle you being so mean to me even though I know how sorry you’ll be later—you aren’t a mean person.  I know you are devastated and bone-tired—we all are—and I know we’ll make it through all this, but I need to get out of here for a while.”

Trembling, she paused for control.  “I don’t know what to do.  It’s probably because you haven’t slept since we found outAustinis missing, but what you said about my mother…you’ve crossed a line. This is so out of character…” She took a deep breath. “Maybe if you were more in touch with your feelings and could talk about them, you wouldn’t be lashing out at me.”

She looked over at him, but he couldn’t move, and she didn’t touch him or try to comfort him.

“The things you said…you said them under stress, I know, but you did say them.  At some level you must believe them to be true, like about how I always exaggerate, and I’m just like my mother, as if that’s a bad thing.  And what was the crack about my singing? Where did that come from?”

“Singing right now is inappropriate, is all. Come on!  What do you think you’re doing?  Don’t be ridiculous!” It was ridiculous; almost funny, but evidently she wasn’t amused.

“You aren’t leaving now, are you? What will I tell the kids?  How will it look if you leave me?”

“You have my cell phone number, and you know eventually I’m likely to wind up at Suellen’s. You can tell the kids whatever you please.  You’re the problem solver, so solve.”

She retrieved her purse off the top of the refrigerator, found her keys and headed for the door.

“Gloria…” He felt confused.  “When can we expect you back?”

“I’ll be back as soon as I’ve sorted this all out and settled in my heart what I’m going to do with it.  Oh, I forgive you and you’ll forgive me for whatever set you off like this.  You know we always forgive; it’s part of the package.  But I can’t talk to you about it now.  Please try to sleep.”

“Aren’t you going to tell me to pray, too?”

“I’m not your spiritual advisor. I presume you have been praying.”

“I love you, Gloria.”  Quietly.

“I love you, too. I just don’t like you much right now.”

She left, closing the door behind her.

Chapter 20—Monday Afternoon, Dallas

Alex never mentioned a brother. How on earth would his brother know about her grandson? None of it made any sense to Gloria, and she didn’t think Will made any sense either.

She had a passing moment of being grateful she had been driving for so many years she could go almost anywhere without thinking about it—her own version of autopilot. Today she couldn’t have followed a map if she’d had to. Will’s outburst had been so entirely unlike him it had unnerved her.

She knew Will wouldn’t like it if she went to talk to Alex, but her heart went out to the young man.  Poor guy. The last couple of times she had been at the salon, except for last Friday, of course, she had felt a melancholy air around him. For all his apparent lack of shame concerning his lifestyle, she couldn’t believe he was content.

Being at ease praying aloud was one of the reasons Gloria so often chose to drive her car when she was upset. She had so many people she wanted to pray for, but the last few days her prayers have been focused onAustin.

“Lord, I thank you for the peace I feel about our little guy but if something terrible has happened to him, I don’t know what I’ll do.  I guess I’ll just have to depend on You for the grace to take us all through this awful time.  Right now, though, I feel assured he’s all right. Please let us all know for sure somehow that he is safe.” She heard the quaver in her own voice.

“Father, I ask you to help my dear husband through this sorrow in our lives.  This is where grace kicks in, right? When I don’t know what to do and couldn’t do the right thing even if I knew what it was?  He’s a good man, Father, and I thank you for him.  Help him findAustin.” She dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief.

“I wish I knew how I could help.”

A parking spot on the lower level.  Good.  She could run in and visit Hannah for a few minutes.  Being in her gallery always calmed her, and Hannah usually had a new O’Keeffe or Cassatt print to show her.

The main reason she visited the gallery during times of stress was that she could count on Hannah to greet her as if her day hadn’t been complete until Gloria walked in the door.

She still didn’t know what she should do about Alex.  She wished she could talk to him. Perhaps he’d even let her pray with him, considering the circumstances.

“Father, watch over Alex and help him see clearly.  Comfort him about his brother. You can do anything, Lord.  You can call him to yourself.  Don’t give up on him. Be merciful, Lord.  We all need your mercy.  If I am to go up and talk to him, please let me know somehow.”

When she entered the shop she had to lean over to receive a hug from tiny Hannah Luce.

Gloria had often speculated that Hannah’s Yiddish accent might only be a charming affectation, but she loved the way she stretched her name out to ‘GLAHria.’

“GLAHria, my dear friend!  How wonderful to see you here today.  I was just this minute thinking about you and wondering, what could I do to ease your heart. How’s by you? Any news?” She looked up at Gloria, her eyes solemn and concerned above half-glasses. “And you?  How are you?  Devastated, of course.  Why do I ask such a question?”

She bustled off toward the back of the shop and pulled out a print.  “Look at this! Is this not a rest for your eyes and a feast for your soul? Better than chicken soup on such a day, no?”

The print, one of Mary Cassatt’s famous mother and child studies, brought tears to her eyes.  “It is beautiful,” she whispered.

“Oh my word. Mother and child. What am I thinking? I am so sorry!”

“No, no.  You have nothing to be sorry about. You knew exactly what I needed. It’s lovely, Hannah, thank you.”

They were standing there, looking at the picture and patting each other awkwardly when Tina walked in. Hannah hurried over to her and clucked through her whole routine, hugging Tina before releasing her to Gloria. Gloria thought it looked as if Tina had been crying.

“How nice to see you again,” Gloria said, touching her arm gently. “How is Alex? Is he all right?”

“How could he be all right?”  Tina blurted, without saying hello to either woman.  “No, Alex is a wreck. This morning the FBI assigned two goons to follow him everywhere.  They even go into the men’s room with him, can you imagine? Of course he’s not all right.”

“Then I guess you know the authorities are convinced his brother hasAustin.”

“I know.”

“Do you know anything about the brother?  I mean, is he, uh…you know, like Alex?”

“What do you mean, like Alex?”  Tina pulled her chin up.  “He is definitely not gay, if that’s what you’re worried about.” She stood there defiantly for a moment, obviously holding back tears. “I’m not even sure Alex is.  But so what if he is?  It has nothing to do his brother!”

“Tina, dear…” Gloria reached out and Tina fell into her arms, weeping.

“There, there,” Gloria said, patting her shoulder and looking over her head at Hannah who looked as bewildered as Gloria felt.  “What has so troubled you, dear?”

“I’m sorry.  I’m a mess today.  I don’t know what’s the matter with me—maybe PMS.” She grabbed the tissue Hannah offered. “I’m awfully sorry to fall apart like that, Gloria. I should be comforting you. You must be beside yourself with worry.” She blew her nose.  “Listen, I’ve met Alex’s brother Jake, and I don’t think you have anything to concern yourself about with him. I can’t imagine what he was thinking, but he’s a gentle person.”

Her voice broke just a little.  “At least, I thought so.”

“You’ve met him?  How can you know what he’s like from just meeting him? Have you spent any time with him?”  She stopped her flow of questions when she noted that Tina’s struggle against tears hindered any response she might make. “I hope you’re right about him, dear. I find what you say reassuring.  I guess we’ll have to wait to find out why he would run off with ourAustin. Let’s hope and pray he’s taking good care of him.”  It was Gloria’s turn to grab a tissue. “Tina, dear, I believe you know my friend Suellen Kelly?”

“Yes, of course.  She invited me to the church. That’s where I became a Believer.”

“Well then, you may already know this, but tomorrow afternoon a few people from Maranatha are meeting at Stephen and Suellen’s home to pray for us.  We could pray for Alex and Jake, too. I hope you’ll join us.”

“What time?”

“We thought we’d put together a little potluck—we all have to eat anyway—and gather at about 6:00. You’ll be working tomorrow afternoon, won’t you? There will be plenty of food—you don’t have to bring anything.”

“I’ll try to be there.”

Gloria nodded to Hannah, indicating a young man who walked into the shop.

“Don’t worry.  He comes every afternoon.  He comes, he looks, he buys nothing, and he goes.” She waved her hand, dismissing him for their conversation, and continued her good-hearted clucking.

“Listen, you two: I’m going to tell you what you tell me: How many times?  You always tell me, ‘God is greater than your greatest problem.’  Now, do you believe that, or no? Yes? All right, then. Go home and pray.  Tell me what happens.”  She kissed first one, then the other, and said to each of them in turn, “You’re a mensch. I couldn’t say better.”

“I need to go back to the salon.  I’ll tell Alex you asked about him.”

Gloria watched Tina walk away and made a fresh resolution to lose weight. Something is going on with that girl, she thought.

Suddenly eager to see Suellen and then go on home, Gloria turned to make an appropriate good-bye to Hannah, who shooed her out of the studio, “Go. Go.  Tonight you have family.  Some other time we talk.”

~~~~~~~~

“Y’all want herb tea with honey?” Suellen busied herself fixing a light supper for the two of them. “I’m always happy to see you. Stephen is out of town and I wasn’t looking forward to eating alone, but when you come huffing in here like you did, I know it’s not because you just happened to be in the neighborhood.  What’s going on?”

“Will and I had a fight.”

“A fight?  Will fought?  Don’t you mean you’re mad at Will?”

“Stop it.  It’s not funny.”

“Of course it’s funny.  You two have been together so long you look alike. You’re like a couple of old ladies.  What happened?  Did he squeeze the toothpaste in the middle?”

“I didn’t come here to be ridiculed.  This is serious!” Gloria tried hard not to cry again. “Will is being utterly unreasonable.  I know he’s tired, but he was so mean to me, I don’t know if I can forget what he said.”

“You mean to tell me you left in a snit?” When Gloria nodded, Suellen put her hand on her hip and scolded, “You are both too dignified for that. You know better! This isn’t a soap opera, my friend.  Isn’t that what you always tell me?  You can’t stomp out of the room and fade to commercial; you need to stay together until it’s resolved.”

Gloria wouldn’t look at her.  She kept her head down, scrabbling around inside her purse, finally retrieving a cellophane-wrapped breath mint and made a ritual out of unwrapping it and putting in her mouth, never raising her eyes.

Suellen, speaking softly now, compassionately, “I’m terribly sorry I laughed.  I know it’s serious—you and your family are in the middle of a terrible crisis—but you know you two old sweethearts will kiss and make up; you always do. You came through losingBryanby taking it one baby-step at a time. Your whole family is under incredible pressure, and I doubt if any of you are entirely rational.  C’mon.  Let’s pray.  We’ll eat our supper, and then you can go home and be with your family.”

~~~~~~

Quiet reigned in the Stoner house when she came home.  Will, already in his pajamas, said no more than that David and Laura were in their room reading, the girls were asleep, and he’d see her in the morning.

When she slipped into bed a half-hour later, she could tell by the way he breathed that he was only pretending to be asleep.

They fell asleep, as usual, with their backs to each other, but for the first time in their married life, the sun had gone down on their anger, and also for the first time since their wedding night, neither of them reached back to pat the other’s bottom.

 

Chapter 21—Monday afternoon in the Ozarks

Jake had a pretty good idea what sort of man would show up when Poppy called his friend, ex-FBI out ofHarrison,Arkansas, to help them figure out how to sendAustinback to his people and maybe even keep Jake out of prison. They had just finished lunch, and the former agent was on his way over.

Yep, he knew what to expect: a fit and trim fellow in a perfectly tailored suit, starched shirt and boring tie—probably red, white, and blue—muscled, but not so muscled that the press in his sleeves lost their knife-edge sharpness. He’d have a military haircut, granite-strong jaw, shining shoes, and stand at attention at all times.  A straight from Dragnet, just the facts, ma’am, Joe Friday type.

Which is why, when Denny Turco stood in the open doorway, Jake didn’t have any idea what he beheld.  Denny, at six feet six inches tall, at least 350 pounds may have been muscled, but if so he had cleverly disguised it under a bright red Razorback sweatshirt that skimmed the top of loose jeans held up, but barely, by a very wide belt.

Stomping his scuffed work boots on the braided entry rug, he looked around the room and furrowed his brow. “Somebody wanna see me?”

As he stood there blocking most of the light, Austin came out of the bedroom, ran up to him and stopped, tilted his head sideways and asked, “Are you the guy on Wild World of Wrestling?  You know, Mountain Dog Dooley?” and socked him in the stomach to gauge his toughness.

Watching, Jake wondered again about the child’s parents.  Clearly they hadn’t taught the kid a thing about being careful who he talked to.

Good thing, being without fear, come to think of it.  A six-year-old shouldn’t be out of his Dad’s sight long enough to know anything about danger or pain or fear, even from strangers.  Parents need to protect their children. Dads, especially.  He tried to swallow as it came up in his throat again, the sour green bile of angry helplessness.

In a single movement Denny grabbedAustin’s wrist and held him at arm’s length.  He stared at him for a long minute before growling, “No, kid, I am not Mountain Dog Dooley, and I do sincerely hope you’re not who I think you are!”

His eyes met Jake’s and he released the boy who walked with him toward the table where Jake sat enjoying his fourth cup of coffee.

His voice flat and husky, Denny asked, “You think I’m the wrestler type, Slick?”

Jake couldn’t take this lumbering hulk seriously. He smiled. “Maybe. Either that or the former governor ofMinnesota.”

“So the truck driver’s a wise guy.”  He leaned over, his face inches from Jake’s, his close-set eyes black slits between puffy eyelids. “Listen, pretty boy,” he warned, “you harm one gray hair on either of these old heads and you’re gonna be my own special project.”

He stared at him another minute before moving away, then wearily dropped his great bulk into a chair. “O man, I hate this!”

He sat, alternately rubbing his day old beard and scratching half-inch bristles on top of his head. “Poppy, what did you get yourself into this time?”

A twinkle of merriment in their eyes, Poppy and Kate watched Denny introduce himself to Jake and Austin. Despite the gravity of the circumstances, the older couple couldn’t hide their amusement.

Denny leaned back in his chair, remaining silent and chewing on the inside of his thumb during the half-hour it took the rest of them to explain how they had all come to this point.  Silent, that is, except for an occasional chuffing sound, a bit like horses make on a cold winter morning.  Jake finally figured out it had to be Denny’s version of a chuckle, and decided the fellow had a bleak sense of humor.

When Denny had a question, he didn’t say anything, he just raised his forefinger and Poppy filled in the details. Every timeAustininterrupted with a detail, Denny glowered at him and soon the boy’s outbursts ceased.

They all fell quiet when they had finished the account up to when Jake and Austin showed up at the cabin Friday morning.

Into this silence Denny asked, “You got summa them brownies, Kate?  Maybe a glass a milk, if it’s good’n cold?”

Kate set glasses and a frosty white jug of milk on the table, then brought a plate of rich, gooey chocolate goodies and passed a stack of napkins before sitting down again.           They all waited while most of the brownies disappeared, washed down with milk.  Denny wiped his mouth delicately and returned his napkin to the table.

He leaned back again, not looking at anybody. “You’re going to jail, Slick.”

Jake listened quietly, but the others objected loudly.

Denny held up his hand for silence and continued. “No way you aren’t headed for the slammer until this is all straightened out.

Giving him his full attention, now, he went on, “Jake, you’ve got the kid and they know it.  You concealed his location for, what? Three days now?  They’ve got probable cause, man. I can’t make it go away.”

“I’m not real sure what your story is—not a lick of sense, I can see that—but you look pretty harmless to me.  So.  Here’s how it’ll go: I’m gonna take you toHarrisonand you’ll turn yourself in. Then what I’d like to do is make sure the kid shows up at wherever his folks are at about the same time you walk into the FBI office. If we can tell the Feds that’s what’s happening, they might not sit on you so hard.”

“We’ve been thinking about how to do it,” Poppy said.  “Christina lives in Dallas, you know, and if Kate and I drove the boy as far as, say, Fort Smith, or even some place in Oklahoma if we went farther west than Fort Smith. We could meet her there and she could take him on in to his grandparents.”

“How will we know she’s there and that they’re both all right?”

“We won’t.  We’ll plan our time carefully and make sure she has enough time to deliverAustin, even if she runs into traffic.  She has a car phone and if she runs into trouble she can try calling your cell phone, Denny.  The problem is, how do we know you’ll be near a tower?  Cell phones are so unreliable in these hills. That’s why we need to plan carefully and pray hard.”

“Just a minute!” Jake jumped to his feet. “I’m going to jail, right?  It’s my own fault. Now we’re talking about involving Tina? It’s not going to happen. I won’t have her put in harm’s way. I should have driven to the next highway patrol and put an end to this mess Friday. Forget about your complicated plans!”

Denny sat up straight, exhaling through flared nostrils like a bull discovering the indignity of a rodeo chute.

“Whoa, there! Hold your horses! Let me see if I got this straight: This truck driver here didn’t show up on this ridge outa nowhere, did he?  He knows your granddaughter?  How well does he know her?  How long has this been going on?  Anything else you folks wanna tell me?”

Kate, apparently the only one unfazed by his blowup, got up to refill the brownie plate, patting Denny’s shoulder in passing.

“Jake’s brother Albert knows Christina from the salon, and Albert introduced them.  They’ve been spending time together, and were here with us for a weekend a while back. From what I just saw, I think he cares more for her safety than for his own.”

“Man!  This puts everything in a whole new light. Until a minute ago I’m thinking this sorry little sap accidentally finds his way up to the cabin and tells Poppy and Kate a sad story.  They know I’m a sucker for a guy who runs a little sideways of the authorities, so here I come to help these old friends with a problem. Dumb ol’ Denny to the rescue.”

He rubbed his head with both hands. “All this time I’m thinking I gotta make sure some nervous Nellie local cop doesn’t spot him and think he’s doing his civic duty by shooting first and asking questions later.”  Denny stood up and paced the room, rattling dishes in the hutch with every heavy step.

“Now I’m thinking, I’d be harboring a fugitive and setting myself up to be an accessory after the fact and a whole bunch of other messy legal junk for a guy who’s evidently half a bubble offa plumb.

“I should call the FBI right now and haul his butt in there this afternoon.”

He sat down again and grabbed another brownie, chewing this one slowly and thoughtfully. “I gotta think about this.”

Subdued,Austinfollowed the conversation intently, studying the face of each speaker until he could remain silent no longer. “Mr. Denny,” he began, without his customary bravado, “please try to help Jake. It’s not his fault, honest.  I wanted to see inside his truck and fell sound to sleep. Jake was nice to me. He didn’t use swears at me nor nothing.”

Denny studied first Austin and then Jake for a full minute.  “I gotta get some air.”

Through the window they watched him walk around his red pickup truck, alternately talking to the sky and gesturing, punching, and then studying his feet, hands in his pockets.

“What’s he doing?”Austinwanted to know.

“It looks to me like he’s praying and listening for an answer.” Kate said. “Did you notice how testy he got when we talked about Christina? What was that all about?”

“I’ll bet he’s in love with her.” Jake said quietly.

“Yep, I wondered about that,” Poppy agreed.  “I sure didn’t see that one coming.  I wonder if Christina knows.”

They watched without talking as Denny got into his truck.  After about ten minutes he stepped out, marched into the kitchen and sat down, his manner indicating the rest of them should join him, and pay attention.

“Jake,” he began, “You’re divorced, right? I mean, you aren’t married and cheating on your wife?”

“Yes.  No. That is, I’m not cheating on my wife. I never cheated on her.  I’m divorced, yes.”

“Are you in love with Christina?”

Jake gulped and looked from one to the other. “Yes.”

“Does she love you?”

“I don’t know.  I think so, but she hasn’t told me she does. She likes me, but…see, there was a problem, so I don’t think she‘d tell me even if she did.”

“You mean a problem like, she’s one of them born-agains and you’re not?”

“Wasn’t.” Poppy corrected.

“You are now?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You sure?  That’s pretty convenient. You’re not just saying so to get on Christina’s good side?”

“You must not know Tina, uh, Christina very well if you think I could deceive her. Poppy and Kate have been teaching me and helping me the last couple of days.  I know God is real—guess I always knew that, but yesterday I gave up my life to Him.  Not that I was doing God a big favor. Or had a choice.  But I meant it. I believe they’ll vouch for me.”

Denny studied Jake another minute and then said, “Okay, we’re gonna do it.  I was out there listening to my scanner, and things are heating up. They found your trailer, you know,” he waited for Jake to nod, “so they’re zeroing in on this part of the state. We can’t take a chance on the local sheriff getting his hands on you.”

“If I surrendered to the local sheriff’s office wouldn’t he just lock me up and call the FBI?”

Denny chuff-chuffed, his chins shaking with the effort. “You’re not from around here, are ya, fella? What they’re saying is, a truck driver kidnapped a little boy.  Now how do you think it looks? They got two guys tailing your brother, which should tell you something.” He waited for the implications to sink in. “The local guys grab you, man, and you’re gonna disappear forever.  One of the reasons they aren’t using dogs to track you down right now is ‘cause dogs would find more bodies than they want to have to explain.”

Jake raised his eyebrows at Poppy, asking him to verify, but Poppy just winked at him and made a “let it go” motion with his hand.

Denny explained: “They both think I’m paranoid, I know that. They know I had a heart attack and a nervous breakdown. They think I exaggerate, but I do know what I’m talking about.”

At Jake’s startled expression he went on. “Let’s just say, in my pre-redeemed days I may not have been the refined gentleman you see before you today.”  That set off several chuff-chuckles. “Oh yeah.  Told you I retired, did they?  Well there’s a whole lot more to my story, but we don’t have time to go into it right now.”

Jake decided he had about all the information he could handle, anyway. “I appreciate you helping me, Denny, and I’ll take your word for it when you say you know the best way to go. What do you want me to do?”

“I ain’t doing this for you, Slick, so don’t thank me.  I’m doing it for Christina.  She’s had enough in her life without her boyfriend waking up dead.”

“Now here’s what I want you to do: First thing, don’t be taking a shower. Don’t wash your hair or shave. You can raise a beard, can’t you?” He chuff-chuckled and went on.  “You need to rub some dirt into your pants and scuff your boots some. And whatever you do, don’t be pouring on any of that sissy perfume you wear.”

“It’s after-shave, not cologne. And yes, I can grow a beard. In fact my beard is heavy and dark, and by tomorrow afternoon I’ll look downright rustic.  But why do I have to look and smell like a bum?”

“You might have to suddenly turn invisible if we happen to get stopped, and if my whole truck stinks like your perfume—okay, after-shave—nobody is going to believe it’s me.  Or I might have to pass you off as my sister’s boyfriend or something.  I dunno.  I want to be ready for anything, and I don’t want you looking and smelling like a candle shop.”

“Now, Kate, let’s call your granddaughter and see if we can get her lined up to take the kid back. Where is the little pill, by the way?”

~~~~~~~~~

            When callingAustin’s name through every room in the house produced no results, one of them suggested that he must have gone outside.  At that possibility, Denny looked stricken and covered the distance from where he stood in front of the great fieldstone fireplace to the front door in surprisingly few heavy strides, punctuating every other step with groans of “O man. Tank!”

Reaching his truck, Denny flung open the door, took one look inside, and snorted, “Oh man. TANK!”  He slapped the hood and then rubbed his head in complete exasperation.  “Tank! What kind of a good-for-nothing guard dog are you?”

Wiggling with obvious delight, tail thumping merrily on the steering wheel, the object of his frustration was fully occupied with licking the ear of the giggling boy who lay across him, twiddling the dials of Denny’s police radio.

“What’s the matter with you, kid?”  Denny askedAustin. “That dog is a Rottweiler! He could bite your head off at the shoulders without half trying.”

“Aw, he’s not mean.  He’s my friend, aren’t you, Buffy?” Austinscratched the giant head of the beast. “Look!  He even smiles.”Austinpulled the dog’s black lips up to show teeth that had on other occasions chilled the blood of full-grown men.

“Tank! His name is Tank! What’s with Buffy?  Don’t be giving my dog a cutesy name. Buffy! You trying to make him a sissy?” Denny gazed dispiritedly into the truck, his shoulders slumped in defeat.  “And what do you think you’re doing with my radio?”

“Nothing.  I wanted to see if I could hear the police talk about me and Jake, but I can’t get it to work.”

“Let’s get something straight, and I’m not kidding.  Now sit up and listen.”

Austinobeyed instantly and Denny went on. “It just so happens that Tank here is a big phony, but you can’t ever count on dogs.  Don’t EVER even get NEAR a vehicle with a dog in it, do you understand me?”

Austinnodded.

“And aren’t enough people in trouble because you crawled into somebody’s car, OR truck?” he amended whenAustinmoved to correct him. “Do not ever again get into a stranger’s vehicle of any kind without the express permission of one or both of your parents.  Are we clear on that?”

Austinnodded again. “But you aren’t a stranger,” he said to Denny.  “I didn’t get into a stranger’s truck this time, did I?”

“We are not in the courtroom, little Mister, and I’m not going to debate the fine points of the law with you.”  Denny heldAustin’s chin and compelled the boy to look him in the eye.  “Do we understand each other?” Austinnodded, but Denny repeated his question.  “Do we understand each other?”

“Yes,” saidAustinmeekly.

“Yes, what?” Denny asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s better.”

“Now, those shoes gonna work for you until you get to your folks?”  Denny pointed to the tennis shoes he’d brought with him at Kate’s request.  He had borrowed them from his sister forAustinwho had left his in the family van.

“Yeah, they’re great.  Can I keep them?” Austindisplayed his feet for their admiration, his toes clearly visible through ragged holes.

“All right.  You be ready early tomorrow morning, and don’t be giving Poppy and Kate any trouble tonight.”  Denny helpedAustindown, climbed in his truck beside his fierce guard dog and drove away.

Tank stuck his head out of the open window and looked back, whooffing at Austin who waved and called out “bye-bye Buffy” until boy and dog lost sight of one another.

Capter 22—Monday night, Dallas

After the fool she had made of herself at Hannah’s studio, Tina was relieved to be able to go back to the salon.  Usually buzzing with activity, only Tina and three other stylists tended their customers this evening, and they all appeared inclined toward quiet.

Alex didn’t have Monday evening appointments, and that meant the FBI agents weren’t hanging around trying to look important. Since the moment they had walked in, about 1:00 this afternoon, they deliberately had made themselves so obvious it disrupted the whole place.

Tina was grateful, too, that her last appointment was a regular client, a 50-something laid-back attorney who preferred reading his McMurtry novel to talking. She knew exactly how he wanted his hair cut. She finished, removed the cape and walked with him to the cashier’s desk. Until she thanked him when he handed her a $5 tip, neither of them spoke a word.

Driving home alone in the dark felt like punishment to her, a cruel reminder that seemed to intensify her loneliness. While other people were home with their families, she had filled the hours in hollow routines–washing heads and cutting hair and making small talk. Tonight hurt worse than usual. She normally avoided working at night, but she had intentionally booked appointments for this evening so she would have the day free.

Usually, when Jake came to the city on weekends, he didn’t leave until mid-afternoon Monday. They would have spent today together, beginning with a late breakfast at La Madeleine.  He got a kick out of giving her a hard time about having to mind his manners at her “frou-frou” restaurants, but she noticed he made sure he ate his money’s worth of bread and jam.

If I married him I’d have to learn how to bake bread. The thought floated past her mind unbidden. Well, at least that’s one less thing to worry about.  Now that he’ll be spending the rest of his life in prison.

She didn’t know how she felt.  Angry, first of all.  Furious, more accurately. What on earth possessed him do such a stupid thing? And where was he now?  He wouldn’t hurt the child, that much she would swear to, but he must really have a screw loose.

Unless he really had hurt his own son.  Unthinkable!  She couldn’t have been that far wrong.  Could she?

Could mean I have no sense about men.  Like that’s news.

The blinking light on the answering machine was the first thing she spied when she walked into her apartment.  She stared at it, trying to decide whether or not to listen to the message.

If the message was from Angie, she had no intention of calling her back anyway, and frankly, she was fed up with hearing Angie’s opinions about men.

If Jake’s voice waited for her behind the blinking light, she was afraid of what he might say. More than anything, she didn’t want to hit the “play message” button and find out it wasn’t Jake after all.

Schotzie stood whining at the door, so she grabbed his leash and took him for his walk, checking the mailbox while she was out.  Empty.

Back in the apartment, she kicked off her shoes and decided to fix a cup of herb tea. While the microwave heated water, she poked around in the refrigerator, finally finding a cup of peach yogurt with a sell-by date only three days ago. She set it on the table and spooned in some granola.

Before she ate, though, she went into her bedroom to change into shorts and a tee shirt.

An interesting phenomenon: No matter where she moved around in this apartment, the blinking light of the answering machine nagged at the periphery of her vision.

“I give up, you stupid thing!” She marched over and smashed the red blink the way she might squash a bug.

When she heard the familiar voice she laughed out loudThis is a call from the hills, honey.  You know what to do.”

“Oh, Pop!  What made you so paranoid?  Okay, fine.  We’ll play it your way.”

She grabbed a handful of coins out of the cupboard where she kept a coffee can of change for such occasions, slipped on her sneakers and went back out.

Walking to the pay phone on the corner, she thought about her grandparents and all they had gone through with her. They were the only parents she had ever known; she was too young when her parents were killed to have any real memory of them. It probably wasn’t any wonder that they were over-protective, but the only person they would have to be concerned about now was Richard, and it had been almost a year since she had heard from him. He probably had a whole new life by now.

She didn’t have anything he wanted anymore, anyway. Not that he wasn’t fully capable of snooping into her life for the express purpose of being mean.

Unless.  Maybe they have heard about Jake and they think the cops knew about her relationship with him. The FBI might have put a tap on her phone as they did on Alex’s.  She doubted it, though. How could anybody know about her and Jake?  Alex didn’t even know.

Her grandparents always insisted that she call them from a pay phone.  They didn’t want the call to show up on her phone bill, for one thing.  They were obsessed with maintaining their own privacy, too.  Who knows?  Maybe that was the main reason they did it.

The phone rang twice.  “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Pop.  Who were you expecting?  Is everything all right?  Are you feeling okay? What about Kate?”

“Whoa! Slow down, little one. We’re fine.  What about you? We’ve been praying for you.”

Since she had led them both to Lord shortly after her own salvation experience, they always said they were praying for her. He sounded different tonight, though. Something in the tone of his voice.

“You know about Jake?” She tried to keep the quaver out of her voice, but failed, and hated to worry Poppy.

“Are you sure this phone is safe?”

“I’m at the pay phone on the corner, and there isn’t anybody around.   Can’t you hear the traffic on Legacy?”

“Well, if you’re sure, then I have some news for you.  And we need your help.”

“My help?  That’s a switch.  I’ll do anything you ask me to.  You know that.”

“You know Jake will have to go to jail?”

“That’s of no interest to me.  He dumped me.”

“Dumped you?”

Tina could hear voices in the background. Kate picked up the extension and whispered, “He loves you, Christina, remember that no matter what happens. It’s going to be all right, honey.”

“Don’t!” Tina started crying. “Don’t tell me that.  I don’t know what’s going on with that man, and I can’t imagine what he is doing with the little boy—wait! How do you know he loves me?” She was crying harder now.  “Have you talked to him?”

“Christina, Kate hung up so you’ll be able to hear me even if I don’t talk so loud.”  Poppy waited, and when she didn’t say anything he asked, “Are you still there?”

“Tell me what you know and how I can help you.” Tina took a deep breath and regained her composure. As much as she could manage, she was determined that her grandparents would hear no more weeping from her.

“Can you meet us inMcAlaster,Oklahomatomorrow afternoon?”

“Sure.  Are you coming to visit?  That’ll be wonderful! I need to see you, in fact. I take it your idea is to leave your car there so that you don’t have to braveDallastraffic?  Wait.  What does this have to do with Jake?”

“What we want you to do is to takeAustin, that’s the little boy Jake has with him—“

“There?  You mean Jake really does have that boy?  And they’re there?  With you?  He didn’t hurt you or anything, did he?”

“Tina, please wait until you have a few more facts before you go jumping off the deep end.” He sounded impatient and cross. “Of course he didn’t hurt us.  You know Jake better than that. Now, can you find out where the boy’s grandparents live and take him to them?”

Poppy continued in a reasonable tone of voice, and by the time he finished, Tina was no less confused about Jake than before, but at least she knew that he hadn’t harmed Austin or her grandparents.

The next question that came to mind was how could she talk to Alex without the FBI agents connecting her with Jake.

Chapter 23—Gloria’s Dream

            Austin needs me. 

That’s why I’m here.

The zoo.  

We are all here.

            So hot. Always hot at the zoo.

Ahh… shade.

Where did they go?  Oh, there, next hill. 

I wish they’d wait. 

Can’t walk so fast.

So tired.

Legs won’t move.

Can’t breathe.

            “Wait for me!  Bryan! Laurie! Wait for me!”

            They won’t look back. 

Can’t they hear me?

Who are those people?

Dad?

Strangers.

They are laughing and talking about me.

Don’t see me.

            I shouldn’t have stopped. They didn’t stop. 

So hot. 

Can’t keep up.

            “Please, wait for me!” 

Feet like lead. Can’t move. 

“PLEASE!”

“I’ll lose you and I won’t know where I am.”

            Can’t hear me.

I can’t make my voice loud enough.

All the music, everybody laughing. 

            Can’t see them anymore. 

            Can’t run anymore.

            Where are they?

            Where am I? 

What is this place? 

Never been here before. 

Why am I here, behind the exhibits?

            Animals hiding here. 

Is anybody watching the animals?

Does anyone know I’m here?

Is anybody here?

Alone.

Oh, no, there he is again.

The bear heard me.

He’s coming.

Terrible noise, mouth wide open.

Bears smell like rotten garbage.

Bears smell fear.

He’ll smell me.

He’s coming nearer, faster, closer.

Dripping teeth.

Bryan. Bleeding.

“Help me Will, help!”

Where is Will?

He doesn’t care.

He’s leaving me alone.

“Please Bear! Don’t take my baby.  Let go!”

Blood.  Blood everywhere.

“Bryan!”

Hold his head. Can’t hold his head.

Not strong enough.

Can’t scream.

Wait. 

Focus my energy to scream.

“Help! Will!”

“Oh God, help me!”

  “H-E-L-P!”

~~~~~~~~

“Gloria!” Will shouted. “Wake up, Gloria.  It’s a dream.  You are having a bad dream.”

“Will?” She opened her eyes. He could hear her fear and desperation. She released his beard from her frantic grasp, then pummeled his chest, weeping harder now.

“You wouldn’t help me!” she sobbed. “You would not help me. You didn’t see him—he was bleeding! It’s just like when…”

She cried again, “Oh God, HELP ME!”

“Sh, shh.” He wrapped his arms around her and her flailing fists.  “You’re all right now.  It wasn’t real.  You’re safe here. You’re in your own room.”

When she stopped trying to hit him, he reached back and turned on his bedside lamp.  “Look. You’re in your own bed. I’m here. Even Laura is here,” he said as their daughter opened the door and stuck her head in.

“Did I hear Mom crying?”

She ran to Gloria’s side of the bed and sat down, holding her mother’s hand in her own. “I could hear you calling, Mama.  What’s the matter?  Are you in pain?”

“It was real.Bryan is gone.  I’m so tired. I couldn’t keep up. You left me alone.” Gloria looked from one to the other, shaking her head.

“No,” he heard her whisper; “not them.  Not my family.”

She was shaking.  “I love you all so much,” she said in a small far-away voice.

As she appeared to emerge from her nightmare, he could see her draw back, away from him, inside herself.

Calmly, “I’m sorry. You go back to bed now, honey. I’m sorry I woke you.”

“I’m not going anywhere until I know you are all right”

“Go, Laura, you need your sleep. Go back to bed. I’m all right. I need to rest and until we talk in the morning and I’ll make it be all right. You, too, Will. I’ll go to the den until I feel sleepy again.” She sat up and reached for her robe.

“No, you stay here, Gloria. Don’t you think you’ll be able to fall back to sleep now that you know it was all just a dream?”

Will watched as his wife nodded, put her feet back under the sheet, and curled herself around her pillow.  She was weeping, but not in terror anymore.  Her tears flowed silently, as from a bottomless well of sorrow.

He touched her arm, but she didn’t respond. Waves of helpless despair washed over him when he realized she felt alone, in a deep place he couldn’t reach.

He stood up uncertainly, running his hand over his head and turned away. Laura followed him out of the room and downstairs to the den.

“You can’t just leave her like that!  What in the world is the matter with you?” Laura whispered harshly, her face inches from her father’s, “Mom is so miserable.  She needs you to hold her and comfort her and take care of her, and LOVE her!”

“I DO love her, but nothing I say or do makes any difference. She’s sure I’m going to leave her someday, just like her father, and that makes her so angry. But I’m not going anywhere.” Will’s voice broke. “And she won’t understand.  I’m made different. She refuses to believe I love her because I don’t show it the way she wants me to. I don’t need to talk everything to death, and I don’t need all that ‘meaningful touch’ business.”

“Oooh, yes you do!  You’re too stubborn to admit it. And even if you don’t need holding, she does. So you stand there, stiff as a post and wonder why she feels alone.” Laura groaned.

“Okay, fine, Dad.  You’re a man and I guess we can’t do anything about that right now.” Her eyes roamed the room until she saw his desk. “You and Mom both say God can fix everything. Well, there’s your Bible. You sit down there and read it and pray until God tells you how to fix this. I’m going to be with my mother.”

He watched her leave, wondering briefly if he should have said something to her about being more respectful.

That was completely unlike Laura, he thought.  Gloria says I’m acting out of character, too. Nobody in this house is acting normal. What’s happening to our family?

He sank to his knees, then face down on the carpet, his head on folded hands. “I don’t know what to do, Lord. Help me.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

Laura tiptoed back into the bedroom and noted that Gloria had stopped crying, but she still wasn’t sleeping. She kicked off her slippers and slipped into bed, snuggling up to her mother’s back and wrapping her arms around her. Gloria took Laura’s hand and brought it to her lips.

“Being a woman is lonely sometimes, isn’t it Mom?”  Laura asked, her voice just above a whisper.  “Are you okay now?”

“Hmmm? I don’t know.  I’m so sick of myself I don’t know if I can bear it.”

When Laura began to protest Gloria shushed her.  “I’m sorry, baby.  I have been so unspeakably wrong.”

“What are you talking about?  You had a bad dream.  A nightmare.  I know how upsetting they can be.”

“I saw myself in that dream,”

“But it was a dream!  It wasn’t real!”

“God spoke to me through the dream.”

“Mom, please, you’re scaring me.”

“I scare myself.  Listen to me: I’m 58 years old and the dream—well, I’ve had this dream before. It was about a bear, isn’t that strange?  I was all by myself and terribly afraid. And angry, too, about being left alone. AndBryan,” she choked back a sob.

“Bryanwas in danger, and I blamed your dad.”

“That doesn’t make sense. A bear didn’t grabBryan.  He had cancer.”  Laura was becoming more confused. “And why would you blame Daddy, of all people?”

“Because I’m afraid.  And angry.  That’s what the dream showed me.  I’m angry thatBryandied, and I don’t know where to go with my anger. I’ve been a Christian too long to dare to blame God aboutBryan, so I blame Will.  And that’s not all.”

Gloria rolled over and held her daughter, cradling her head on her arm, like holding a child on her lap.

“There’s this fear.  I’m so terribly afraid of being alone and, well…abandoned.  I feel helpless, especially about Austin, and I hate feeling helpless.  I really hate it.”

She shuddered.  “I don’t have it all sorted out myself, but I think it has to do with some bad memories.  I’ll tell you more sometime.  In daylight, I hope. I’ll work on all of that later.” She thought for a moment. “One of the first things I have to do is tell your dad I’m sorry about being so self-focused that I didn’t understand why he was upset.”

“He’s been a bit of an old stick himself.”

“Oh, I know. But he isn’t, not really. Besides he was right.  He wouldn’t have lost it if he had come in and found me flat on my face, the way I really feel, crying out to God because I’m so worried aboutAustinand about you, and all of us.”

“About me? Why would you worry about me?”

Gloria brushed her hand over her daughter’s cheek. “Even though at one level, after praying, I have a measure of wonderful peace aboutAustin, part of me is still terribly afraid, and I know all of our lives will be changed forever no matter what happens. I know what it is for a mother to lose a child. I don’t think I can bear for you to have to go through that, Laura. You know yourself how you hurt for your children. That never ends, honey, no matter how old they are.”

Laura murmured to concede the point, but she still was puzzled. “But you’ve been strong for all of us, encouraging us to pray, telling how God moves in the lives of His people and ‘works all things for good.’ Remember? So why would Dad have to find you in a heap to think you were acting appropriately?”

“You didn’t see me.” Gloria felt herself blush as she pictured herself as she must have appeared to Will.  “Talk about being in denial!  I was sitting there like Lady Lotsabucks, sipping tea from one of Grandma’s bone china cups.  I probably had my pinkie curled.  Honestly, sometimes I’m absolutely delusional.”

“But Daddy way over reacted.”

“He did, didn’t he? He hasn’t slept since Friday, you know, and besides, men are different than women.  We like it that way, right?  But the thing is, men—dads especially, and your father is a good dad—see a problem and they have to fix it. That’s just the way they are. Now this thing with Austin, Will doesn’t know how to fix it, and it makes him miserable, so he distances himself from it by doing his ‘old stick’ routine. He doesn’t mean to be unpleasant.  He’s terribly upset, is all.”

She laughed ruefully.  “He feels helpless and so he withdraws.  I feel helpless so I’m angry and and pretentious and self-pitying.  We’re a mess, aren’t we?”

“Well, he—men, I mean—could understand that we women need to talk and hug and stuff, and be miserable together.”  Laura wasn’t ready to let her dad off the hook.

“I know. I wish they would.  But God didn’t appoint me—or you—to teach them.” Gloria paused, wondering if she should ask. “Can you tell me, honey, how is it that you are so calm aboutAustin?  You seem—“

“Peaceful,” Laura supplied. “I don’t know why.  Ever since I overheard you and

Suellen praying this morning—yes, I was eavesdropping but I didn’t think you would mind—anyway, after you prayed for Austin I felt, I don’t know, like I wasn’t as worried anymore, and I wanted David to feel that way, too, so we, uh, I mean, he did.  He doesn’t. Feel worried, I mean.”

“You prayed together?  That’s wonderful!”

“It wasn’t so hard.  We were both a little nervous, though.” Laura’s voice trembled. “We love our kids so much, Mom. We’d do anything for them.” After a long, thoughtful silence, she asked, “Would you think I was crazy if I brought the girls in bed with us? Looking at them, touching them—it seems to warm me, to take away that awful cold, sick feeling aboutAustinbeing gone.”

“Do you know, we used to do that with you and Bryan! We would be talking about how happy we were together, and then we’d want to have you close.  You never even woke up.”

“Actually, I don’t know about Bryan, but I do know one of us was only pretending to be asleep.  Okay, don’t go anywhere.  I’ll be right back.”

Ariel’s tiny rosebud mouth made a couple of little sucking motions, but Allison barely stirred as Laura brought them, one at a time, and laid them in bed with Gloria before crawling in beside them. In the pale glow of the nightlight, the two women gazed at the sleeping babies between them.

Dawn had begun sending timid invitations to the new day by the time they fell into a light sleep.  Only Gloria noticed when Will crawled in behind her and wrapped her in his arms, burying his face in her neck.

“I’m so sorry, my love.  I will never again leave you alone in a strange place.  Please forgive me.”

“Shhh. There’s nothing to forgive. I need you to forgive me. You are a wonderful man and I trust you with my heart and my life. You are God’s gift to me, and you’re here right now; that’s all that matters.”

Another shadow appeared in the doorway.

“Is this a private party, or can anybody come?” David squeezed himself in the remaining few inches of the king-size bed, sandwiching his wife between him and his daughters.

Delighted giggles signaled the end of a long, busy night.

“EVERYBODY in Nana’s bed!  We’re having a sleep-over,” Allison crowed. “Come here by me, Austin!”

And in the ensuing cold silence, those precious moments of tranquility shattered into shards sharp enough to pierce every person in the room.

Chapter 24—Tuesday morning, Dallas

Allison’s happy piping startled Ariel, who awoke wailing with fright.  Laura held her and tried to soothe her, but then gladly released the baby into Gloria’s outstretched arms.

In the next couple of minutes all of them tumbled out of bed and went in different directions.

Gloria, her long nightgown flapping around her ankles, carried her younger granddaughter into the guest bedroom, changed her diaper and dressed her in a comfortable knit dress with matching pink socks and slippers.  Cooing and making nonsense talk, she brought the calmed child downstairs, secured her in the highchair and tied a bib under her chin.

Will, his robe untied over pajamas, had already made coffee and set mugs on the table. His face, gray and sad, bore the creases and worry-lines of a string of sleepless nights.

Allison came in silently, her pale little face serious and obviously bewildered.  Gloria again realized how tiny the child was, standing there on the cool tiles in her bare feet, her blonde hair backlit in the early morning sunshine.

“Why is Mama crying and crying and crying?” Allison asked, her chin trembling.  “Why is Mama mad at me?  Nana?”

“Aw, baby.  Your mama isn’t mad at you!” Gloria soothed while folding the child in her arms.  “Where is your daddy, honey? Is he with Mama?”

“We’re right here,” David said as they came to the table.  He watched Laura sit down before he pulled up a chair for himself.

“Allison was right.”  Laura wept openly, making no effort to stop or hide her tears. “I’m sick of not havingAustinhere with us. I’m so sick of this waiting and waiting and not knowing where he is,” she said between sobs. “I can’t stand it anymore.  There has to be a way we can find him. Somebody somewhere must know where he is!”  She grabbed a tissue and blew her nose.  “Unless he’s dead.”

At that, Allison cried out, and Ariel, in solidarity with her big sister, cried too.

“He’s not dead, Laura,” Will said sternly.  “We cannot permit ourselves to start thinking that way. And it doesn’t help to scare these little girls.”

“Of course it doesn’t help.  Nothing helps!” She threw her tissue on the floor and grabbed another.  “I can’t believe we were all lying in bed having this lovely little family togetherness love-fest and my little boy is out there with that MONSTER!”

“A monster gotsAustin?” Allison shrieked, terrified past crying. “Why can’t Daddy kill the monster and bring brudder to me?” She clung tightly to Gloria’s neck as her grandmother tried to calm her with kisses and nonsense noises.

“Great idea, Allie,” Laura said, “Or, here’s a better one: Daddy can bring the monster to me and I’ll kill the miserable pond scum with my bare hands!”

“Laura!”

“What, Mother? You’re going to tell me to pray about it, right?  And what good has that done so far? What aboutBryan?  Did praying keep him alive?  It did not.  And it won’t helpAustin, either.” She dried her eyes on the sleeve of her robe. “I don’t care what the rest of you do. I’m going to drive to those stinking hills inArkansaswhere they think he is and find my son myself!” She looked from one to the other, apparently cheered by their skeptical expressions. “Tell you what: I’ll pray when I’m driving around up there, and if he’s still alive, maybe I’ll get some vibes telling me where he is.”

“Don’t make a joke out of prayer!” Gloria said, appalled. “You said yourself that when you and David prayed together you felt better.”

“Sure, we felt better.  For the moment.  But it didn’t change anything, did it?  I can’t believe I was so stupid yesterday—all nicey-nice, my little hands folded, praying like you and Suellen.” She snuffled resonantly. “What a couple of floaters!”

“Floaters?” Gloria asked, puzzled.

“Yes, floaters.  You and Suellen.” She rubbed her nose on her sleeve. “Rich old ladies floating around all dreamy, like you think you look beatific or something.  You don’t walk, you float.”

“That’s enough, Laura.” Will said. “Being mean to the people who love you the most isn’t going to make you feel better. Yes, this definitely is the time to pray—” There was no point in continuing because Laura fled upstairs, crying loudly all the way.

David remained as he was, seated dumbly in his chair. “What am I supposed to do?” he said as Will and Gloria both glared at him.

“Well, don’t stay there as stiff as the lumber under your backside.  Go.  Be with your wife and listen to her!” Will said, his voice reflecting how close to the end of his rope he felt.

“She won’t listen to reason.  I’ve tried to explain that the authorities are doing everything possible to findAustin—“

“No! Don’t explain anything to her,” Will interrupted, “Listen to her.  Hear her. Now go.”

“All right, I’ll go.  But I don’t know what you think I can do.  I’m supposed to comfort Laura, to listen to your daughter-the-crazy-woman. What about me?  He’s my son, too, you know. I’m as worried as she is.” He stood there obviously waiting for them to say something but was greeted with more of the same stony glare.  “I could stand a little comforting myself, you know.”  He turned and thumped disgustedly up the stairs.

Will and Gloria looked at each other across the table.  “Now what?” Will asked.

Gloria sighed. “I don’t know what. Feed these babies, I guess.” She heaved her body up from the table, feeling older and wearier than she could ever remember being, and seated the unnaturally quiet four-year-old in a booster chair. “A person could get nosebleeds around here from the change in altitude.  One minute I’m in my warm bed with my grandchildren, and the next thing I know, everything seems to be crumbling to dust. I could almost hear our world splinter into pieces and fall to the ground.”

She busied herself pouring juice in spill-proof cups for Allison and Ariel, and gave them each a plastic bowl of Cheerios. “You can eat these with your fingers, sweetie,” she said to the older child.  “Shall we thank Jesus for our food?”  Allison nodded and folded her hands. Ariel watched quietly and folded her hands in front of her.

“Thank you Jesus for this food, and please make monster letAustincome to Nana’s house, aMEN!”  Allison delivered the prayer with conviction and volume.  “Can we go to store and buy Cap’n Crunch for breakfast, Papa?” she asked.

“Cap’n Crunch?” He looked over at Gloria.  “Do they still make that stuff?”

“We are having Cheerios today, Allison,” Gloria told her firmly.  “Now drink your juice and eat your cereal while Papa and I have a talk.”

She turned to her husband. “I think Laura’s spiritual condition is one more example of how I’ve deluded myself.  I presumed her faith was solid because I wanted it to be true, to be real.  What are we going to do, Will?  What can we say to our daughter to help her understand: God is faithful and good, no matter how it looks at the moment? What can we say when we’re so scared ourselves?”

“I don’t know that we can say anything.  Laura’s a good girl, Glory.  She’s young, is all, and she doesn’t have as many years of experience with the Lord as we have. She’s a believer, of course. It’s the only life she’s ever known.”

He drew his hand over his face as if he could wipe away his fatigue.  “Is her faith as firmly planted as ours?  Has it become organic with her, or is it an intellectual choice, like being a Democrat or Republican? Or is the Christian life, the language of a Christian a learned behavior, like knowing how to play the piano?

“Does anything we say to her make any difference?  I don’t think so.  I believe she’ll have to come to understanding by herself, somehow.” He paused, staring at the last few drops of coffee in his mug. “Not by herself.  With the help of the Holy Spirit. We can’t make it happen for her and more than we made it happen for ourselves, not by sheer determination but by years of God making Himself known to us. We need the Holy Spirit for ourselves.”

“I don’t know how to pray about this anymore, either,” Will continued. “Or what is real.  Is this real, do you know Gloria? This despair we all are feeling? Or was the peace we felt a few hours ago real?”

Gloria remained still.  She stood up to refill Allison’s juice cup and poured more cereal on the baby’s highchair tray, even though she knew it was landing, one O at a time, on the floor to be licked up by Sassy, the ever vigilant toy poodle.  After returning the juice carton to the refrigerator, she stood looking out of the window, praying with her heart, silent tears slipping unheeded down her cheeks.

She heard raised voices upstairs, and the little girls giggling as they hung out of their chairs dropping Cheerios on Sassy.

With a slow fluttering of wings, a mourning dove drifted to a low branch, landing inches from the window where Gloria stood pondering. Head bobbing ever so slightly, the dove, surely a female, looked Gloria directly in the eye and cooed softly.

All sound faded then, and her memory carried her back to that awful morning when she stood at this same window, sobbing out her anguish.

“God!” She had cried.  “I cannot do this!  I cannot watch them lower my son’s body into the ground.” She could still smell the damp earth as she had that day, standing near the dark hole workmen had dug that morning.  Strangers, with cold, hard machinery had made a shadowy hollow for her child, and strangers would cover over with dirt the small white casket let down there.

The morning ofBryan’s funeral, just as now, a dove had appeared, and with its cooing, in a way she couldn’t have explained, she had heard the voice of Father saying again, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

Nothing new.  Nothing she hadn’t known before. And yet a renewed sense of God’s presence, of His affirmation: she truly could not go through those hours—not alone—without His strength.  Overwhelmed with the sense of His nearness, she knew that even though everything was under His control, He shared her sorrow.

Bear with the failings of the weak.

The words popped into her mind; she didn’t know chapter and verse, but she knew they were from the Bible.  She knew what she had to do.

After a few minutes, she sat down again and turned back to Will, drew a deep breath and smiled.

“It’s all real, my dearest friend.  The good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet, it’s all real.  And because God is real, Laura will know that in a deeper way, too, someday.  Someday we’ll know, at least I think we will, the purpose for all this suffering, but for right now, we know Whose we are, and whatever knothole we’re being pulled through, He’s with us. He has been with us in the past, and He is now, and that is enough.”

She looked at her husband; his beloved, tired face turned to her, love emanating from every crease, and thanked God for this moment.

“And if Laura comes downstairs determined to search forAustin?” he asked.

“I’d like to go with her. Oh, I know it’s an insane idea.  Undignified.”

She laughed at Will’s puzzled look. “Dignified!  Can you imagine?  At a time like this, Suellen said we were both too dignified. Well, I’m determined to go on this crazy trip with Laura, and show her how undignified I can be.”

He stood then, next to her chair, and pressed her head against his side.  “What a wife He gave me! I think I knew that’s what you were going to say. David and I stay here at “central command” and keep trying everything we know how to do.  We’ll take good care of the little girls.”

He stepped back, leaned over, and taking her face in both of his hands, kissed her on her forehead.

“Will, how have you put up with this pretentious old broad all these years?”

He just smiled. “I suppose it’s crazy to let you go. We men ought to do this. But somehow I feel you and your daughter’s hearts will lead you. And whatever you find, or don’t find, stay in touch, and after a couple of days, we’ll drive there to meet you.”

He shook his head, not believing what he had just said.  “Mother and daughter detective team, right, Glory-girl? And I’ll be your loyal house-husband, making sure you have enough money for gas and food along the way.”

“And bribes, don’t forget!”

He stifled a laugh. David and Laura had come back downstairs and from the atmosphere they brought with them, they probably wouldn’t have appreciated the humor.

Laura, obviously dressed for traveling, set her overnight bag at the bottom of the stairs. “I’m going.  David finally agreed to it, and he says he’ll take care of the girls.  I didn’t want the two of you to have the work and responsibility of caring for them.” The angle of her chin served as a warning against any opposing comments.

“Your mother is going with you, dear, and I think you should take my Forrester.  Its four-wheel drive might come in handy up in those hills.”

“Are you making fun of me?” Laura narrowed her eyes at her father.

“No, Laura.  I really do want to go with you, if I may,” Gloria said.  “Your dad agrees, and he’ll help David with the babies.  I have just one request.”

Laura and David rolled their eyes, but Gloria continued calmly. “Let’s not go until tomorrow morning. Please come with me to the prayer meeting at the Kelly’s house this evening.  We’ll pray forAustin, and for Will and David here with the girls, for our trip, and that God will show us where to go.”

She took a deep breath. “We could also pray for this Jake who might be the manAustinis with.” Gloria started out bravely enough, but this last she mumbled through quickly, with her back to the rest of them.

Laura must have heard it, though.  “Okay, fine.  We’ll all sleep tonight, I hope, and then we’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning.  And I’ll pray for the trucker all right.  He’d better be ready to meet God if I get my hands on him!”

Chapter 25—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 theBuffaloRiverto 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.

“Austinup?” he asked as he clomped up the three stairs to the porch.

“I’m awake,”Austinsaid, 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 ofNebraskadirt 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 helpAustininto frayed denim overalls and slipped a pair of worn high-top tennis shoes, laces missing, on his cold little feet.

Austinrubbed 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 overAustin’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?”

Austinnodded again.  “I’m good at pretending.  What am I going to pretend?”

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 inRogers,Arkansas.  Can you remember that?”

“Yes.”

“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 weird.”

“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 forAustinto 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.”

Austindidn’t move.

“What’s the matter,Austin?” Jake knelt and took both ofAustin’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 ofAustin, brushing his hair back from his face.  “What’s bothering you?”

“Well, you know how Jake has Jesus in his heart now?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I do, too.”

“That’s wonderful, dear.  But we knew that.  Why is that a problem right now?”

“The pretending.”

“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 followingAustin’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?”Austinscrewed 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?”

Austinstill 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 takeAustinin 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,”Austinvolunteered.

“You wanna be Daniel instead ofBrandon?  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,Austinclimbed into the Jeep and slammed the door. Jake winced, wishing it hadn’t sounded so final.

Chapter 26—Tuesday morning, Dallas

            Tina caught up with Alex on the way into the salon Tuesday morning.  Alex looked haunted, his face reflecting the strain of the last three days. So preoccupied was he that he never really looked at her and didn’t notice she was trying to send him a message with her eyes.  Both of them were uncomfortably aware of the “suits,” as Tina called them, who made no pretense of doing anything but what they were doing, which was keeping Alex under close surveillance.

As he held the door open for her, she stopped in the open doorway with her face inches from his and said “Meet me in the food court, near the yogurt place, at 11:15,” then moved past him and walked directly to her station, about 40 feet from Alex’s vanity.

Alex was momentarily tempted to follow her and ask what was going on when he remembered Turner and Moldenaur—Tooney and Muldoon, he’d nicknamed them, dimly remembering an old TV show he’d seen in reruns.  They were not amused. Not by his nickname and not by the way he talked when addressing them.

“Listen, boys,” he said to them, deliberately affecting a slight lisp, “could you please wait outside the salon?  Something about you two just sucks the light right out of a room.”

“We’ll stay out of your way, Albert,” they taunted, “just pretend we aren’t here, unless, of course, your brother-the-felon happens to call.  We wouldn’t want to miss that.”

Yesterday, when the FBI made the connection between Alex and Jake, Agents Gabe Turner and Frank Moldenaur were assigned to the case. Their job: Albert James Garret, AKA Alex James, hairdresser, brother of Jacob Philip Garret, a man with a kidnapping charge on his record. They had spent the afternoon at the salon. Their presence, dampening the usually happy hum of pampered women and doting stylists, was made even more disruptive by their steadfast refusal to sit down. They stood there smugly, and, to Alex’s considerable annoyance, Turner kept one hand in his pocket, jingling change.

Turner and Moldenaur, of course, did not for one moment believe he hadn’t been in touch with Jake, but in truth, he had no idea where he might be hiding. He had to be hiding, Alex assumed, or he would have heard from him. They didn’t see one another very often these last years, but each of the brothers knew he could count on the other if something went wrong.

They had a strong bond, but their personalities were quite different from one another, and even though Jake always treated his older brother kindly, he made no bones about what he thought of hairdressers in general and male hairdressers in particular.

But whatever Jake’s blind spots, Alex thought, he’s not stupid, and if he really has the little boy—Stoner’s grandson, for goodness sake—what are the odds—he would know better than to involve Alex.  He was probably the only possible contact the authorities, which now includes the FBI, could find.

He wondered if Tina remembered meeting Jake and wondered, too, why she acted so mysterious when they came in. Maybe she did know something. But how? Oh, it’s probably just Tina’s way of comforting him about his brother and about the suits hanging around, he decided.

It was all he could do to focus on his work—a perm and two clients for cut and style. He would have to work quickly to be finished and out into the food court by 11:15.

He hated to admit it, but despite fiercely maintaining his weight and workout program, he tired more easily lately, especially the last couple of days. Maybe he was feeling his age. No, that didn’t make sense. Probably the strain of worrying about Jake.

Standing in one place, listening to silly suburban broads discussing their hair and make-up, as if any of it mattered, wore thin after a while.  And now, wondering what was going to happen to Jake, he wished he could do something physical and sweaty, something where he didn’t have to talk to these rich old biddies all day long.

Outdoor work, like chopping wood.  Even walking up and down plowed fields, de-tasseling corn as he and his friends did during the summer between their freshman and sophomore years of high school, was somehow more rewarding, more honest than trying to please these well-heeled, over-perfumed high-society wannabees.

Maybe that’s what he should do.  Just chuck this whole life and go back to the ranch. Not that he knew enough about ranching to be productive there, but maybe he could learn.  For some reason the reputation he’d worked so hard to build, of being an in-demand top stylist, wasn’t shaping up to be as fulfilling as he’d hoped.

He wished he could sit down and talk this all over with his brother.

Another thing he hated to admit right now was that he would much rather be shampooing and setting Gloria Stoner’s hair than any other woman on his schedule today.

He remembered when she had been in Friday, and how devastated she had been to learn that her grandson had disappeared.  She always carried pictures of her “babies,” as she called them.  Actually he found the Southern affectation of calling all your children “babies” a bit cloying, but there was no question Gloria loved them deeply.

Turner and Moldenauer were keeping him from calling Gloria to tell her what a great guy his brother was. He knew they had put a tap on his phone at the apartment, and if he called from here they’d be breathing down his neck.

He couldn’t stop the flow of random thoughts.

She probably assumes Jake is gay, too, which would send her right around the bend. He wished he could call her and tell her of his concern and to tell her not to worry. He shouldn’t have led her on in her assumption about him.

Sure, she’s old and fat, and overbearing with all her Christian rhetoric, but at least she talked to him, seems interested in him.

She doesn’t seem obsessed one way or the other about her appearance.  Always told him he had a masterful touch with her hair. Told him at least once every appointment.

He realized that for the most part, even if she did make the little remarks about religion, she cared about him, and wanted the best for him.

She’s probably praying for me right now.

Where did that thought come from?

You’re really losing it, pal, he told himself.  Get hold of yourself.  Who wouldn’t be upset? The lump in my throat is because I’m so worried about Jake.  That’s all it is.

As he was finishing laying an armor-like helmet of hair spray on his last morning appointment, a stereotypical recycled cheerleader-typeDallasblonde, Tina brushed by him and headed out to the mall.

Tooney and Muldoon didn’t even look up.

Five minutes later, he shook out the cape and swept up the last of the hair he’d snipped from Dallas Blondie, noted that the color she insisted he use on her occurred nowhere in nature, zipped his fanny pack, checked his own reflection and strolled out into the mall, his two shadows close behind.

“Alex!  Alex!  Over here!”

He picked up a salad and iced tea, scanning the lunch hour crowd trying to find the source of Tina’s voice.  He nodded as he saw she’d parked herself at a small table for two in the midst of larger tables surrounded by shoppers and their kids.  Normally he would consider that situation one of the lower rungs on the ladder down to hell, but after a moment’s pause he mentally congratulated her for finding them a place where Tooney and Muldoon couldn’t possibly hear anything they said.

As he unloaded his tray, Tina spoke rapidly, “Okay, now act like this is a normal lunch, and we are having great fun talking about some of our clients.  We won’t talk loudly enough to invite any of these people around us to join in on the conversation.  Laugh, make hair gestures, whatever.  We’re just here to take a load off while we have lunch.”

“That should be easy, since that’s all I know we are doing, so far.”

She began, holding his eyes with her own.

“I can’t say for sure I know where Jake is, but I do know he has the little boy and that they are both all right. We have to try to figure out a way to deliver the kid back to his parents without Jake being arrested.  Once that’s accomplished, we’ll figure out a way to bring Jake in.”

Alex laughed, as if delighted by a joke, and partially covered his mouth with his napkin to hide his astonishment.

“Have you talked to him?  How?  Did he call you? Where is he?”

“Jake and I have been…seeing each other.  We didn’t want you to know.  I don’t know why; it was just kind of a joke between us.  Anyway, he called. Well, actually someone else called, someone I know, and your brother is scared witless.”

“As well he should be if he grabbed the Stoner’s grandson!  What on earth possessed him to do a thing like that?”

He picked up his iced tea but his hand was shaking so badly he put it down.  He faked a laugh and pointed at Tina as if she’d just cracked a joke.

“He did not grab Gloria’s grandson!  This kid is evidently a real pistol, and without the sense God gave a goose. He climbed up into the cab while Jake was doing his last walk-around before leavingIllinois.  Then he fell asleep and Jake didn’t even know he was there until they were almost toSpringfield.Missouri.”

“Why didn’t he go straight to the police and tell them what happened?  Now it’s five days later. Nobody is going to believe that story.  I’m not sure I do.”

“I know.  I’m sure Jake realizes it, too.  I don’t know why he didn’t.  He just freaked, I guess.”

“Yeah, I suppose. Who could blame him,” he said, remembering.  “He’s a trucker, so people expect him to be a tough guy, but he’s so tender-hearted.  Barbara blind-sided him terribly—he’s lost all confidence in himself.” He stared at his hands, wondering why both brothers seemed to have such poor self-image. He suddenly felt very lonely. “What a mess!”

He watched Tina’s eyes soften as he talked about his brother.  “Oh boy. Am I looking at a woman in lo-o-ve? He asked, drawing out ‘love’ melodramatically.

“He dumped me, so forget about it.”

“He what?”

He looked at Turner and Moldenaur, who were glaring at him from four tables away.  Turner threw his napkin down on the table and started to stand up when Alex blew them a kiss and winked, but Moldenaur grabbed his arm and apparently told him to sit down and wait.

“Listen, Tina, the G-men are becoming restless. We’ll have to commiserate about our love lives—or lack thereof—later.   We have to come up with a plan before they manage to work their way closer.  Do you have anything in mind?”

“So far it doesn’t look like anybody, state police or FBI, have picked up on the connection between Jake and me.  If we can bring this lunch off as just a casual meeting, and there doesn’t seem to be anybody checking up on me, I’ll go pick up the little boy and bring him toDallas.”  She leaned back and laughed, as if making a point. “I’ll call Gloria on my cell phone when I’m about a half-hour away, and she can meet us somewhere. Do you have your appointment book with you? I’ll need her phone number.”

He handed it to her and she flipped through several pages and pointed to certain notations as if asking him about those while she continued talking.

“I’ll make up some kind of story to persuade her to come and meet with me. That won’t be a problem.  I ran into her yesterday at Hannah’s gallery and we chatted a bit.  It would be quite natural for me to call and follow up, you know, just to see how she’s doing. I’m pretty sure I can do it if I’m sure nobody is watching me.  It will take about five hours round trip.”

He nodded agreeably and leaned forward while she wrote Gloria’s number on her hand.

“Oh! I know what I’ll do,” Tina said, pleased with herself for coming up with an excellent idea. “I’ll simply take him to a prayer meeting where I know Gloria will be this evening, and then, when I’ve made my delivery, I’ll be under scrutiny, too.” She sobered again. “I can’t figure out how anybody can bring Jake in safely.  He’ll be arrested immediately, of course.  I hope they won’t hurt him.”

“What if the kid tells his story, about how he climbed in the truck and Jake didn’t know.  Do you think they’ll buy that?”

Just then, the family at the next table stood up and left, and before Tina could reply the FBI agents had parked themselves there and leaned over to taunt Alex.

“Having a nice lunch, Albert?” Turner smirked.

“Albert?  Albert!  Is that your real name, Alex?  Oh, that’s precious!” Tina hooted as if it was a total surprise to her. “No wonder you changed it.  Listen, dear, I have a 12:15 and then I’m off for the afternoon. This was great.  Let’s do it again.  Do you have 11:30 free tomorrow?  Bring your friends, here.  Maybe they’ll buy.”

Her emphasis on buy, Alex assumed, meant that Tina intended to go through with the plan, what there was of it, and hoped the authorities believed the child’s version of events.  If the kid told the story that way.  One more thing to worry about.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Later, Turner and Moldenauer paid no particular attention as Tina made quick work of her appointment and left the salon.  What they did observe was the way Alex looked at them, as if to see if they had noticed.

“I’m getting a hunch,” Turner said.

“Yeah, me, too.  What do you say we run a check on the red-head to see if there’s a connection to any of the parties in question?”

Chapter 27—Tuesday morning, Ft. Smith, Arkansas

Austinsat in the back seat of the VanderLeiden’s Jeep, quiet and pale.  Kate asked him if he was all right and he answered with a simple “yes” and nothing more.

For the first hour of driving down the mountain to the highway, none of them talked.  Poppy, in an effort to relieve the tension, slid a CD into the player.

“Can’t you play something else?” Kate asked after a few minutes.

“Sure, but what’s wrong with this one?  I thought you liked Gaither Vocal Band.”

“I do.  But this one has that song Bill wrote for his grandson, all about how he’ll be there for the boy and all, and it always makes me cry.”

“You’re right.  I never liked that one much myself.”  He ejected the offending disk and inserted another.

After a few minutes Kate sighed.  “That’s better.”

“You always cry when we play this one, too.” He poked her arm.

“I know.  But it’s a good kind of crying.  There’s that poem about Heaven on it, and how when we get to Heaven we’ll be able to dance and play like children, and nobody dies there…” She swallowed hard.  “I cry because it is so inexpressibly beautiful.  I feel clean and young and healed.”  She took a lace-edged handkerchief from her purse and dabbed her eyes.

They rode on without talking, listening together.  After a while Kate said, “I never thought of it this way before, but the tears I shed when I think about Heaven are grateful, healing tears, and the other song, the one about the grandfather telling his grandson ‘I’ll be there,’ while sweet in its own way, hurts so much because of all the ways we were not and are not and never will ‘be there’ for Christina.”

She glanced back and saw thatAustinwas asleep, slumped crookedly in his seat belt.

“It’s part of life’s inescapable sorrow.  We can’t spare our children or grandchildren all pain and trouble, no matter how intensely we want to.”

Poppy nodded agreement.  “It probably wouldn’t be good for them if we could.”  After a few miles, “‘Good for them,’ whatever that means,” he said gruffly. “It seems so senseless.  Christina growing up without parents.  Then, in spite of everything we told her, she marries that useless piece of dirt—“

“Remember what we learned about bitterness, Poppy,” Kate admonished.

“What was it Christina says?” Poppy wondered.  “Something about how if she doesn’t forgive Richard, she gives him permission to live inside her head rent-free.”

They both laughed, wakingAustin.

“Are we almost there?”

“Not yet, dear.” Kate answered.

“Think about that little guy back there,” she said softly.  “It must be terrifying to not even know where he is.”

“Yep.  We need to take him to his family as fast as we can, but I’m not going to drive over the speed limit.  If we get caught speeding it will just slow us down.”

“How far yet?” Austinwanted to know.

“You didn’t sleep very long, son,” Poppy replied.  “We still have a good two and a half hours beforeMcAlester.  There we’ll meet our granddaughter, Christina—“

“Tina, right?  She’s the one Jake loves, right?”Austininterrupted, excited.

“Yes, Tina is what Jake calls her.  You’ll love her, too, I know you will.”

“Jake says she is a real babe!”Austin giggled.

“Did he call her a babe?” Kate asked.

“No. But he says she’s GORJuss.”

“I should hope he doesn’t talk about her like that.  Babe!”  Kate scolded, indignant.

“Kate’s a babe, too, isn’t she Austin?”  Poppy asked into the rearview mirror.

“And you’re an old windbag,” Kate said, slapping his knee.  “Now tend to your driving.”

Austinfollowed that last exchange with a furrowed brow, and then, probably because he wasn’t the center of attention, had more questions for them.

“Why do I have on these clothes?  Why can’t I wear my own clothes? Why do I have to keep my cap on?  At all times,” he said, doing the best imitation of Denny that he could manage.

“I thought you liked the shirt Denny brought you, boy, and the shoes, too.”  Poppy said.

“Sure I do.  Shoes, ‘specially.  They’re cool.  But why did Kate wash my shirt if I can’t wear it any more?”

“You heard the announcer on TV.  The police have been told to be on the lookout for you. They have a description of you and what you were wearing,” Kate said, “and with different clothes, like these—Denny borrowed them from his nephew—and a cap to cover your hair, they won’t be so quick to recognize you.”

Austinstood up, resting his chin on his folded arms on the back of Kate’s seat.

“Now,Austin, you sit down and buckle your seat belt.”  Kate ordered sternly.

“But why?  Poppy’s a good driver.  I’m safe here.”

“It’s the law,” Poppy said, sneaking a sidelong glance at Kate.  He had often expressed his displeasure with children who argued with adults.

Austincomplied, albeit reluctantly, and sat quietly for a few minutes, but eventually returned to his line of inquiry.

“If a policeman knows who I am, won’t he take me to Mamma and Daddy in his police car?”  As he thought of the possibility he became even more animated. “I never rode in a police car before.  Maybe he’d play his siren—whooeee, whooeee, whooeee-e!”

So annoyed was Poppy withAustin’s sound effects, it took a few seconds to realize what he was hearing. AnArkansashighway patrol car pulled alongside, siren screaming, and motioned him toward the edge of the road.

“Cool!”Austinbreathed, eyes wide.

Poppy pulled over and lowered the window.

The patrolman, a smooth-cheeked stocky male in his mid-twenties, stepped out of his vehicle, hitched up his pants and leaned into the window. The plastic nametag on his uniform shirt identified him as Brad Williams.

“Something wrong, officer?” Poppy asked.

“Show me your driver’s license and registration, Gramps,” he said, slowly and loudly at Poppy.

Kate reached into the glove compartment and found an envelope containing the registration.  Poppy pulled his driver’s license out of his wallet and presented both items to the officer.

“You 75, old man?” He asked after studying the driver’s license.

“Yessir.  I’ll be 76 in November.  What seems to be the problem?”

Williams didn’t answer.  He shook the registration out of the envelope and a small piece of paper fluttered to the ground.

“Right there’s your problem,” he said, bending to pick it up.  “Your renewal sticker.  It needs to be on your license plate, not in an envelope inside the vehicle.  I pulled you over because your auto tags are expired.”

“I’m sorry, officer.  I renewed by mail and I guess I didn’t get around to putting the sticker on the plate.  It slipped my mind, I’m afraid.”

“That’s the trouble with old people on the road.  Things ‘slip their minds,’ like renewing auto tags or driver’s licenses, or like leaving the renewal sticker in and not on the car.  Half the time they forget how to drive. They shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel.”

His radio crackled, interrupting his diatribe.  He stepped back to the patrol car and reached in for the handset.  After listening for a few seconds, he said “I’m on it,” replaced the hand mike and returned to the Jeep.

“You’re in luck, Gramps.  I have another call, so I’m not issuing a citation this time.” Glancing briefly at Kate and atAustinin the back seat, he directed his remarks to Poppy.  “You be sure to have a vision check, and stay home after dark, hear?”

With that he hurried back to the patrol car, spoke briefly into his hand mike, and sped away, siren wailing.

They sat silently while the siren faded and the car disappeared in the distance.

Kate let out a long, shaky breath.  “The nerve!  The colossal arrogance! Wormy little smart apple. Gramps!  Who does he think he is?  I’m going to report this whole incident.  I’m sure he violated at least a dozen rules. Did you remember his name?”

Poppy laughed.  “Let him go.  Forget it!  We might be violating a rule or two ourselves.  That little incident could have turned out a whole lot worse than it did.”  He looked into the back seat.

“Hey,Austin.  You wanted to ride in a police car.  How come you’re so quiet?  That was your big chance.”

Kate glanced back and sawAustin’s red-rimmed eyes.  She shook her head at Poppy, warning him not to continue his gentle teasing.

“Don’t worry,Austin, dear,” she said, “We’ll drive as fast as we dare to so you can see your Mama soon.  Someday maybe your Daddy can take you to the police station and a nice policeman will show you the inside of a squad car.”

Austinnodded.  “Yeah, but not if the policeman is crabby.  That man was too crabby.  And he talked mean to Poppy.”

Chapter 28—Tuesday, On the Road

            Squinting into the distance, Denny watched the Jeep disappear around a curve.  “See that?” he asked Jake.  “It’s been a couple of days since the last rain, and you can see dust where they’re going down the mountain.  That’ll work in our favor.”

“How do you figure?”

“We’ll be able to see a ways ahead, so we’ll know if we’re likely to run into the sheriff.  That way we’ll be able to take diversionary action.”

“You know how Poppy prayed.  We aren’t going to lie.” Jake studied Denny’s eyes for an indication of where he stood on the issue.

“Yeah, I know,” Denny replied, “but I feel like this: If we handle it right, we won’t actually have to lie. We won’t volunteer any information, but we won’t have to lie.  See what I mean?”

Jake paced around the Humvee, rubbed some of the dirt off the rear window and looked in.  All he could see was a dark cloth partially covering a torn back seat. When he opened the door for a better look, he made the mistake of inhaling.

“What in the world did you have back there?” he managed to ask between coughs.  “I sure hope you don’t plan to hide me under that tarp.”

“That’s my plan.  Even if you took a bath in that perfume you wear, nobody will be able to sniff you out back there.”  Denny stayed on the porch, obviously enjoying Jake’s reactions.

“I believe I’d rather deal with the sheriff.”

“Thought you might feel that way.” Then abruptly, “I wanna go now.”

Denny noticed Jake’s questioning expression and stepped toward the truck, planted his feet wide apart and folded his arms across his chest.

“I’ve been keeping up with whatever they put out over police radio. Of course they’ve been receiving tips from all over the country, people sure they saw your truck, and they chase down a lot of those leads, the ones that sound plausible, anyway.  So far none of ‘em panned out, but this one guy over on 281—he runs a little gas station over there—claims he saw a dark blue truck with no trailer when he opened up Friday morning.  Between 4:30 and 5:00.   He remembers it real clear because they just don’t see those big fancy outfits come through there. He says he saw the truck heading south and they’ve been narrowing it down to where they have a pretty good idea where you might be.”

Jake expected something like this sooner or later.  He felt as if a noose were tightening around his neck.

“I half expect a sheriff’s car to show up sometime today,” Denny went on. “Once they come up here, of course, they’ll find your truck. We don’t need to be here when that happens.”

“Where are we going to hide out all day?”

“We’re gonna count elk, Bubba.”

“Elk?  InArkansas?”

“Yep.  They were re-introduced a few years back, and now there are several different herds.  It’s amazing. You can tell which herd it is, most times, by the boss bull. And wait until you hear that ol’ boy bugle! It’s primitive, man!” Denny hung his head and wagged it back and forth in wonder. “Bugling—that’s his mating call, you know—is really an amazing sound.”

He turned his attention to the day ahead, stowing Jake’s gear—his shaving kit and duffel—in the under-seat compartment of the Humvee. “We’ll take Kate’s food along, and some water, and we’ll just hang out in the hills.  If we run into somebody who might be looking for you, they more’n likely aren’t figuring on you hanging around taking in the fresh air and watching elk. That’s an old trick for hiding something—putting it out there in plain sight where nobody expects it to be. That’s what we’re gonna do in your case.”

“Then you don’t really intend for me to have to crawl under that tarp back there.” Jake was relieved.

“No,” Denny stepped back for a long look, “Don’t have to. You don’t look so slick anymore.  Don’t smell too good, either.”

“Thanks.  I guess.”

“You’re welcome.  Now, is that everything?  Your truck locked up? Let’s roll on down the road.”

Jake replied by climbing up into the passenger’s side of the ungainly vehicle.

Denny reached into the back and retrieved a pair of reflecting sunglasses, a wrinkled, semi-clean camouflage jacket and a matching cap.  He handed them to Jake and stepped back to watch Jake put them on.

“You’re right, Bubba, you do grow a grubby-looking beard overnight.  With that cap and maybe a roll-your-own hanging out of your mouth, you could pass for a hillbilly—a real woolly booger.”

“You say the sweetest things, Turco.” Jake slumped down in the seat and thought this might at least turn out to be an interesting way to pass the time. If he didn’t end up dead.

“That’s the spirit, Bubba. You don’t mind if I call you Bubba, do you?  Or do you prefer I stick with Slick?”

“No, Bubba is fine. Now, are we going somewhere in this thing, or were you planning to spend the day thinking up cute names for me?”

Jake looked down at Denny’s planted feet and wondered how the big man managed to lift his great weight from there to the driver’s seat.

In less time than Jake spent thinking about it, Denny stepped on the running board and swung his massive frame up behind the steering wheel, with no apparent strain. He looked over at Jake, a trace of a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes.

“Ready to roll?”

For the first thirty minutes, the two men rode without speaking.  Denny concentrated on his driving, his right hand on the steering wheel while chewing on the thumb of his left hand.

Grateful for the sure way Denny handled the Humvee, Jake eventually relaxed his usual driver-vigilance enough to enjoy the way spring thaw water trickled between rocks, forming hundreds of little waterfalls.  He wondered if he would ever be allowed to drive his own truck back down this narrow, winding road.

It was surprisingly quiet inside the noisy vehicle, Jake noted.  Had they chosen to, they could have talked without shouting.

They followed a wider paved road for less than a mile when Denny made an abrupt turn onto another narrow blacktop that ran alongside the massive limestone bluffs of theBuffaloNationalRiver. Jake realized he hadn’t seen a single person or any sign of one since they left the cabin.

The drive down out of the mountains had made Jake tense. The road here, though curved in places, was flat, and he felt himself begin to relax. He slipped his mind into neutral and breathed deeply, mentally yielding to Denny’s determination of where to drive and how to spend the day. The Humvee’s size and power reassured him, the rumble of its great engine soothing him with an orderly concert of well-oiled parts performing their assigned functions. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, the mid-morning sun warm on his face.

“So, why did you do it, Slick?  Why did you grab the kid?” Denny’s broke the reverie with his low, flat growl.

Jake sat up so fast that his cap fell over the back of the seat.  He retrieved it and put it back on his head before turning in the seat to face Denny.  Denny never took his eyes off the road but continued staring straight ahead, his jaw clenched, his eyes narrow slits behind sunglasses.

“What are you talking about, Turco?  You were right there when we sat in Poppy and Kate’s kitchen and I told my life story. Weren’t you listening?”

“Don’t go all indignant on me.  You might be able to sell that yarn to a couple of old folks hiding out from the rest of the world but I can guarantee you, it ain’t gonna fly with the Feds.”

“But it’s the truth!  They believed me because it is the truth.” He shook his head, bewildered.  “Now what?  Are you going to turn me over to the FBI and tell them that I kidnappedAustin?  You know what they’ll do to me.”

“Don’t mean a thing to me one way or the other, but they’ll go a lot easier on you if you come clean right away.  You tell it to me straight and I’ll speak up for you.  Now go ahead and tell me why.  You aren’t a pervert. You didn’t try to hurt him. Just why did you do it?”

Since early Friday morning, Jake had been gradually moving away from the fear that gripped him with such crippling force that he felt like all blood and muscle had drained out of his body. Now here it was again. He was trapped in a nasty old vehicle with a giant lunatic. Fear paralyzed his ability to think. He sank back down, defeated.

“What difference does it make?  My life is over no matter how you look at it. So haul me in, or put me out on the road and shoot me. There’s nothing I can do or say that changes anything.”

“Pardon me, but am I invited to your little pity party?  You put your life in my hands, you know. I deserve to know the truth. Why are you giving up so easy?  Your life is done for?  You’re, what, thirty years old? That’s a little early to cash it all in, isn’t it?”

“I’m 31.  My ex-wife hates me, my little boy is probably still getting beat up and I can’t see either one of my kids, I’ve lost Tina, and now I’m going to prison for the rest of my life unless you shoot me first, which strikes me as a distinct possibility.  Which part of this story has a happy ring to it?”

“Let’s start with the ex-wife deal and the kidnapping charge.  I heard it all when Poppy first called me in, but I wanna hear it again.” Denny still didn’t look at him.  He pulled the truck off the road, onto the driveway into a field, and shut off the engine.  After a glance in the rearview mirror, he jumped down to the ground and motioned for Jake to do the same.

Jake slid out of the vehicle and found himself standing on the edge of a path through thick grass and brush. He remembered hearing stories about poisonous snakes inArkansas, and gave a grateful glance at his boots. He watched as Denny folded back the smelly tarp and handed him a pair of heavy binoculars. When Denny withdrew a long cylindrical case, Jake decided to take his chances with the snakes and sprinted toward a grove of young oaks.

He hadn’t gone far before he heard Denny’s throaty laugh. “Come on back here, Bubba! You’re running from a spotting scope.”

He didn’t know what a spotting scope was or why he shouldn’t run from it, but he turned back to the Humvee.  He gave up trying to hide how sheepish he felt when he realized Denny wasn’t looking at him anyway.

He watched Denny open the leather tube, remove a long, heavy lens, and lay it across the hood of the Humvee on a v-shaped block. He adjusted the focal length and motioned Jake to look through it.

“Holy…! What is that thing?” Jake stepped away from the scope and looked into the distance.

“That’s Ezekial, the bull of the C herd.  Magnificent, isn’t he? Now take these binoculars and see if you can find him.”

Jake steadied his elbows on the hood of the Humvee and held the binoculars to his eyes. He adjusted the focus and finally found the same bull elk, but in far less detail. He noted several elk cows near the bull.

“That’s quite a scope you have there, Turco. I found him, all right, but I don’t know if I could have told you if that one animal was a bull or not if I hadn’t seen him through your scope.”

“Yeah, that’s my new Zeiss.  The binoculars are Bushnell and real good quality, too, but I’ve always wanted one of these.  Well, I think we can find another herd, and maybe drive a little closer to it.  Hop in.”

Denny carefully returned the scope to its case, and Jake hung the binoculars around his neck. They had gone perhaps three more miles when Denny pointed to what looked like a flame of dust licking its way down the side of the mountain on their right.

“Here we go, Bubba.  Somebody coming down from Poppy’s place is kicking up dust.”

“You sure?  I thought we came from the other direction.”

“It’s easy to be confused out here; we’ve been around a whole bunch of switchbacks and hairpins since we left the cabin, but yeah, that’s the mountain we came down.”

Jake felt a rivulet of sweat crawling, like a slobbering bug, down the middle of his back.  His eyes felt dry and hollow.  “Now what?”

“I’m stopping right up ahead.  As quick as you can, set up just like we did back there.  Keep your cap on, sight the binoculars off the hood, and play it by ear.”

Denny pulled the Humvee into another field turnoff and shut off the engine.  “Okay, Bubba.  Show time.”

Jake tried unsuccessfully to find elk through the binoculars until Denny, sighting through the scope, pointed into the distance.  “Right over there, behind that big tall tree.  That might be a cypress—trees aren’t in my area of expertise—but there’s the bull.”

“Wow! I see him now.  He’s even bigger than the last one, isn’t he?” Jake heard the crunch of tires on gravel as a car from the county sheriff’s department pulled up beside the Humvee. Help us, please God, he prayed silently.  He wished he’d been a Christian long enough to learn how to pray correctly.

He kept his glasses trained on the elk, even when he heard a whoop from Denny.

The inside of Jake’s sunglasses picked up the reflection of the sheriff’s deputy standing beside Denny, his arms folded.

“Hey, Merle.” Denny said, “Say, take a look through this thing. Isn’t that Moses, the bull from G herd?  It sure looks like it to me, but this is definitely C herd; I recognize the cow with half a tail missing.”

Deputy Merle Doran pocketed his sunglasses before looking through the scope. “I don’t see anything unusual with them elk, Turco.”  He put his glasses back on.  “I’ve just been up to the VanderLeiden place, and there I did see something quite out of the ordinary.”

“Yeah, how’s that?”  Denny was back watching elk through his new scope.

“First of all, they ain’t there.”

“What’s so strange about that?  They have to go down into civilization at least once a month.  I’m guessing it’s time for their medical appointments.  You’ll probably find them inHarrison. What do you want with them?”

“Them not being there ain’t the only thing that’s not where it ought to be.  There’s a truck parked under their trees.”

“You mean the Jeep? That is odd.  If he isn’t driving it, Poppy usually keeps that one in the shed just to the north of the house.”

“No, I don’t mean the Jeep.  That’s just one of them yuppie cars; that’s not a real truck.” He jerked a thumb at Jake. “Who’s that,” he asked, “another one of your environmentalist weirdos?”

“You can call us weirdos if it makes you feel better.  Some of us believe these animals are worth protecting.  You guys just like killing things—you probably think you still have to shoot your own food.”

Jake showed intense interest in elk as seen through binoculars.  He thought he had better do something besides staring into the glasses, so he lowered them for a moment while he fished a small notebook and pencil out of his shirt pocket.  He flipped open the notebook and wrote down the number of elk in the herd, and wrote “G herd bull in C herd,” followed by the date.  He checked his watch for the correct time and wrote that down, too.  He took care not to look at Denny or the deputy, pocketed the notebook and resumed watching the elk.

“No,” the deputy continued, remembering what they had been talking about, “I didn’t mean their Jeep; this was a real truck.  A great big thing with a sleeper cab.”

Denny set the scope down and looked at the deputy with a look of wide-eyed astonishment. “You don’t think that truck is the one in the news, do you?”

“Fits the description.”

“I thought you told me they weren’t home.”

“I didn’t see anybody around. And the Jeep is gone.  I’m thinking that trucker might have done something with the old couple and took off with their car.”

“Wait a minute. You don’t mean to tell me you think that kidnapper got a drop on Poppy, or even Kate, for that matter.”

“Got a better idea? There’s quite a bit of fresh-turned earth up there.”

Denny stood up straight, motioned for Jake to have a look through the scope, and turned to face the deputy.

“Merle, there’s no way that truck drove onto VanderLeiden’s without them knowing about it.  And if you think any sissy trucker could draw on Poppy, you have another think coming.”

Denny treated them both to a full-scale chuff-chuckling episode complete with chin wobbles.

“If somebody’s buried in them plowed fields, it’s the trucker, make no mistake about that.”

Moran stared into space, obviously uncomfortable.  “Well, I thought you ought to know.  If you see or hear anything, give us a call.”

“You bet. And if I run into that trucker and he gives me any guff, I’ll call you to pick up his remains.”

He went back to his scope, Jake went back to the binoculars, and the two of them counted elk until the dust from the patrol car settled into the distance.

Chapter 29—Leaving Dallas Tuesday

“Grande two-raw-sugar latte’, please.” Tina glanced at her watch.  12:55.

I hate this, she thought.  I hate everything about it.  I hate the idea of going up there to bring back this bratty little kid who messed up Jake’s life.  I hate not knowing what’s going on with Jake—if he’s in jail now or what.  I hate caring one way or the other. And I really hate being under time pressure.  I’ll have to push it all the way toMcAlester to be there when they arrive.  And they’ll worry if I’m late, they always do.

She paid for her coffee and stepped aside for the next customer.  She felt a little guilty for taking time to stop at Starbucks in northPlano, but it was on her way out of the Metroplex, anyway.  She needed the caffeine, too.

Well, okay.  Not needed, exactly. Her insides were already jumping around like crickets on uppers. But this was supposed to be her afternoon off, and she felt entitled to treat herself to compensate for having to spend a beautiful spring day staying between the lines on the interstate.

With a theatrical flourish, rolling his Rs, the young man in charge of making up coffee orders announced “Grande two-sugar latte.”  Probably an actor who hasn’t caught a break yet, Tina thought. She slipped a cardboard sleeve over the heavy paper cup and hurried back to her car.

~~~~~~~~

            FBI agents Gabe Turner and Frank Moldenauer kept their eyes on Alex as Turner keyed in the home office number.  Speaking softly into his cell phone, he reported their hunch to their supervisor. After telling everything he knew about Tina, he hung up and resumed leaning against the wall.

Alex felt as if he were wearing a hair shirt as their stares crawled up and down his neck. He grew more and more certain the limited conversation they conducted out of the sides of their mouths concerned Tina. They knew something—they were too happy for any other explanation. He wished they’d let him in on it.

His client, a 70-something matron, had taken out her hearing aid as soon as she stepped into the salon, so he didn’t even have the distraction of conversation.

Despite the usual hum of stylists and their customers talking, and the almost constant ring of phones, he jumped at the unfamiliar chirp of Agent Turner’s cell phone and accidentally touched his client’s ear with the hot curling iron, inducing a little yelp from her before she covered the burned spot with her hand.  Busy applying lotion and eloquent apologies, he didn’t hear the first couple of minutes as Turner responded to information he was receiving from the head office.

“Yessir, thank you, sir! 27 years old. Divorced. Yessir.”

Alex tuned back in as he heard him continue.

“Christina VanderLeiden Hilbert.  What’s that address again, sir?”

“Yessir!” He lowered the phone. “Say, Albert!” he said.  “Did you know the red-head lives in the same apartment complex as you do?”  ‘

Alex, determined that the agents would not see that they had evoked any emotion from him, blinked hard and turned his head, only to face a wall of mirrors. It didn’t matter; Turner hadn’t noticed; he had gone back to writing information in his leather notebook.

“No criminal record. Only known relatives, Peter and Katherina VanderLeiden, ofNewton County,Arkansas.”

Alex didn’t even pretend not to listen.  So that’s where she’s heading, he thought.  ThisArkansasconnection surprised him.  He knew her grandparents had raised her and that shortly after she married Richard, they had moved to the most remote place they could find, but he now realized she hadn’t told him their names or where they lived.

“NewtonCounty.” Turner continued.  “What part ofArkansasis that, do you know?  You don’t say!” He turned toward his partner, apparently forgetting for an instant that he was on the phone with his supervisor.

“Say, Frank, the grandparents live in the Ozarks. Can you beat that? The Ozarks is where they figure this trucker took the victim, you know.”

Moldenauer couldn’t pass up an opportunity to display his comprehension of the obvious.

“This is a real break, then,” he said, his voice dropping to an authoritative baritone for the pronouncement. “It had not been determined whether he went north or south after dropping his trailer.” He stood a little taller and tucked in his shirt.  “Looks like we’ll be the ones to break this case after all.” As Turner turned his attention back to the phone, Moldenauer went on muttering about how underused they were, their boring assignment tailing Alex not being up to their competence level.

“Yessir, I sure will, sir!” Turner said. “That sounds like a great idea, yessir.  We’ll get right on it.”  He was about to hang up, but remembered something.  “Sir, are you still there? Sir?” Evidently receiving an affirmative answer, he asked, “What is she driving, do you know, sir?  New Focus. Texastags, NHC-29C…oh, 29Z. Uh huh.  Sure.  Uh…repeat on the color, sir? That spelled T-E-A-L? Yessir.  Thanks.”

He jammed his phone back in his pocket and announced, “We’re going on over to little Red Riding Hood’s residence now and have a nice talk. See if she thinks the big bad wolf might be hiding at Grandma’s house. Somebody’s checking there, too.  If she’s not at home, we’ll try to enlist the cooperation of theTexasPO-lice and find her on the road.”

He gave Alex a mock salute, inclined his head sharply at Moldenauer, and the two left, marching smartly in step all the way.  About the time they reached the door, Alex heard Turner ask Moldenauer, “What color is teal, anyway?”

~~~~~~~

            Alex glanced at the clock as Agents Moldenauer and Turner slunk back into the salon. 2:30. Noticeably missing was the air of allied smugness that had dominated the room earlier.  Gone, too, Turner’s annoying pocket jingling.  Turner had parked himself uninvited in the unoccupied styling chair next to Alex’s area.  Moldenauer hesitated but must have decided he was tired of standing, too, and opted for a comfortably reclined chair at the shampoo sink.

“Dear me,” Alex crooned.  “You boys seem so, well…depleted.  Has the starch in your shorts relaxed? And Mr. Muldoon, honey, you’re all slumped over.  I do so admire your usual posture.  A model for us all, I’m sure.”

“You weren’t such a smart mouth when we started closing in on your brother-the-felon were you, Albert?” Turner taunted. “Something cheered you right up.  What happened, did you hear from dear Jacob?”

“No, I haven’t heard a thing.  But you haven’t either, have you, sugar?  And what about Tina?  Did she slip through your little dragnet?”

What’s the matter with me, Alex wondered.  What is it about those guys that sets me off? I’m not doing Jake or Tina any good by making them mad.

“No, we didn’t find Ms. Hilbert.  She evidently expects to be away for some time; we talked to a neighbor who was walking her Schnauzer.” Moldenauer sputtered.  “And of course we couldn’t interest theTexashighway patrol to watch for her.” He noted the smile on Alex’s face. “You can laugh now, Nancy-boy, but before this is all over, we’re going to have a tea party for y’all.  In prison. You, Hilbert, and probably her grandparents. It’s against the law to aid and abet a felon, you know.”

Alex’s last client tipped him and left, allowing him to devote his full attention to the agents. He felt suddenly, dreadfully weary, too weak to stand.  He dropped into his styling chair and pivoted so he could look directly at each of them.

“Yes, I do know that.” No affectation now.  “And I’d willingly aid and abet Jake if it were in my power to do so.  I’d go to prison for him if I could.” His voice thick,  “I’d take a bullet for my brother, but the deal is, he feels the same way about me, and wouldn’t put me in any kind of danger physically or legally if he could help it. I’m sure that’s why I haven’t heard from him.”

Both men were sitting up straight now, listening.

“I know my brother’s character, and I’m absolutely certain that the little boy, if Jake has him, is safe.  Just as his own son was safe two years ago.” He paused, looking from one to the other.  “The last chapter in this story hasn’t been written, gentlemen, but when it is, you will find the situation is not as it appears at this moment.”

He stood up and prepared to go home.  As he watched them stand and finger-press the front creases in their pants, compassion moved him. He spoke gently,

“Some day you men will realize your assignment to follow me was even more of a slap in the face than you think it is.”

Chapter 30—Tuesday in the Ozarks

            Casual passersby, of whom there were none on that remote road, might have been quite curious had they observed Jake and Denny when the last puff of dust from the deputy’s car settled in the distance.  Denny, bent over double, abandoned his chuffing chuckle for a full-scale belly laugh, a soundless expulsion of air that seemed to threaten all future efforts to breathe.  He held this position, wheezing back to life, finally, and looked over at Jake who, bent from the waist, hands on his knees, retched violently into a patch of Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans.

“Man o man, poor old Merle must have been struck blind or something.  Can you believe it?”

Jake couldn’t answer.  He was sure he had utterly emptied his belly, but he couldn’t stop.  Green and yellow circles and red stars danced before his eyes, and he heard a high-pitched whine in his ears. He fervently wished Denny had shot him earlier in the day.

“When you finish spitting up like a baby, we’ll move to another location.  Time for a nice leisurely lunch, doncha think?”

Jake ran his hand over his face and climbed back into the Humvee. He could take his own pulse by listening to the throbbing inside his skull, and his teeth felt as if they were wearing dirty socks. He couldn’t bear to look over at Denny steering the old vehicle down the road.

Denny didn’t speak again until he had pulled onto a grassy verge.           “You’re not talking. What’s the matter?  You mad at me or something?” He spread a tired old orange checked oilcloth, crackled and flaking, over the flat hood, and began dividing the contents of Kate’s picnic basket on two paper plates.

“I don’t know what to think.  One minute you’re playing tough-cop interrogation with me as the target, and the next thing I know, you’re the sensitive protector of wildlife and a cop with a loaded gun hanging off his belt is giving me the once over. Now it’s picnic time. What’s the deal? Do you believe my story or not?  Or is this a game to you—playing me like a cat with a mouse and saving me to finish off yourself later?”

“Awww, Bubba’s feelings are hurt.” He finished dividing the lunch and stuffed a brownie into his mouth, popped open a can of Orange Crush, drained it dry, and slammed the can on the hood to flatten it before throwing into the open back window of the Humvee.

“Listen to me, Jake: If I didn’t have a gut feeling you were on the level, neither one of us would be here.  I want to be real clear, is all. I need to know your story. I don’t want to be blindsided when I’m in court trying to explain why I did indeed aid and abet a known felon.”

He handed Jake a can of Mountain Dew. “And count on it. I will end up in the halls of justice, and it will have as little to do with justice as it ever has.”

“Sounds to me like I should hear your story, too.”

“You first.  Let’s start with the kidnapping charge.  How can you be charged with felony kidnapping—a federal rap—and get probation? That does not compute.”

Jake felt sick again, remembering. Not that he ever really forgot.

“Yes, I was arrested on kidnapping. Still can’t believe it. As you know, the child I supposedly kidnapped was—is—my own son, Joey.  My wife and I were having problems.” He bit into an apple and watched Denny slide his sunglasses down his nose so his black eyes bored into Jake with a ‘wake up, man’ look.

“Well, okay,” Jake said, “the truth is, she was running around on me when I went out on a trip.  I’m usually home one week, gone two.  A couple of times, before I tumbled to what she was up to, I came home to find bruises all over Joey’s arms and legs…” His voice broke.  “He was barely four years old. Just a little guy.”

He ran his hand over his head again and went on. “He told the judge, ‘Daddy did it.’ I didn’t figure out until later that Mike—that’s Barb’s boy friend—made Joey call him ‘Daddy.’ That might even have been why he was beating him. I’ve run it over in my mind a thousand times, and I’m convinced I had a sympathetic judge.”

“You call that a sympathetic judge?” Denny demanded. “How come he didn’t throw the case out of court? And what kind of a weenie lawyer did you have? Those miserable parasites…”

“Oh, don’t go off on that.  My attorney did great.  He convinced the jury that Barb didn’t just commit adultery, she was an unfit mother. She would leave Joey and Annie—Annie was only eight at the time—and go to a bar until 2:00 a.m. I wasn’t real comfortable with that part being in the paper and all, but then I guess I was a little slow catching on to how casual she was about our wedding vows.” Jake took a bite out of a granola bar and looked over at Denny leaning against the truck, chewing and nodding. “I guess the whole story didn’t surprise anybody else in town.”

Denny scrunched up his forehead and emitted a low growl Jake didn’t know how to interpret, so he went on:

“Why I say the judge was sympathetic is, he took great pains to instruct the jury that Joey was my own boy, and the little guy obviously loved and trusted me.  Then, too, I think they took seriously my testimony that I took him with me because I wanted to protect him. Anyway, they reduced the charge to felony domestic abuse, and I was sentenced to time served plus three years probation. Everybody was surprised at that. Barb is still mad.”

“But you can’t see your kids.”

“No.” This was always the hardest part for him to understand. “As soon as my attorney started talking about Barb being an unfit mother, she hired an attorney herself to dispute that charge. Can’t say as I blame her.”

Denny groaned and motioned for Jake to continue.

“Her fitness as a mother wasn’t what the trial was all about, but her attorney demanded that as a condition of probation she would have full custody of the kids and I had to stay away.  At the end of the three years—one year from now—I’ll go back to court and they’ll decide whether to lift that restriction. I could still be stuck with it, even when my probation is up. Or would have been up, except for this mess.”

“How come you aren’t mad atAustin?  That little brat ruined your life.”

“What do you expect—he’s only six years old. And he didn’t ruin my life—I managed that all by myself.”

“Almost seven,” Denny corrected. “Old enough to know better.  I will say I don’t think he’s exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

“That’s not fair.  He hasn’t been too well disciplined, I’ll grant you, but kids act on impulse and make dumb decisions.  What am I saying? Kids. As if freaking out and hiding in the hills when I found him was a rational move.”

“What about Christina?”

“Nothing about Tina. I’m out of her life.  I left a message for her and told her to forget me.”

“After they talked to her last night, Poppy and Kate were awfully quiet, and I wondered if that’s what happened” Denny said, watching Jake as he spoke. “You’re a real prince, you know? First you wine and dine the woman, and then you just leave a message for her and tell her she’s history?  How could you hurt her like you did is what I wanna know. You were about half growing on me, as a decent sort of fella, I mean, but dropping Christina like a rock was cold, man.” He shook his head in disbelief.

“I tried to call her Friday night—that’s when I was supposed to be there—but she had left by the time I called so I left a message.  I wanted to call her back—started to, but then Poppy said it was too risky, that the FBI might be tapping her phone.”

“Aaagh, I don’t know why Poppy is so nervous about stuff like that,” Denny said.

Jake peered over his sunglasses for a few seconds before continuing.  “Did you know she emailed me?”

“You have a computer on your truck?”

“I carry a laptop; a lotta guys do, and I accessed my account up at Poppy’s.  They have a computer, you know.”

“For a couple of old recluses, they’re sure up to date, aren’t they?  So what did Christina say in her email?”

“Mostly that I’m a jerk.  Nothing new.  Except for some reason she evidently thinks I ran off to be with another woman.  She kept asking who was with me.”

“Where’d she come up with that idea?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

“I still don’t see why you had to dump her.”

“What good am I to her? I’m going to be in prison for the rest of my life.  She deserves better, and you know it.” Jake said, annoyed at being put on the defensive for something that hurt so bad. “I don’t know what you’re so steamed about; now you have clear sailing.”

Denny made a big production out of pitching an apple core into the field.  When he turned back, his face was closed, eyes flat.

“You mind explaining that remark?”

Jake was sorry he had said anything, but it was too late now.  “You’re in love with her.  Any fool can see that.”

“Any fool, huh? Well, you’re the fool if you think I’d ever touch her. I love her, I won’t deny it, but more like a big brother.”

Out of apple cores, he began pitching small stones. “I’m too old and too big, not to mention too crazy to think of her any other way.”

“Crazy like an overgrown fox, near as I can see. Now cut the baloney and tell me what’s going on with you. Why are you so distrustful of the sheriff?  You enjoyed messing with poor old Merle’s head way too much.  What did he ever do to you?”

“Nothin’, Merle’s too dumb to be dangerous to anybody but himself.  By the way, I saw the gun, too, but I don’t know if it was loaded.  I doubt it, myself.  Even Merle knows he’d shoot off his own business before he ever pulled the gun out of the holster.”

Another stone pinged off a steel post several yards away.

“Sheriff Staley isn’t much for training his deputies in the art of shooting straight, mostly because he wouldn’t know how.”

“You aren’t just distrusting; you’re downright cranky.  What’s it all about?”

Denny looked at his watch and made a 360 degree visual sweep.  “Looks like nothing is going to happen for a while.  How about we drive a little farther and then settle down in a grove of trees I know about until it’s time to make a run forHarrison?”

Chapter 31—Back at the Cop Shop

At 1:34 Tuesday afternoon, Deputy Merle Doran returned to the police station in Jasper,Arkansas, where his boss, Sheriff Roger Staley, waited.  During Doran’s account of his morning activities, the sheriff never looked at his deputy but did what he usually did when he wished he were doing almost anything other than what he was doing, he swiveled his chair back and forth, clicking his ball point pen with each swing—left, right, click, left, right, click—a habit that may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that during Staley’s four years in office, Merle Doran was the only deputy so far who had lasted at the job for more than six weeks.

In the sheriff’s defense, Doran’s delivery tended to hover somewhere between a drone and a whine, and as he reported his visits to seven different but equally remote settlements, his inflection, or lack thereof, never changed, not even when he finally talked about the VanderLeiden place, where he had made an actual discovery: the truck the FBI had alerted them to try to find.  He said the description they had been given exactly matched a truck he’d found.

“No sign of the trucker, the VanderLeidens or the kid, though.”

“Ding bust it, Merle!” Staley stood up from behind his desk, excited at last.  “If the truck is there, the trucker’s there.  It only stands to reason, Merle.  He must be hiding.  You shoulda stayed there until you found him!”

“The thing is, Sheriff, the old couple ain’t there, either, and neither is their car.  According to Denny Turco—“

“Turco!  Where did you see Turco?  I mighta known. How is he in this mess?”  Staley sat down, obviously perturbed.  “You know full well he isn’t going to cooperate with us if he can help it.”

“Oh, I don’t mean he was up there at the VanderLeiden place.  He wasn’t there. Nobody was.  They were down by the river, counting elk or some fool thing.”  Merle paced sluggishly, watching his own feet.  “If I had the money that guy has, just in scopes and equipment, I could retire, too.”

“He didn’t retire, you know that.  He couldn’t handle the pressure of the job is all. Not many men can.  Well, how did Turco explain the truck being up there?  I know he’s up there a lot.  Did he know where they are?”

“What he told me was, they probably had doctor’s appointments or something.  He seemed real surprised about the truck.  I don’t believe I’d wanna be the trucker if anything happens to friends of Turco.”

Deputy Doran filled Sheriff Staley in on Denny’s theory regarding the unlikely possibility of anybody surprising Poppy.  There followed about 20 minutes of aimless grumbling and scratching, with intermittent periods of silence—except for the clicking ball point pen, of course—while the two men stood staring out of a small front window, watching nothing move on the four-space parking area.

“What did you mean when you said ‘they?’ You said ‘they’ were counting elk.”

“I didn’t get his name. Nobody special, I don’t think. Just some little ridge-runner. Probably one of Turco’s sister’s friends.  She has more’n one, from what I hear.” Doran snickered.

More silence until Staley made a decision, the weight of which was evidently more than he could handle standing up.  He plopped himself down and picked up the phone.

“I’m going to put the word out to the highway patrol to keep an eye out for the VanderLeidens.  They sure as thunder know something.  Might even be accessories.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find out Turco put them up to it, either.  At least we need to talk to them.  Then I don’t see what more we can do but wait.”

“What about the FBI?” Merle asked.

“What about them?”  Staley spit the toothpick he had been chewing into the wastebasket.  “We’ll tell them what we want them to know when we think they need to know it.”

“This is a federal case now, what with the trucker crossing state lines and all.”

“I know that!” The sheriff slammed down the phone.  He hated being instructed by his only subordinate.  “We don’t have a victim, do we?  Do we have a perpetrator? Without one or the other, I don’t see why we have to call in the Feds.”

“Because we know where the truck is, is why.”  Merle countered stubbornly. “If we don’t tell somebody we’ll be withholding evidence, won’t we?”

“Fine.  You want to try to help the Feds, you go right ahead.  But first call Harden over inBooneCounty.  He has to hold federal prisoners in his jail there inHarrison.  He’ll have a better idea how to handle it.  Here:  I’ll make the call for you and then I’ll put you on.”

The call to Sheriff Carvel Harden went well at first.  Merle recited his account of his day’s activities so far, finally getting to the discovery of the dark blue Freightliner so perfectly matching the description of the truck in question.  At that point Carvel interrupted to ask Merle for more information about the people who owned the property where the truck was located.

Merle said the VanderLeidens were in their mid-seventies, gave the sheriff a general description of them and offered the theory that they might be visiting their doctors inHarrison.

“Where did you come up with that idea, deputy?” Sheriff Harden asked.

“Denny Turco is a real good friend of theirs—” was as far as he went when Carvel exploded.

“Turco!  I might have known! Anytime there’s trouble around here, find the middle of whatever’s going on and there’ll be Turco.  I swear making my life miserable is that guy’s own personal lifetime goal.”

After grumbling incoherently for a minute or two, he spoke into the phone again.  “Put your boss back on the line, Merle.”

“Well, Carvel, what do you think?”  Staley asked.

“I think we got us a situation, is what I think.  And yeah, I suppose we have to give the FBI a heads up.  But let’s take some time to do a little investigating on our own. What do you say we deputize a couple of fellas to help us look through some of that fresh plowed dirt up there where the truck is located?”

“Sure thing.  Me and Doran will head right up there. You think I should try to deputize anybody else?”

“No. I’ll call my regular deputy and then I’ll run over to the barbershop to see if there’s somebody hanging around there who would be willing to do a little digging for a few bucks. I’ll have a couple of squad cars, and the two of you, which should be enough. Bring yourselves some shovels. My deputy is a pretty good forensic photographer.  I’ll tell him to bring a camera.  Who knows what we’ll find up there.”

“Uhh, Carvel, what would you think about putting out a bulletin to the highway patrol to keep an eye out for the VanderLeidens?  I’m thinking they must know something. Should at least be able to tell us how the truck ended up in their yard.”

“Not a bad idea. Want me to call it in? What are they driving?”

“Sure, go ahead.  They are driving a 2008 Jeep Grande Cherokee, kind of a silver or khaki color—hang on a second.  Merle?”  He called his deputy back to the phone. “Here. Tell Sheriff Harden whatever you can about the vehicle.”

“Which one?  The truck?”

“No! The VanderLeiden’s SUV.”

“Yeah.  Well, it’s kinda silver, but in the right light it looks kinda off-green; whatcha call khaki, something like that. It’s theLaredomodel, the Jeep is.  I called the DMV.  Want the tag number?” At his boss’s exasperated ‘harrumph!’  Merle gave the number to Sheriff Harden and hung up.

“Grab a shovel, Merle.  We’ll each take our own patrol car.  We just don’t know what we’re gonna find up there.  Let’s go.”

Chapter 32—2:00 p.m. Tuesday,Dallas

David reached the bottom of the stairs just as the grandfather clock chimed through its whole routine and bonged twiceAfter I have my little talk with Gloria there might be time for a short nap, he thought.  At least if the girls sleep for a while.

Sleep.  Please God, let me lie down and sleep. Grinding weariness drew him down, bruising him body and soul.  Lack of sleep weakened his bones. His eyes burned. His head throbbed so hard his teeth felt loose. His brain seemed unfamiliar to him, his thought processes slow and thick as sludge. Sadness deeper than he’d ever known gnawed at him, pulling him down with an aching, a desperation as heavy as his weariness.

As much as Laura often drove him crazy, he couldn’t remember any time during their marriage when he had worried about her as much as he did right now. What an odd time to become aware of how much she meant to him. If he had thought about it, he might have supposed married people going through a crisis like theirs would pull together—like a team—but Austin’s disappearance could finish them off.

It had all begun early Friday morning, and they still had no idea how it would end.  At first they blamed each other with Laura saying it was all his fault for leaving the van, and then he had blamed her because she stayed inside the truck stop for so long.  They were both a whole lot wiser now, but they were a long way from being on a friendly basis, and they still didn’t know where to findAustin.

He approached Gloria, alone at the kitchen table, bent over her open Bible. Tendrils of silver hair had escaped their pins and sprouted around her head, reminding him of offshoots ringing an old maple tree back home. . Still in her nightgown and slippers, she looked old and, well…Godly to him, like Sister Visser at a testimony meeting in his grandmother’s church.  The thought comforted him.

“I’ve been praying for you, David.”  She looked up at him, reading glasses in her hand.  “Come. Sit with me a while.”

He pulled up the chair next to her. “I need your help with something.  With Laura.”

She patted his hand.  “I’m so glad you are part of our family, dear. I can see why Laura loves you so much.  How can I help?”

“She’s determined to leave in the morning.  Of course you know that.” He rubbed his cheek. “I’m not a bit comfortable with this arrangement—I should be the one going—but she’s made up her mind, and you and Will told me to listen to her, so I’ll stay here with the girls.  I’m hoping that in a couple of days she’ll call and ask me to meet her there.  I had planned to go back at work Monday—“At her dismayed intake of breath he laid his hand on hers, “Of course they’ll give me more time.  In fact I talked to my boss a little while ago and she told me to take as long as I need,” he explained.  “But if I can catch up with Laura Thursday or Friday, maybe I can check out a few things myself and that way we’d be together.  The girls need their mother and I think that whether she knows it or not, it would help her to have them around, too.”

“Of course.  Will plans to bring you and the girls to wherever we are in a couple of days.  The girls do need her.  You need her, too, don’t you?”

His eyes stung.  “Yeah, I do.  I just wish she needed me.”

“She does.  I know my daughter.  In fact, if I’m honest about some of her worst traits, I know she ‘didn’t get them from any stranger,’ as my mother used to say.”

He thought he saw a twinkle in her eyes.

“I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” she said. “The more my daughter acts as if she’s in charge of the whole world, the more she needs you to cherish her.”

“Cherish?  I know we probably said something like that at our wedding, but I’m not sure what cherish looks like.  Even if I did, why now?”

“Why now?” She thought about it for a minute. “Especially now, I should think.  Our worlds are being torn apart and nothing seems solid, so we need to feel taken care of. Secure. Women do, I mean.  Maybe I mean Laura and me.  Oh, I don’t know…maybe it’s just me.  Will and I have been together so long that most of the time it’s as if we share the same brain, and yet you may have noted a little tension between us yesterday.”

David could hear the exhaustion in her voice as she went on.  “I tend to run around playing the role of the strong and capable Christian woman, but in times like these I deeply need Will to take care of me in his own quiet way and to love me in the midst of my posturing and bluster.  Sometimes, like yesterday, we miss signals and find ourselves lashing out at each other in our frustration. Right now we’re all so tired and strung out from the strain and lack of sleep that we aren’t much good to anybody…” She took a deep breath.  “Why did I go off on that rabbit trail? You came to talk to me about Laura. I’ll be glad to do anything I can.  What kind of help do you need?”

“Actually it does help me to hear you say that even people who’ve been married forever have rough days, but the reason I came downstairs is about tonight.  You said you wanted Laura to go to the prayer meeting with you, and she agreed, but now she tells me that if she has to go, I have to go.  I was wondering if you could help me find someone to stay with the girls.  I know it’s late in the day, but—“

“Don’t worry, dear.  I’ve had Maria on stand-by since this morning.  I thought Laura might want you there with us, but I know better than to suggest it myself.  If it’s all right with you, we’ll just keep that between the two of us, all right?

“You mean about you having a baby-sitter lined up before Laura decided we needed one?” He had to smile. “I sure can see the wisdom of keeping that little bit of information to ourselves.” He felt relieved. “Maria.  Your cleaning lady, right?  I didn’t know she did baby-sitting too.”

“Maria has helped with the house for years, yes, but she’s much more than a cleaning lady.  We consider ourselves friends.  She loves children and she’s very good with them.  Allison and Ariel will have fun and so will she.”

When he didn’t get up she asked, “What else is on your heart, son?”

“You’re so…understanding with Laura,” he said.  “I don’t know what to do with her.  She scares me. I’ve never seen her so angry.

“Angry.  Yes, I do understand about anger.” Gloria tried unsuccessfully to sweep her hair off her face. “You say she scares you. If anybody’s scared, David, it’s Laura.”   She turned to face him and held both of his hands between her own. “I’m so pleased that you’re coming with us tonight.  I’ll pray for you and Laura especially.”

He pulled away and studied his cuticles. “I’ve never been to one of these things before.  I dread it, to tell you the truth.  This probably seems weird to you, but thinking about sitting there with everybody praying for my boy makes tears come to my eyes.  I guess I’m afraid I’ll embarrass Laura if I choke up in front of everybody.”

“If you shed a tear or two, you’ll be in good company.  I think most of us respond emotionally when we sense the presence of the Lord.”

“I wouldn’t know about that.” He twisted his wedding ring around and buffed it on his pants. “It’s just that I feel as if my sanity is hanging by a thread already,” His voice came out low and quivery. “I’m scared to death aboutAustin, and now I’m afraid I’m losing Laura, too.”

Gloria slipped on her glasses and started paging through her Bible. He wasn’t surprised.  He wondered if the verse she was trying to find would make any sense to him.  She continued to turn pages as Laura glided in, sans makeup, attired in a long black skirt, black long-sleeved silk blouse and a wide black velvet ribbon wrapped around the tight bun into which she’d tortured her hair.

“Oooooh, isn’t this special?  Computer geek and the holy woman, together at last.  Are you reading his aura, Mother?”

David felt as if a rubber band snapped inside his head. Laura knew how much he hated it when she called him a geek. He didn’t mind being one; he just didn’t want her calling him that. “What’s with that get-up?  You look as if you’re auditioning for The Addams Family.”

“We’re going to the holy floaters prayer meeting, right?  I wanted to fit in.”

“Good one, honey!  When you apply yourself you really can be quite unpleasant,” David snapped. “This whole sarcastic bit is old already. Call me when you’re over it.” He stood up, glowering into the stony face Laura held up to him.

“Listen to Mr. cool-as-a-cucumber, or should I say Mr. cold-as-a-dead fish,” she spat, her eyes bright with anger.

Gloria, with an exasperated sputter, pulled her chair away from the table and grabbed Laura’s hand, pulling her down onto her lap. David watched, wide-eyed, as Laura not only permitted it, but sat there as if it were the most normal thing in the world for a grown woman to sit on her mother’s knee.

“Now you sit back down, David,” Gloria commanded.  David complied.  “You two take slow, deep breaths for a couple of minutes while I have my say.”  She struggled for control and then held her head up in such a regal fashion that she appeared to be looking down at her daughter, perched like a cat ready to spring.

“This whole painful ordeal isn’t about calling each other names or trying to make other people feel as rotten as we do.  I know what it is to lose a son, and when I say I know what you are going through, you may do me the courtesy of believing me. This feuding. The testy, childish attitude. How’s it working for you, Laura? Does it help?”

Laura dropped her eyes to avoid answering.

“Being angry doesn’t relieve the pressure build-up from a dam of tears; nothing does! I will reach the end of my days containing a well of unwept tears.” She choked, then went on, forcing her words past a wall of emotion.  “There’s no pain like the pain of losing a child.  None. That’s why I’m insisting that we go to the prayer meeting tonight.  God can answer our prayers even if we don’t go anywhere, but there’s a dynamic there, an anointing if you will, that happens when God’s people come together to pray. We all need to regain some perspective and get a faith boost.”

“I don’t understand what you are trying to say,” David said.  “What’s the point of praying if God already knows what we are going to ask?  And what difference does it make?  As Laura pointed out, praying didn’t helpBryan.  You just told us that you’ll be full of tears until you die.” He hated hurting her with his questions, but he desperately wanted to hear that going to this prayer meeting would solve everything. “What’s the whole point, anyway?”

“The whole blooming point,” she said, her voice sounding rough with anger, “is that God does answer prayer. What’s the matter with you people? Why are you so hopeless?  I still believe God will bringAustin back to us, I feel it in my bones, but you two act as if you’re doing God a big favor by showing up for prayer.”

She let out a shaky breath. “I don’t know why He didn’t heal Bryan, but I do know that I couldn’t have lived through that time of absolute agony if I hadn’t sensed God’s presence with me. God gave me the strength, the peace—the power to live.”

She didn’t seem to notice her tears dripping off her cheeks as she talked. “I can tell you when it happened, the very moment when I knew God was with me.  I sensed His presence, and all at once I knew that whatever came, I was never alone. I could feel His love. I could almost feel His arms around me.” David heard her voice falter. For a moment she stared at him, and he saw in her eyes first a question and then despair. She closed her eyes and let out a tired sigh.

“I’m sorry.” she said, her voice flat, “I have never in my life felt more like a failure than I do at this moment.  Somehow, with all I’ve said, with all your dad and I have done, with everything we’ve all gone through, we’ve never been able to show you what a wonderful life we have because we’ve trusted Jesus.”

Laura put her arm around her mother’s shoulders. “The time when you felt God all around you—was it when you were praying with Suellen and her friends?”

“Yes. Do you remember that?”

“No, I was pretty young. I do remember how upset you were. I remember that much.  You tried not to cry in front of me. And I remember you and Suellen prayed together a lot.  Was Daddy in on it then, too?”

“During the few moments I’m talking about, your dad was in the den praying with Stephen Kelly, and he had a breakthrough at about the same time I did.  After that we prayed together. I thank God that through all of it we were of one heart and mind,” she said, looking from Laura to David and back again

“Yes, Mother, I get it.” Laura stroked her mother’s cheek, then suddenly stood up, kissed Gloria’s head noisily and grabbed David’s hand.  “C’mon. We can talk while I change into something a bit less gothic.”

Chapter 33—3:07 p.m. Tuesday, Fort Smith Arkansas

            Highway patrol officer Brad Williams technically didn’t get off work until 3:30, but he usually checked in early so he could catch up on paperwork and be out of there by the end of his shift.  He shut off his police radio, locked the patrol unit and walked into Arkansas State Patrol Headquarters on Interstate 40 nearFort Smith. After a cursory glance at the lighted communications board, he stood at the charge desk sorting through his meticulous records. He couldn’t help overhearing Officer Dale Richards on the phone at the next desk:

“You’re telling me they might know something about this kidnapping deal, and they might be driving somewhere in the state of Arkansas.  Do I have that right?”  He listened a moment and then replied, obviously testy, “Well, sure, I’ll take down the information, and while we’re working the state line, making random stops for narcotics, and while we’re clocking speeders, then maybe we take an accident call, and while we’re doing all that, we might keep an eye open for this old couple. In our spare time.”

Richards wrote down what he was hearing, punctuating each fact with an impatient “uh-hunh,” and finally “yessir,” and hung up.  “Can you beat that?” He asked no one in particular.

He looked up and noticed Williams. “The local yokels up inNewtonCountythink they have a truck used in a kidnapping, so they tell the FBI, and the FBI wants us to watch for the folks who own the property where the truck was located.” He rubbed the back of his neck.  “Boyoboy, I sure do love it when the Feds roll in and start giving orders.  What’ll happen is, we’ll find these two, and then a couple of FBI agents will turn up and claim they solved another case.  After we’ve done the actual work for them.”

“Old couple, huh?” Williams said. “Too bad I’m through for the day.  It’d be my pleasure to pull another one of those old codgers off the road. Dangerous, most of them.  Slow-moving hazards.” He handed over his duty sheet and walked out the door.

Just as his left thumb hit the door handle of his Ford 150, it hit him. He turned on his heel, almost a military about-face, and went back into the headquarters office.  “Say, Richards.  Give me the description on that old couple we’re supposed to be looking for.  The one connected to a kidnapping case.”

“Peter and Katherine VanderLeiden,” Richards read from his own notes.  “Mid-seventies.  He’s roughly six feet two inches tall; she’s five eight or nine. Both slender. Believed to be driving a 2008 Jeep Grande Cherokee, metallic khaki,Arkansastags 039-CAJ. Have you seen them?”

“Affirmative.  Yep, I sure did.  Does it say anything about them having a kid with them?”

“No.  Just the man and his wife.”

“Well, they have a kid. A little boy.  I’m betting it’s the one that was supposedly kidnapped. I pulled them over for an expired tag, but it turned out he had the sticker in the glove compartment.  Just gave them a warning.”

“Where was that?”

“East of here a ways, right on I-40.”

“Did you write down the time?” Richard ran his finger down the report Williams had given him a few minutes ago.  “Yeah, here it is: 13:25. You even wrote down the tag number and the name on the registration.  It was them, all right.  Good work, Williams. I’ll call this in.”

Chapter 34—Along theBuffaloNationalRiver

He knew Denny didn’t want to talk about himself, but Jake was intrigued.  Clearly, in spite of Poppy and Kate’s warning, he had underestimated him.  The guy came on like a loutish dolt, but he was nobody’s fool.  Not nearly as menacing as he wanted everybody to think, either.  Take Tank, for instance.  The Rottweiler hadn’t joined them for the day, and when asked about it, Denny said he didn’t want Tank leaping out of the truck and grabbing the sheriff by the throat.  Jake didn’t believe him.  He was pretty sure the only danger around that particular dog was that he might lick somebody to death. And from what he knew about dogs, Tank likely reflected his owner’s temperament.

Denny drove carefully into a small grove of mature maples and birch, leaves thick and shiny. He positioned the Humvee well under the trees, facing the mountain where Poppy and Kate lived.  After carefully scanning for dust that might indicate another vehicle in the area, he shut off the engine and the two men seated themselves atop the hood where they could see the surrounding area and talk without looking at each other.

After several minutes of listening to leaves whispering in the woods, birds whistling to one another, and the occasional haunting bugle call of a bull elk to his harem, Denny spoke, measuring out words a few at a time, as if they were drops of pure water on a parched tongue.

“I had a wife.”

Jake waited; not speaking while Denny worked his way through his own story.

“Emily Grace.Arkansasnative. She went by two names like that: Emily Grace. Cherokee.  Skin the color of coffee with exactly the right amount of cream. She was so beautiful!  And smart.”

When he didn’t say anything for a while, Jake asked him, “Children?”

Denny shook his head.  “No. We couldn’t. I mean, it just didn’t happen.  Never figured out if it was her or me. We wanted to adopt.  She had relatives over nearTahlequah,Oklahoma, and there was a little girl there—her mother died—we could have adopted her on account of Emily Grace being full-blooded Cherokee.”

“Emily Grace.” Jake let the musical name hang on the breeze. “What happened?  Did she have an accident or what?”

“Yeah. Accident. That’s what the Bureau and the sheriff’s departments in two counties want me to think.”

“Well?”

“They killed her.”

“Who? Why would they kill her? How did it happen?”

Denny slid off the truck and walked around to stand in front of Jake, facing him with his pain. “I’m going to tell you a story.  I want you to listen real close and tell me if you can believe it was an accident.”

Jake nodded.

“Emily Grace was a photographer.  Amateur, but good. She lived in these hills all her life; learned to drive on roads like the one we just came down.  Went to college at theUniversityofArkansas, got a Master’s degree in Sociology, which qualified her to be a checkout girl at Super Foods.  I made decent money in those days, and after we were married I told her she didn’t have to work—I didn’t want her standing all day sliding groceries across the belt and being stared at.  She was so beautiful even other women liked looking at her.” Denny had gone back to pitching stones at distant posts.

“Not working suited her fine.  She seemed happy as a clam roaming the hills, looking for pictures. Sold some, too.  Scenics, mostly.  She said her best work was the black and white stuff she did, especially children.  Someday she was going to put together a book with those pictures, something like ‘The Face of American Poverty’ or something.  She was real tender-hearted that way.”

He started pacing, scanning the distance for telltale dust, then stood in front of Jake again, kicking at a rock with his toe. He chuckled, “What frustrated her was, when she would show her work to my sister or anybody else, they wouldn’t say anything about the pictures of dirty little poor kids. But the scenics, like a waterfall or a reflection on a lake, they’d say, ‘Why, that’s so purty it could be on a calendar.’ After a couple of times that happened, Emily Grace vowed she’d never show them another thing.  I never did know why that made her so mad.”

He leaned his back against the truck, away from Jake. “You ever heard of methamphetimine, Bubba?” Jake could barely hear him.

“Meth? Sure.  A lot of truckers get into serious trouble with that stuff—they use it to stay awake on the road and then they take stupid chances because they think they’re bullet-proof.”

“Well, cooking up the stuff is a cottage industry in this part of the country. It’s what landed Emily Grace at the bottom of a cliff.” Denny waited for that to settle in with Jake and went on.

“I’d come home in the evening and ask her what she’d been up to, and she’d tell me, ‘I took Nikon—that’s the kind of camera she had—for a ride.’ And I’d ask, ‘what did the two of you find?’  Usually she said ‘stuff purty enough for a calendar’ but then one day she said she came up on a little trailer house. When she drove toward it, thinking there might be some kids there, a guy came out pointing a gun at her and told her to get lost.”  He continued to gaze unseeingly at the countryside.

“I knew right away what it was. I told her it was a meth lab and she’d best stay away from anything like that.”

By now he had Jake’s full attention, and he couldn’t sit still anymore either.  He jumped off the truck and started kicking some stones of his own, careful not to disturb any slithering creatures that might be lurking behind larger rocks.

“Well, a few days later,” Denny continued, “she found another one. She found three in all, and she reported them to the sheriff, which is what I told her to do…

“Of course nothing happened.  I should have known it wouldn’t. So she calls this friend—she met him at the university—who lives inLittle Rock.  Another Cherokee, if I remember right. He works for the paper down there, writes about politics. State government, mostly.”

Jake waited without comment through long pauses during which it seemed as if Denny organized his thoughts. “I had a bad feeling as soon as she told me she called him, but she was determined to put those labs out of business. For the kids, she said.”

He was agitated when he resumed. “This guy didn’t call back for over a week, and when he did, he told her to leave the whole thing to him.  He told her, whatever you do, don’t go back to any of those places.  ‘Forget you ever saw them,’ he said.

She told me he sounded like he was mad at her for bringing it up.  I begged her to let it go.  I’d just started with the Bureau then, and I thought I could refer this to the right people and it would be taken care of.”

He stepped directly in front of Jake again.  “Now I’ll never know whether I tipped off the wrong people, or if it came out of the sheriff’s office, or if her friend in Little Rock was in on it, but the next thing I know, the phone rings and they tell me her Explorer went over the cliff on Hogsback road and burned up with her in it.”

His eyes, black with anguish, bored into Jake’s, refusing the comfort of tears.

“Burned to death, Jake. Emily Grace.”

He took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh before filling in the facts.

“She drove a new Explorer.  Four-wheel drive. Not jacked up or anything. Great driver.  Absolutely capable on these roads. You tell me: Sound like an accident to you?”

So fierce was the grief in Denny’s face that Jake couldn’t bear to look at him.  He stared at the stones he kicked, and shook his head slowly.

“What a waste. What a terrible waste. And to protect people who are so greedy they make money from destroying lives. I wish I could do something to help you, Denny.  Something. Anything.”

Side by side, the two men leaned against the truck, staring out into the distance.  For at least 30 minutes, neither spoke.

Suddenly Denny stood straight up and pointed to where four squad cars, lights flashing, barreled up the mountain toward the cabin. They disappeared around curves and behind trees, and reappeared again, dust billowing behind them.  A light breeze carried an occasional faraway scream of sirens. For Jake it was a chilling scene, but despite the intense emotion of telling his story, Denny seemed amused.

“Guess old Merle finally made it back to the cop shop,” he said.  “Wonder who’s minding the store. Sure hope they don’t dig up Kate’s garden looking for your sorry remains, Bubba.”

He looked at his watch, then turned to Jake, serious again.  “It isn’t quite time yet, but I want to get you to the FBI office before those fellas are back inHarrison.”

“Those cars going up to Poppy’s aren’t FBI, are they? What difference does it make whether they’re in town or not?”

“I can’t tell from here who they are.  Doesn’t matter. Probably local yokels from Jasper, but I’m guessing they called for help fromBooneCountysheriff’s department, too. That’s where you’ll end up. InHarrison. There’s no lock-up at the Agency office; dangerous felons like you have to be incarcerated in the county jail.”

“Wonderful. I’d better start praying I’m the only customer they have today.”

“You like the idea of being alone with the deputy, do you?” Denny chuffed, then sobered as the police radio, ignored all day because there were only occasional speeding calls and a lot of static, crackled to life.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Harrison, Arkansas, has issued a request that all highway patrolmen in Arkansas be on the lookout for a 2008 Jeep Grande Cherokee Laredo, metallic khaki paint, license number 039-CAJ.  Last seen near Fort Smith around noon; at that time driven by a 75 year-old-Caucasian, Peter VanderLeiden.  His wife is believed to be with him, as is a Caucasian juvenile presumed kidnapping victim. They are wanted for questioning in the kidnapping case. It is not believed they are armed, but advise proceed with caution…”

There followed a list of phone numbers to be called if any of the patrolmen spotted the Jeep.

Jake and Denny seemed nailed to the ground, grim and heavy with the weight of what this day was doing to people they loved. Denny spoke at last:

“Listen. We’re running out of time, but I have a plan that will do us both good and buy me a little breathing room before my butt’s in a sling. It’ll involve you trusting me as well as me taking some real risk.  Are you with me?”

Jake swept his arm in a circle. “You see any other options?  What do you want me to do?”

Chapter 35—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 intoOklahoma. In the spring any area is new and lovely, Tina thought, and evenOklahomaprobably inspires tons of calendar pictures, but she was aTexasgirl, bred and born, and aTexasgirl she’d always be.

The flatTexaslandscape she traveled through as she drove north on highway 75, an extension of Central Expressway inDallas, soon yielded to the somewhat more rolling terrain along 69 in southeastOklahoma. Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, even an occasional stand ofTexasbluebonnets 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 wholeTexasbigger-than-life mystique for their hermitage in the hills ofArkansas.  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 had said when she’d told 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 ofMcAlester,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 toDallasto be with his family.”  He waited asAustinstood as tall as possible and offered his hand to Tina.

“How do you do, Miss Tina,”Austinsaid, 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?”

Austinblushed, 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 ignoredAustin’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 andAustingrabbed 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 nearFort Smithwe 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 inMcAlester.  Remember Ted Lewis, the foster boy? Well, he married a Vivian, a sweet littleOklahomagirl. 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 forAustin. “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.  SorryAustin,” 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.”

Chapter 36—Oklahoma

            “I can buckle myself,”Austinsaid, acting embarrassed as 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!”Austinwhispered 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.”Austingiggled. “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.”

Austindidn’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. Dallastraffic didn’t trouble her in the least, but in this situation she felt vulnerable negotiating her little Focus 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 inAustin.  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 seeAustinlet 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,Austinhad 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 crinkely 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 mood 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 inMcAlester.

“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?”Austinbrought 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 on accounta I have to take care of my baby sisters.” He paused, staring out of the window. “Which one are you going to marry, do you think?”

“What?!”

“Which one are you going to marry?  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 marry?”

“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!”

“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 theTexaspoint of entry, Tina slowed the car, explaining toAustinthat this would be a good place to stop, go to the bathroom, and forAustinto 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. “Texaspolicemans 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?”Austinseemed 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 myTexasgrandma 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.”

Austinappeared 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.”

Chapter 37—4:00 p.m. Tuesday, Oklahoma

The weigh station—known as a ‘chicken coop’ in trucker CB lingo—on Highway 69 north of McAlester, had opened at 1:00 Tuesday afternoon, and by the time the bulletin came through, three hours and ten minutes later, Oklahoma State Highway Patrolmen Gerald Case and Fred Browning both had monumental headaches brought on, they believed, by noise and diesel exhaust. Browning took down the description and when he hung up the phone, read it to Case, along with his opinion that they had better things to do than watch for an old couple with a little kid that could easily be their own grandchild.  Case agreed that they had their hands full with weighing trucks carrying freight and wondered aloud how they would even see an SUV when it had no reason to drive over the scales.  They had weighed five more trucks when it occurred to Browning, the older and sharper of the two, that they should mention the FBI request to the truck drivers as they went through.

By 4:30 he had made his pitch so many times with so little result that he had half a mind to give up on it; after all, nobody had suggested paying him anything extra for the hassle. Right after he decided he’d ask three more drivers before he packed it in, he had a possible hit.  The driver of a northbound International pulling a reefer for Wal-Mart said that as a matter of fact, he had seen a kid of that description, but not with an old couple.

He reported stopping at the Texaco south ofMcAlester, and the reason he noticed the little blond boy was that the kid was with a redhead who was, in his words, the answer to every middle-aged balding man’s secret fantasy.  He took both hands off the steering wheel to air-sculpt what he meant.

“The reason I noticed the boy,” he said, “was the hair.  He had this real pale blond hair, and I figured the redhead was his mother, but her hair was so shiny and beautiful I can’t believe it came out of a bottle.”

Browning reported to the Bureau number he’d been given and decided he had done his duty for the day.

Chapter 38–5:00 p.m. Tuesday, Harrison, Arkansas

            Gil Bosch, at the FBI office inHarrison, took down the information. He called theOklahomahighway patrol and asked them to send somebody to the Texaco inMcAlesterto check it out. After he had done so, he wondered why.

He could see wanting to talk to the VanderLeidens; after all, an officer found the truck on their property and they could be in danger, plus, as Harden pointed out, they must know something.  They might even be guilty of aiding and abetting.  You never knew with those old hill folks. But what he didn’t understand was, what was the girl supposed to have done?

Thirty minutes later,Oklahomahighway patrol reported back: no sign of the Jeep, the old couple, the child or the redhead, and Bosch dismissed the supposed sighting at the Texaco as just another one of those helpful citizen leads you have to follow up on but you don’t expect anything to come out of.

He would have forgotten it entirely but for the fact that his next call was from Gabe Turner, one of the Bureau agents assigned to the alleged kidnapper’s brother.  Turner, in what sounded to Bosch a lot like a whine, narrated the details of a frustrating day.  He said that after a suspicious meeting between a female hair stylist and their subject, they followed up on a hunch and discovered that her only living relatives were her grandparents, semi-recluses by the name of VanderLeiden, who lived up in the Arkansas Ozarks.  Gabe said he and Moldenauer suspected Tina might know something about the kidnapping, but by the time they put two and two together and came up with three-and-a-half, they couldn’t find the girl, and could he put out a bulletin to watch for her in the area of…and he explained as nearly as he could, where the couple were living.

Turner waited, not saying anything. “Are you still there?” he asked finally.

A long answering sigh was followed by some genial cursing, difficult to classify as such because Bosch, not a practicing religious person, had had his mouth washed out with soap so often by his Pentecostal Holiness mother that he’d developed a few choice phrases which made no sense but seemed to satisfy his need to do more than sputter.

“Yeah, I’m here.  Give me the description of the girl.”

Turner’s resulting narrative about Tina lacked the poetic embellishments Jake might have included, but when he had finished there was no doubt in Bosch’s mind that the “dishy dame” spotted by the drooling Wal-Mart driver and Turner’s Christina VanderLeiden Hilbert were one and the same.  Furthermore, the blond kid whose hand she had been reported holding was likely the little boy who was the victim in the open kidnapping warrant.

Fifteen years with the Bureau had taught him not to believe in coincidences. If it looked like there might be a connection between two seemingly disparate events, there probably was. ‘If it walked like a duck…’ they always said.  This bird quacked.

“Well, Turner, I think somebody spotted your beautician in McAlester, Oklahoma this afternoon, and she had a boy, about six years old, with her—“

“You’re kidding!” Turner interrupted, and then evidently remembered who he was talking to.  “I mean, that’s great, sir! Can we tell a local cop to pick her up, I mean, pick them up?  Uh, sir?”

“No, I’ve already tried that and there’s nobody by her description there anymore. Her grandparents aren’t there, either, although they’ve been spotted earlier, and they had a boy with them, too. That was about noon and they were headed west fromFort Smith.”  He paused, thinking.

“I’m wondering what’s going on.  Are there two boys, one with the girl and one with the old couple?  Is one of them a decoy? And what are they doing with the kidnapped kid, whichever one has him?  Why don’t they just turn him in?  The boy hasn’t committed a crime, so far as I know.  I’m beginning to think the old couple and the girl are giving us the run-around, and when the dust finally clears we’ll find out the trucker is still missing.”

Turner didn’t respond, so Bosch continued thinking out loud. “In that case, we’ll all look like fools.” He grunted. “And I know just the guy who would love to see that happen.” The thought of Denny’s long-standing feud with all levels of law enforcement inArkansasbrought on such a rush he thought he’d been hit with divine inspiration.

“Tell you what, Turner.  I’m heading out for some supper right now and while I’m out, I’m going to check on the location of a certain ex-agent who, I’d be willing to bet some serious money, is in this somehow.  I’ll let you know if I find out anything, and I expect you to do the same, all right?”

Chapter 39—5:00 p.m. Tuesday, Harrison, Arkansas

            “Here’s what I want you to do,” Denny said, smoothing the brown paper lunch sack on the hood of the Humvee.  “I’ll draw you a map that will take you from where I’m going to drop you off right up to the office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”  He drew out every syllable, emphasizing the ‘in’ in Investigation.

“If somebody stops you before you’re there, which I don’t think they will, you tell them you have an urgent message from Denny Turco and you have to deliver it to the Agency in person. I doubt that anybody will stop you. The cops around here know my car, for one thing. Besides, I’m betting they’re still up there destroying Kate’s garden with picks and shovels, looking for your body.”

The thought of Jake’s presumed interment seemed to tickle Denny a whole lot more than it did Jake.  “I’m glad you’re so amused.”

“Admit it, Jake.  The picture of those guys in their neat uniforms and shiny shoes digging up Kate’s freshly planted string beans has a certain poetry to it.  And even you can appreciate the dressing down they’re going to get from Poppy and Kate.”

Tina’s grandparents had been nothing but kind to Jake, but he recognized a dignity, a self-possessed quality in the two of them. He knew they weren’t likely to suffer fools gladly. He smiled in spite of himself.

Denny tore off a piece of the paper and looked at Jake, pencil poised to write.  “Now, tell me your ex-wife’s name, address and phone number.”

“What the…?”

“We don’t have a lot of time, Bubba, now give me what I need.” There was no teasing in his manner.

Jake meekly complied, glad it was easy for him to remember phone numbers and house numbers.

“All right.  Let’s roll.”

Denny was noticeably focused and tense as he drove towardHarrisonas fast as traffic permitted. Jake knew there was no point in asking any of the questions flying around his head; he would be told what he needed to know when he needed to know it. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Denny wasn’t talking. The truck vibrated reassuringly.  It had been a long day.

~~~~~~~~~~

“We’re here, Bubba.” Denny’s voice was low, controlled.

“I must have dozed off there for a minute.  Where are we?”

“We’re at theHarrisonairport. Hand me that map I drew for you.  See here?  Here’s where you are right now, and over there’s where you need to go.” He nodded in the direction of a tired-looking sedan parked next to a corrugated metal building. “Here are the keys. Now grab your gear and beat it.  No time to waste now.”

“That’s your car, too? How many vehicles do you own?”

“One car—you’re looking at it, one dude pickup, one Humvee, and this:” He unlocked and rolled back the doors of a small hangar to reveal a silver and blue Beechcraft Bonanza. “Isn’t she a beaut? This here is the Mercedes Benz of small aircraft, Bubba.  Someday, if you ever see the light of the free world again, I’ll take you for a ride.”  He moved the chocks from the wheels and leaned his shoulder into the airplane to move it out of the hangar.

“Anything special I should say when I turn myself in?  Anything that will help you, I mean?” Jake’s hand shook when he opened the car door.

“Tell them you surrendered to me and that the boy is with his family now.” Denny stepped over to the car.  “Tell them you don’t know where I am, which will be the truth.  Then don’t tell them one more thing until your attorney shows up.” Denny closed the car door and reached through the open window to grab Jake’s arm.

“Go, Jake. I’m instrument rated, but I much prefer flying in daylight. I have about two, two-and-a-half hours before I’m where I want to be, and by the time I take on fuel and leave, I’ll be pushing it. We’ll talk later. Good luck, man.”

“You, too. All right if I watch you take off before I leave?”

He scratched his head, brow furrowed. “I guess I can see why you’re in no hurry.  It’ll take a while for thecountymountiesto get back anyway, not that it matters now.”

Denny looked around the area.  There didn’t seem to be anything else going on. He opened the car door again.  “Okay, sure. Stand over there next to that building where the fuel pumps are, and then as soon as I’m in the air, go.”

Jake did as he was told and watched as Denny started the engine and taxied over to the fuel pumps. When he had gassed up, he paid a man, presumably Hank Maddox, who had materialized from behind one of the hangars.

Hank served as the ‘Fixed Base Operator,’ Denny had told Jake, Hank was the guy who pumped gas, fixed airplanes and generally ran the operation here.

Denny went through his run-up and checklist, then locked the doors and windows before he taxied the plane out onto the runway, several yards from where Jake stood.  Jake jumped when the speaker above his head crackled, and Denny’s gravely voice self-announced: “Harrisonarea traffic Bonanza niner three Delta Tango departing runway eighteen and will be departing the traffic pattern to the northwest.”

Jake could hear the engine rev up and watched as it increased speed down the runway until it lifted off and quickly banked to head northwest.  The cloudless blue sky shrunk the plane to the size of a bird, then an insect, and finally, swallowed it entirely.

He walked to the car, turned the key, and left the airport, headed for the city.

As Jake pulled out onto the highway again, he took a good look at what he was driving.  Must not have been a good year for Chevrolet Impalas, he thought, noticing that the afternoon sun produced not the slightest glare off the hood, which had probably been an elegant gray or silver in 1968.  Now it was the color of an aging elephant with a skin problem.  And the inside didn’t smell a whole lot better than the Humvee.

After three full days in the healing atmosphere of the VanderLeidens, Jake felt as though the events of the last 12 hours had transported him to another planet where he didn’t know the rules. Didn’t know what he felt. Not safe, exactly. Not like sitting at the table while Kate filled the kitchen with the comforting aroma of baking bread. But not scared, either.  Nervous, maybe, or excited, but not scared. Not like Friday morning.

Sure, there had been a few bad moments earlier today when Denny had tried to sound tough, but for the most part, down deep, he sensed that Somebody who knew the end from the beginning had directed the hours of this day. Which was a good thing. When he thought about what he was about to do, not knowing how it would turn out, he felt as if his hair was crawling off his head.

Now, though, driving himself into town in this old beater seemed natural, almost comfortable. He missed having Denny telling him what to do next, but at the same time, it was a relief to know he didn’t have to fly anywhere with him. Denny had told him the Bonanza had been designed as a four-seater, granted, but the idea of a that big man flying a small airplane struck Jake as funny, especially when he imagined the two of them being squashed in together.

Denny.  Where was he going and what was he up to? Why did he need all that information about Barbara? He hoped he wasn’t flying out toLincolnto see her.  As much as she hated Jake he didn’t think she’d do him any good if she could help it.

The FBI office was exactly where Denny’s map indicated it would be. He glanced up the street where brightly lit Coca Cola sign beckoning folks to the “Come On Inn, Breakfast Served Anytime” tempted him to briefly consider buying a cold drink to wet his tongue, so dry by now that he couldn’t have whistled if he’d been so inclined. He discarded that idea when the thought of swallowing made him feel nauseated. “Smooth, Garret,” he muttered to himself.  “Turn yourself in and hurl Coke all over the office.  Way to make a good first impression.”

He parked in front of the insurance office next to the Agency, shoved his shaving kit into the duffel and threw his cap into the back seat.  As he walked up to the door he told himself, “Think of it as checking into a hotel for a while. The Harrison Hilton.”

Chapter 40—5:30 p.m. Tuesday,KellyHomeinDallas

Irritated with Laura and her attitude—still nasty despite the tender little scene with her mother, apprehensive about the prayer meeting and anxious concerning five o’clock traffic, David gratefully accepted Will’s offer to drive. His father-in-law skillfully wove his way through neighborhood streets, crossing Park at a traffic signal, avoidingPreston—a commuter’s nightmare this time of day—and delivered them all to the parking area behind the Kelly garage as they had pre-arranged.

Entering through the back door, they walked through the utility room and the kitchen, already fussy-full of women, some of them easily falling into Laura’s “floater” category.

One in particular caught David’s eye, a frowzy over-permed matron whose hair could never naturally have been that particular shade of burgundy.  When she spied Gloria and Laura, she came at them a-cooing, sowing kisses to the air around their heads.

“Oh you poor, poor dears, you must be distraught, bless your hearts! Why, I just believe that tonight we’ll see our precious littleAustin, amen, brought to us as on the wings of an angel, bless your hearts. Remember the apostles in prison, amen, who were delivered by their songs in the night, bless your hearts, just so will our dear little Austin, amen, come to us as we praise.”

Gloria embraced her and patted her awkwardly.  Laura drew back just in time, but David, with sleep deprived slowness and feeling like a stalled tugboat in the path of a cruise ship, submitted to a warm hug.

After extricating himself he looked hopefully at Will, beseeching him with his eyes to permit a hasty exit, but Will winked and jerked his head toward the front of the house and the sound of singing, Gloria and Laura having already disappeared in that direction.

“So glad y’all could come early,” Suellen whispered as they passed her in the hallway.  “We decided to spend some time ministering to the Lord until everyone arrives.  Y’all make yourselves comfortable—you too, Will,” she said answering his questioning look. “Stephen is manning the front door.”

Grateful to find a chair near where he stood, David sat, aware that he couldn’t have remained standing if he’d wanted to. Never in his entire life had he run into anything even remotely like this.  He looked at the people around him. Nobody looked at him. All eyes were closed.  Tears streamed down several faces, but through smiles.  He felt good.  No, terrible.  No.  Scared.  That was it.  Terrified. What had he gotten himself into? Had he stumbled into some kind of cult, something weird? He looked over at Will whose chest rose and fell in a great sigh before he bowed his head.  Low. Almost on his knees.

Where was Laura?  Never mind. He couldn’t look at her. If she looked scared he didn’t want to know about it and if she was laughing he sure didn’t need to see that.  From where he sat he couldn’t see Gloria, either.  This afternoon, when he’d found her sitting at the table with her Bible he had felt safe with her—even drawn to her, and she was the one who insisted that they come here; she must have known it would be like this.

What am I doing here, he asked himself.  This is nuts.Austin.  That’s it.  We’re here to pray forAustin.

Oh no. He knew this would happen.  A great sob rumbled up from deep in his chest and flew out from him.  “Uhunh!” He looked around.  People, one at a time or by twos and threes had been entering quietly; there must have been at least 40 people in the Kelly’s gracious living room, but nobody seemed to notice him.

Quietly, smoothly, as if it had been programmed, first one and then another, and then all of them slid from their chairs and knelt, a few still singing, most with their eyes closed, still weeping silent tears. Without really planning to, David followed suit, talking to himself inside his own head.

This is it. This is the true thing, he marveled. Now I know what I’ve been missing.

David had attended church, off and on, all of his life.  His parents were members of a church but seldom went.  Grandma Page sometimes hauled him along to her “testimony meetings,” she called them, and he enjoyed them as entertainment. Come to think of it, he always felt good there, the way he did now. She always told him that real children of God loved. That’s what they did. It didn’t matter who you were or how old you were or what you had done, God loved you and His children did, too.

In a warm suffusion of insight David realized that if Grandma was right, and he had no reason to doubt her, these people loved him and they wouldn’t ridicule him for his loud obnoxious sob, which, he noticed absently, clinically, was still happening every once in a while.

Not only that, God was here, God loved him, and maybe God could do something about Austin.  Maybe?  If He couldn’t, He wasn’t God, was He?  But would He?  David and Laura hadn’t exactly been pure-of-heart children-of-God types themselves of late. Loved Him?  God?  But God was, is…like, supernatural, right?  Oh man! No wonder he could hear the beating of his own heart.

He bent low, his head on his folded hands on the floor, and let it all go. Praying aloud he repented for being so angry at Laura, and for leaving the children unattended, and for deliberately resisting anything spontaneous because, well, just because he knew Laura might enjoy it, and also any other pig-headedness on his part.  He admitted that he really knew God loved him and lovedAustin. He begged God to bring his son back, and he promised to be a better husband and dad and to take his family to church. “Please, Father Who Art in Heaven, please give me another chance.”

He heard a little yelp from Laura and stood up to check it out, mopping his face with his sleeve.

“Hi, Daddy,”Austincrowed, beaming over his mother’s shoulder where she held him so tightly he couldn’t say another word.

~~~~~

            In the noisy pandemonium following their entrance into the Kelly home, Tina waited warily for Gloria or Suellen to notice her.  Suellen had run to Stephen asking him for his reaction at seeing Tina andAustinwalk through the door.

Gloria couldn’t seem to decide whom to touch—she hugged Laura’s shoulders, patted Austin’s head and grabbed Will’s hands, all the while saying ‘thank you, Lord,’ over and over again in an awed voice.

The other men stood around looking confused. The kitchen ladies emerged in a tizzy and several of them swarmed and flapped around Laura and Austin like June bugs on a porch screen.

Finally Gloria lifted her head and their eyes met.  She somehow slipped out of the perfumed pack and folded Tina in her arms.

“Are you all right, dear?”

Tina nodded and stepped back.  “You see,Austinis fine, too. He’s a wonderful little boy, Gloria.”  Choking back tears, she went on. “Please. Can we pray for Jake?”

Tina could feel all eyes on her as the word ‘Jake’ hung out there all by itself in the sudden deathly quiet. Then, like the pause in a televised news conference, questions erupted from every side.

“Who is Jake?”

“Is he the guy who snatchedAustin?”

“What possesses a man to do such a thing?”

“I hope he gets what he deserves!”

“Let me at him for a few minutes; I’d teach him a thing or two!”

As two or three people forgot the holiness of recent moments and yielded to natural reactions, manifest fury oozed into the room and spread like toxic spill.

Austin, still holding on to his mother for dear life, turned to look at the angry faces of those calling out. “NO!” he cried over and over again, “No! Jake is a good guy!  He didn’t do anything bad! He’s my friend!” But no one paid him heed.

Into this melee David spoke, the authority in his voice silencing all the hen-house-at-laying-time chaos.

“My son is here, and he looks fine.  He looks GREAT!” His voice faltered asAustinbroke away from Laura’s grasp and grabbed his dad around the neck. David stood taller.  “Look at him! He’s here, he’s safe, and I say we ought to thank God.  I want to thank you all for praying.”

He stepped over to the woman who had swamped him when they first walked in. “Talk about a quick answer to prayer,” he said, hugging her. “Austin, this lady told us that you would be delivered to us on the wings of an angel.  What do you think of that?”

Tina could see Austin’s ears turn red as he nodded vigorously and pointed at her.  He poked his dad then and she had to smile in spite of herself.  It’s wonderful to be adored, she thought.

Will, holding Gloria’s hand—she was weeping openly, tears coursing unchecked down her cheeks—put his other arm over David’s shoulder, pattingAustinon the head.

“David’s right; we thank God for bringing our boy safely to us, don’t we?”  He looked around. “David, it looks to me as if some of us may have reacted poorly, but we’re all rejoicing for you, aren’t we folks?” Murmured agreement rolled over the group.

“Let’s sing a prayer of thanksgiving and then, if the ladies are ready, how would it be if we had something to eat?”

“Yes,” David agreed.  “We’ll have a thanksgiving dinner.”

“Fine,” Laura piped up, “but I want to know where my son has been all this time, and who is this chick who shows up with him?  Was she in on it or what?”

The hen house seemed ready to erupt in a fresh round of cackling, but Will’s strong baritone rang out,  “Praise God…” everyone assembled joined in “… from Whom all blessings flow.  Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

As they harmonized on “Amen” the full impact ofAustin showing up unharmed seemed to hit them all at once and general rejoicing burst forth. After a couple of minutes, Suellen shushed them with a little silver bell.

“I’m sure y’all are eager to hear aboutAustin’s big adventure and Tina’s part in it, but I know y’all will understand if the family needs a little time to themselves. Let’s have dinner and then we’ll give them opportunity to share with us.  Stephen, darlin’, will you offer thanks?”

He prayed briefly and Suellen quickly announced, “Y’all can form a line beginning in the den, pick up a tray and wind your way through the kitchen, serving yourselves from a fabulous buffet of your favorite recipes, coming out into the dining room. Gail and Eva will help you with beverages. You can find a place to sit anywhere in the house.”

Her smooth-as-molassesTexasinflection commanded attention and they dutifully lined up according to her instructions.

Leaning in close to Gloria and Tina, Suellen whispered, “I had the twins arrange a table for six in the den.  You go ahead and sit down, and I’ll have someone serve you. You can talk to the people after they’ve eaten.  Some of the ladies must have been a bit hungry to go on the attack like that.”

“Oh thank you, Suellen. My goodness, Tina!” Gloria said. “You must feel as if you’ve fallen into a pool of sharks.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Tina laughed shakily.  “This is my church and I know these ladies. I love them.  They’re really good hearted, you know; it’s just that they sometimes switch gears before they step on the clutch.”  That’s something Jake would say, she thought. “I’m not even sure what that means, but I do know those ladies don’t intend to be mean.  To be fair, they didn’t say anything I haven’t thought in the last couple of days.”

Stephen Kelly had already seated Will, David, Laura and Austin in the den by the time Gloria and Tina came in.  Tina almost stumbled under Laura’s angry stare, but before the planned interrogation could begin,Austin, seated between his parents, bubbled out the whole story, frequently interrupting himself with, “Mr. Jake is a cool guy, see, I’m the one who hid in his truck.”

Laura remained silent, obviously holding her peace with some difficulty.  Tina sensed her occasional sidelong glances and longed to try to make her understand about Jake, but when David shushedAustinand asked Tina to tell them how she became involved, she felt hot and guilty. She wished she understood Jake herself.

Before she could speakAustinsaid “Jake loves Tina, Dad, but he couldn’t marry her, see, on account of he didn’t have Jesus in his heart but now he does, see, so now they can live happy ever after, right?” He spread his hands out to them having made what was to him an obvious point.

“I’m sure we’re all very touched by this sweet little romance and absolutely delighted that the felon has seen the light,” Laura said, pullingAustinclose, “but I still haven’t heard a single solitary explanation of why precious Miss Tina is here and super Mr. Wonderfulness Jake is not.”

“Jake’s locked up in jail, right Tina?”Austinsaid, his eyes filling. He moved away from his mother and grabbed David’s arm.  “You gotta help him, Daddy!”

“Jake will be all right,Austin.” Tina finally found her voice.  “He wouldn’t want you worrying about him, would he?” Tina glanced away fromAustin’s look of naked admiration and read pain and jealousy in Laura’s eyes. She cleared her throat and sat up a little straighter.

“The Poppy and Kate Austin has been telling you about are my grandparents who live in a remote cabin in the Arkansas Ozarks. Jake visited them with me one weekend not long ago.” Her cheeks felt red, but she plowed on, unfolding for them as much of the story as she knew, filling in blanks inAustin’s account, and concluded, finally, her eyes locked on Laura’s. “Your son is a wonderful little boy, Laura. He couldn’t wait to see you.  You should have heard him brag about you and his Daddy and his little sisters…”

Her tiny blossom of courage withered and died under Laura’s glare. She took a gulp of water and gave her full attention to folding and re-folding the napkin in her lap.

“Thank you for bringing him here, Tina,” David said, his hand on the back of Laura’s neck. “My wife and I are thankful to have our family is complete again, and we are grateful to you for bringing him here safely. We’ll call you tomorrow to talk about Jake and the trouble he’s in, but for now I think we should join the rest of the people in this house and thank God together.”

With that he stood up, tookAustinby one hand and with the other arm pulled Laura close to him.

Tina couldn’t hear what David said to his wife, but the tender look in his eyes drew down a veil and hid the Page family away from the rest of the world. Something in the intimacy of that moment stirred a longing so deep her heart nearly stopped.  Just one time, she prayed silently.  Please, God, let me know that kind of love just one time.

Chapter 41— After the Prayer Meeting

Pondering the events of the evening stilled the voices of everyone exceptAustin. All the way back to the Stoner’s house, seated between his parents in the back seat, he chirped like an adolescent chickadee delighted with the miracle of his own voice.

“And Mama, Miss Tina wears this really neat perfume.  She smells so good, Mama, you should buy some perfume like hers. I bet it’s really expensive. She smells like that expensive store in the mall, you know? The one where they have fancy lady underpants and stuff?” He giggled at his own naughtiness. “Why don’t you ever wear perfume, Mama?”

Gloria found herself listening with one ear but not absorbing much.  I’m full, she thought.  Filled with joy and wonder, filled with gratitude mixed equal parts with relief.  She didn’t know if she could hold another particle of happy matter.

“And Nana, Kate makes really neat pancakes with blueberries in them and French toast only she doesn’t cut off the crusts like you do.  I told her you always cut off the crusts but Poppy wouldn’t let her ‘cause he says the crusts are the best part and not to waste, but I like them like you make them. Crusts are too hard to chew ‘specially when the bread is chunky like what Kate makes, and…”

Maria greeted them at the door when they finally pulled into the garage. “The babies are sound asleep, the little angels! I didn’t tell them why, but after you called we just danced around here laughing and singing until I danced all my breath out of me.” She grabbedAustinand twirled him around and around until they were in the kitchen.

“Tomorrow morning you tell little Allison that Jesus heard her prayers.”  She hugged Gloria, reminded them to be sure to read the telephone messages and reluctantly gave in when Will insisted on walking her to her car.

After going through the stack of messages, among them calls from the FBI agents informing them of what they already knew and that Jake Garret was in the Boone county jail, they bid one another a good night, and with a special hug from Austin, Will and Gloria went upstairs to their own room

“Think we’ll be able to sleep tonight, Glory-Girl?”

“The only question is whether I’ll ever be able to wake up again.  Of course we don’t have to go toArkansastomorrow. That’s a relief, I don’t mind telling you.

~~~~~~~

Austininsisted on a quick peek at his sleeping sisters before flopping onto his own bed.  “Awww, do I hafta wear ‘jammas?”

“You aren’t sleeping naked, if that’s what you have in mind.” Laura told him.  “I’m too tired to give you a bath tonight, though.” She sniffed his head and neck. “You seem clean enough. So what did you sleep in while you were gone?”

“Kate gave me her T-shirt.  It was purple and said ‘Garden Goddess’ on it. Don’t worry. They worship the real God and everything.  It’s a joke ‘cause she’s in the garden so much.  They have lots of gardens…”

Laura cut him off and told him to get and bed and go to sleep. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk in the morning.” She thought she just might run naked and howling into night traffic if she had to hear one more grand and glorious improvement ofAustin’s life while in the care of strangers.

“Hey! Hi George! Howya doin’?” He grabbed his Curious George sock monkey off the dresser and offered his blue flannel baby blanket to his mother.  “Mama, I’m pretty big for this, huh?  Poppy says that a big boy like me should give his baby stuff to littler kids.  Maybe Ariel wants it, you think?” He studied the sock monkey.  “George can still be my friend, though.  He’s not too babyish, is he?”

“Whatever.  Now goodnight!” She left the room, turning her jabberbox boy over to his father while she prepared herself for bed.  The idea of resting her hot, aching head and tired bones on fresh clean sheets hit her with something akin to rapture.

David came into their room a few minutes later, shaking his head.  “I think we’d have an awful time trying to prove any kind of harm came to that kid while he was gone.” He sat down and pulled off his shoes, groaning with the effort. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so happy. I hope he settles down eventually.”

“Why? Don’t you enjoy hearing how wonderful Jake is and how beautiful Tina is, and how good she smells and—“

“I’m so glad to have him home I don’t even care.  He’s quite a kid.” He dropped his clothes over a chair, opened the bed and fell into it with a sigh.

“I’m glad he’s okay, too, of course, but I still want to see that Jake creep and tell him exactly how wonderful I think he’s NOT!”

“Now Laura, why don’t you come here instead and tell me how wonderful you think your hunka-hunka burnin’ love husband is, hmmm?” He patted the bed beside him.

“What?  You want to snuggle with a woman who isn’t wearing any perfume?  ‘Mama you should buy perfume like Miss Tina.  Why don’t you ever wear perfume, Mama?’” She mimicked, her voicing dripping sarcasm.  “What in the world does she wear, I wonder?  Did you happen to catch a whiff of the little witch?”

“Yes, I did, as a matter of fact, Mrs. Page.” He nuzzled her neck. “Smelled like Deep Woods Off to me.  Yep, that was it.  I’m fromWisconsin and I ought to know.”

~~~~~~~

In their darkened room down the hall, Will and Gloria had already prayed together, said their good-nights and were gratefully drifting off to much-needed sleep.

“What’s all that racket?” Will grumbled.

“If I had to guess I’d say it was your daughter giggling.”

He groaned and pulled the pillow over his ears. “No father should have to hear that.”

Chapter 42—Behind Bars

Boy had appeared outside the cell several minutes ago, staring at Jake and mouth breathing through a half-smile that revealed widely spaced front teeth. Ragged denim cut-off shorts hung crookedly on his hips under a faded Hawaiian-print shirt.  Thick, blunt-cut black hair swept back from a forehead, just above bushy eyebrows over the close-set eyes. Jake stared back, thinking that if all the evolutionists needed to prove their point was a missing link, he might be able to help them out.

“You have a name, Boy?” Jake asked. “I mean, besides ‘Boy?’”

“Uh-huh.  You wanna know what it is?”  He dropped his eyes so Jake did too, noting that the great toe on Boy’s foot, bare in flip-flops, was considerably smaller than the one next to it. Black hair curled over these toes and whorled over thick calves, pelt-like.

“If you want to tell me.  Why does the sheriff always call you Boy if you have another name?”

Boy laughed, a nose-snuffling procedure Jake didn’t care to examine too closely.  “Cause he don’t like my name.”

“What is it?”

“Carvel.” He snuffled again.

“You’re named for your father and he doesn’t like your name?”

“He ain’t my Pa, Carvel ain’t.  He’s my uncle.”

“So you just work for Sheriff Harden—Carvel?”

He nodded.

“What would you like me to call you, Carvel or Boy?”

“Call me Boy.  Sheriff is mad at my ma for me bein’ named Carvel.”

“So, did you want something?  You already took my tray, you know.  It was good food too, especially the cobbler. Sheriff’s wife make the cobbler?” Jake asked, wondering if the family style workings of this lock-up were patterned after Sheriff Taylor’s jail in Mayberry.

Boy closed his eyes and squinched up his face, apparently trying to concentrate or remember.

Uh-oh, I shouldn’t have fired off two questions at once, Jake thought

“Ma made the cobbler.  Made the meat loaf and cornbread, too. Sheriff don’t have no wife.”

“Well, it was delicious. Anything else?”   Jake waited.

“No.  Beans was store-bought.”

“I meant, did you have anything else you wanted to tell me?”
“You got company,” Boy proclaimed suddenly, a proud smile loosening his face.

“Good.” Jake said.  “Are you going to bring whoever it is here, or do you have a room where I’m supposed to go.”

Boy held up his hand, like the ‘stay’ command for a dog, and shuffled away.

Jake sat down on his bunk and waited for his company.  He hoped it was Denny. He glanced at the clock on the wall opposite his cell.  It was 1:30 Wednesday afternoon now, and he hadn’t seen nor heard from him since he disappeared into the western sky last night.

Turco would seem like an unlikely friend, but he supposed he wasn’t in a position to be choosy.  Learning some of his story helped make sense of the sadness Jake had recognized in the gruff fellow.

Turning himself in last night turned out to be fairly uneventful.  He had walked in after regular business hours, and the only person there was Kurt Vogel, new to the agency. He had been assigned to watch the desk and listen for the phone while the agent in charge for the evening took himself out for supper.

Jake, following Denny’s instructions, identified himself and said he had surrendered to Denny Turco.  Vogel indicated a chair and told Jake to wait. When Agent Gil Bosch returned, he seemed more interested in Denny’s whereabouts and his role in the so-called kidnapping than whatever was going on with Jake. Something in his tone warned Jake to keep his mouth shut until his attorney could be there with him.

At 10:00 a.m. this morning, the lawyer showed up, the one Poppy and Denny had agreed was the ‘best man for the job.’  Jake was surprised. He had not been told that the best man for the job would be a 40-year old African-American female.

Faye Waters, five feet 10 inches tall, carried herself regally, like a woman who knew who she was and who wasn’t going to take any nonsense from anybody. Jake thought as he gazed at her that now he knew what ebony meant, for her skin was deep black, with just a hint of gold on her high, well-defined cheekbones.  Her profile, with its strong, jutting chin made him think of an African princess, borne aloft on a platform by brawny black men, their muscled arms shining with sweat and rung about with gold and silver.  He trusted her instantly.

She listened carefully while he told her his story beginning with the momentAustinwoke up and scared the sense out of him until now.  She scribbled shorthand notes in the margins of the typewritten pages she brought with her, records from the telephone conversations she had had with Poppy and Denny. Now and then she asked a question or simply lifted her head to imply that a point needed clarification.

After about 45 minutes, she checked her wristwatch, put her notebook down and reached into her briefcase, retrieving another fat sheaf of papers.  As she riffled through the pages she explained that these were Faxed copies of court records from his earlier kidnapping charge. Although her questions came more rapid-fire then, she remained emotionless and efficient.

After about an hour and a half she terminated the interview and slid the stack of documents into her briefcase. She stood, turned, nodded to the waiting guard, and without a word exited through the opened gate. Even though she had offered no encouragement or indication what she might have been planning for his case, hope brightened Jake’s mental horizon for the first time in two years.

~~~~~~~

Boy had been gone for several minutes, and Jake had almost forgotten about him when he heard him flip-flopping down the corridor toward him.

“In here.” Boy said, and set a chair down outside Jake’s cell, and another, a few feet away, for himself.  Jake glanced up, expecting to see Denny.

“Jakie?”

The afternoon sun slanting through the window across the corridor from his cell cast her face in a shadow, but there was no mistaking that voice.  And nobody else ever called him ‘Jakie.’

“Barb? What are you doing here?”

“She chartered a plane and flew here special,” a gravely male voice announced, “just to see you, isn’t that right Barbie-doll?” Denny emerged from around the corner.  “Don’t you have something to tell him?”

Barb tapped a cigarette out of the pack and looked around for a light.

“Put that thing back.  You can’t smoke in here.  Now talk to the man.” Denny stood his most menacingly tall, folding his arms across his chest.

“How’d you meet up with this gorilla, Jakie?” Barbara stepped closer to the bars.

“It’s a long story.  What are you supposed to talk to me about?”

Jake stood up and faced her close up for the first time in two years. It was then he saw discoloration around her left eye and what appeared to be stitches on her upper cheek. “What happened to you?  Are the kids okay?” This had to be a nightmare. “Who did that to you? Where are the kids, Barbara?” He had never felt so helpless. “Where’s Joey?” He wanted to wrap his hands around her neck and shake her until she answered.

“Steady, Bubba.  Let her have her say.  I’ll wait outside until you two have a chance to talk.” Denny took a couple of steps.  “But I’ll still be able to hear you, Barbie-doll, so don’t leave anything out.”

Jake hadn’t seen his ex-wife since they stood before the judge together and heard the conditions of his probation.  She had been triumphant then, declaring that she never wanted to see him again and that she would make sure Annie and Joey forgot what he looked like.

Burned forever on his memory was the anger hardened in her face, adding ten years to her apparent age.  Now, he noticed that she’d had her light brown hair cut short and spiked on top, the spikes bleached bright yellow. She was also thinner than he had ever seen her. He hoped the kids were eating better than she was.

“Where are my kids?”

“The kids are fine, Jakie.  They’re with my mom.” She held her cheek toward him so he could examine her more closely.  “See this? Well, you were right.  Mike did this to me. When your gorilla, here, found me, I had just come home from the ER where I got stitched up, and Mike was on his way to jail. Not a minute too soon, either.”

“He’s in jail now? Are you sure the kids are okay? Does he know where the kids are? What if he posts bail and goes after Joey?  He was the one who was beating him up, wasn’t he?”  This last wasn’t a real question.  Jake had been sure about this all along.

“I pressed charges against him, and I don’t know where he would find anybody to bail him out. He’s in for drunk and disorderly, DUI, and domestic abuse. And when you come home, you can sue him for a whole bunch more things that happened during the last two years.”

“When I come home? What are you talking about?”

“Listen, Jakie.  I’ve been thinking. You gotta forgive me and come home. You come home with me and the kids and I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

Jake stared at her.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Are you out of your mind? Look around you, woman.  Do you see where we are?  We aren’t inNebraska, anymore, Barbara!  I’m locked up for kidnapping again, and I’m looking at heavy prison time now.  All thanks to you and Mike, in case you think I haven’t figured that out.”

“I know, honey, and I’m really, really sorry.  I’ll do what I have to do to clear your name. C’mon, Jakie.” She almost purred.

Her eyes were big and sorrowful and she was giving him the expression she used to use whenever she wanted something. It didn’t cut it anymore.  In those days he’d called them “puppy eyes,” but the look wasn’t as cute as he remembered.  Tina.  Now if Tina ever turned on the charm like that he thought he might be able to pry the bars apart with his bare hands.

“If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying you want me to move back home with you and the kids, just like it used to be?”

“Sure.  We could be a family again. It’ll be like old times—like before.  Annie and Joey would love that!”

Like old times. She evidently remembered them differently than he did. “Barb…”

“Oh, come on, baby.  You know you still love me.  You know I can make you happy.  I know what you like.”

He didn’t know if it was the stitches or what, but he was embarrassed at her attempt at seduction. He just wasn’t buying what she was selling.  What she was selling.  The thought made him cringe inside.  His thinking was so slow he felt as if his brain was lugging, as if it were trying to go uphill in high gear.

The kids.  Joey and Annie.  If going back to Barb meant he could be with his kids again, well that was worth whatever he had to do to make it happen.  Probably the right thing to do.  Besides, he’d already lost Tina.

“What about Mike?  You two still living together?”

“He’s history. Forget Mike. He’s never getting anywhere near the kids or me ever again, I promise. I never really loved him, you know, not like I love you, Jakie.”

“We don’t even know how much time I’ll have to serve yet.” He couldn’t think straight.  His brain felt hot inside his head.

“Oooh! The way you say that!  I know you. You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?  You’ll come home, won’t you Jakie honey! Wait until I tell the kids!”

He couldn’t believe what his eyes told him.  She was actually jumping up and down and clapping her hands. He tasted acid and wished he hadn’t eaten the beans and cornbread.

“Wait, Barb. Don’t tell the kids yet. Don’t set them up for disappointment.” He wanted her to settle down. “Like I said, we don’t know how much time I’ll have to serve—this boy Austin has family, too, you know—you never even asked about him—and we’ll need a lot of mercy from them and from the courts.  I want to pray about it for a while before we talk to the kids.”

“You want to WHAT?”

Chapter 43—Jail Ministry

“You go on ahead and wait in the car while I talk to Jake for a few minutes, and then we’ll go over to the coffee shop and have us a little supper.”

“Give me the keys!” Barb, an unlit cigarette between her teeth, held out her hand.

“Here you go,” Denny said.

Barb snatched the keys he offered and headed for the door.

“You might want to try those on the gray Chevy parked over there. I don’t believe the Humvee uses GM keys, and I don’t want you stinking it up with your smoke.”  Denny watched her leave, and when he was sure she found the Impala Jake drove toHarrison, he walked back into the jail.

~~~~~~

“Well, that was unusual.”  Denny lumbered up to the bars on Jake’s cell, sat backwards on the chair Boy offered, and rested his arms on the chair back.  “I’ve heard a few evangelists in my day, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard any of ‘em claim that Jesus could improve IQ”

“I didn’t say that!” Jake, grinning sheepishly, stood up from his bunk to face his guest.  “Did I?”

“You told her God loved her and could meet her deepest need.  From where I sit, that means a radical elevation of her intelligence.” His entire body bounced with his now-familiar chuff-chuckle.  “Gotta hand it to you, though, Bubba.  You were mighty persuasive.”

“I didn’t convince her, though.  I wish I’d handled it better.  I have this sick feeling she’s going to leave here in worse shape mentally than when she came.” Serious again, he shook his head.  “I should have explained better what happened to me.”

“Aw, it wasn’t your fault, Jake. There’s something goofy about the woman.  I don’t trust her a bit, even about not seeing her boyfriend again.  Maybe especially that. The thing is, we gotta bust you outa here so you can take care of your kids.”

Jake watched Denny staring down the hallway, thinking dark thoughts, judging by the furrows in his brow. He entertained a few depressing reflections of his own.

“What do you think she’s going to do?” Jake asked.  “She says she wants me to come home so we can be a family again.  But she hasn’t changed. Even I can figure that out.  I can see us six months down the road with everything back the way it was, and that’s no good.” He scratched his itchy three-day beard with both hands.  “I thought we were a solid family at the time, but I know now she was running around on me before Mike ever showed up. What a sucker I was! Still am.”

He looked over at Denny and inwardly thanked him for not agreeing, at least not so he could hear him.

“I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out why she married me in the first place. I’m not saying I was all that mature, either, but I tried to be a good husband.  I know I loved our kids.” There it was again; the sour taste of failure. When he resumed his voice was thick. “I can’t believe that she ever really loved me or wanted to have a family.”

Denny still sat glowering down the corridor.

“Driving as much as I do,” Jake said, “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I wonder, what did she want? Was it the money?”

Denny stood up and faced him at that remark. “Money?  Is there that much money in the trucking business? I saw the house where Barb lives, and it’s real nice and all, but I thought maybe she was renting, or that it was Mike’s house.”

“Mike’s house?” Jake shook his head. “Hardly. He may think it is, but I have the deed to it.”  He tried to recall happy times in the little Victorian onCedar Streetand he couldn’t remember one. “Actually, the kind of trucking I do, as an owner-operator, pays well and I can support a family without too much trouble.  But yes, there is some family money.”

He smiled at Denny’s raised eyebrows.

“We aren’t the Kennedys or anything, but we’re comfortable.  When our parents died, Albert and I inherited both the ranch our grandparents had and a smaller spread where my dad farmed. Neither one of us has much interest in farming or ranching, so we sold the farm—good, rich bottom land between the Nebraska and Missouri rivers—and invested the money. When the kids came along I built a new house at the ranch, and that’s right along theMissouri River, too. Beautiful location, real ‘Old West’ feel to it. That’s where I live when I’m not out on a trip. We raise prime beef there—have a good man running it for us—and there’s a nice, steady income, plus freezers full of some of the best steak you’ve ever eaten. Do you like steak?  I could have some flash-frozen and shipped to you…”

Denny waved the idea away.  “We’ll get into that later. Finish your story.”

Jake went on, “Even before I went into trucking Barb insisted that we move back toLincoln, to the house you saw, the one we had when we were first married.  She hated it out there on the ranch, but she’s always been real interested in our investments and income. As I sit here thinking about it, I know it always made her mad that all of the estate is in a trust. She tried to figure out ways around it, but Al and I both wanted the bulk of the estate in long-term investments. He and I make decent money doing work we enjoy, and I think I’ve always known Barb would just as soon spend it on clothes and cars.”

“Doesn’t surprise me, now that I’ve met her, and it sure does clear up some stuff I’ve been wondering about.” Denny sat down again and looked Jake straight in the eye.

“She looks out for herself no matter what, that I picked up right away.  You know, she never asked how you were doing.  And the thing that seemed really odd to me was, she said her kids were at her mother’s house, but she never even told them—or her mother—she was flying off with me. She didn’t call anybody, just jumped in my rental car and we drove to the airport.”

Jake waited.  Denny obviously needed to get something off his chest.

“I caught up with her when she pulled up in front of her house. She acted like she’d almost been expecting me, or somebody. She didn’t ask how you were, but she didn’t hesitate a bit when I told her what I wanted her to do, that we were going to fly back here and tell the truth so you could start moving toward clearing up the misunderstanding with Austin and all. She just grabbed a grocery bag of clothes and stuff from the back seat of her car, and away we went.” He stood and began pacing in front of Jake’s cell, chewing the inside of his thumb while he thought aloud.

“Another thing I noticed, she didn’t sound all that fed up with Mike when I first talked to her. I gotta wonder, why the sudden change of heart where you’re concerned? I’m thinking maybe things aren’t going so great with the kids and she is looking for a way to let somebody else take care of them. They might be cramping her style.”

“You may be onto something,” Jake said. He felt his hair crawl as he listened to his friend sort through what he’d noted about Barbara. With every observation Denny voiced, Jake’s life came into sharper focus, and he perceived with sickening clarity what his years of self-focus and detachment had done.  His children, his marriage, his work—even his avoidance of spiritual matters—everything had centered on him and what he wanted.

“Aaagh, I probably said more than I should…” Denny stared at his feet.

“This isn’t the time to hold back.  What else do you have?”

“All right, one more curious item, and then I’ll shut up about Barb.  I don’t know what she looked like before, but she is thin, man.  I mean, real thin. And her color is bad.  Far as I know, and I’ve been with her all the time except when she went to the bathroom, she hasn’t eaten a bite all day. Just smokes and drinks coffee. I believe I’d look into that if I were you.”

For a few minutes, both men stood quietly. What a relief to have Denny here now.  They’d only known each other for three days, and already they were comfortable with times of companionable silence.

Hearing what Denny had to say about Barb, Jake’s thoughts turned back to his children.

“I’m always concerned about Joey,” he mused aloud. “He’s the one who’s been physically abused. But what about Annie? My daughter has been through all this, too. I’m wondering about her.  Who’s showing her how to be a nice young lady? She’ll be a teenager soon.  A girl that age needs guidance, and I don’t think she’s learning the right things from her mother.  Barb’s mom isn’t any help, either, I’m pretty sure of that. She and her friends are always running off to the casinos. At least that’s how it was two years ago.”

Denny nodded, “Yeah, I know what you mean. Boys are tough.  I figure, when boys are upset, they bang their heads on trees or kick rocks or something, but girls…girls stuff it all down inside their selves and end up being lousy mothers, like Barbie-doll.”

Jake stared at his unlikely friend and smiled grimly, thinking again how completely he had misjudged the man when they first met.  “Well, Old Wise One, you do have a way of clearing the smoke and penetrating the core of a thing, don’t you.”

“Yeah?  Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“I’m going to tell you to beat it.”

Denny grinned.  “About time.”

“Yes it is. It’s well past time for me to do something about the welfare of my kids, Barb or no Barb. I have something to do—Someone to talk to,” Jake paused, waiting for his meaning to register on Denny’s face.

“I don’t know how yet,” he continued after Denny’s slight nod, “but since I don’t have time to take a course in prayer, I guess I’ll do what Poppy does and just talk to God like He’s sitting here with me.  I guess he is.  Right here, I mean.”

“Good.  I’ll be praying, too,” Denny said.  “You really were convincing with Barb, Jake.  Like I said, you made a lot of sense.  If I hadn’t given my life to Christ at the same time Poppy and Kate did, I’m sure I would have today, the way you spelled everything out.” He couldn’t resist one last dig.  “Almost as good as when Christina explained it all to all of us—Poppy, Kate and me.”

“Want me to tell you how sweetly she spelled it all out to me?” Jake asked, grinning.

“O man, that would be painful.” He walked away, shaking his head for as long as Jake could see him.

Chapter 44—Breaking Out

“You didn’t eat anything!” Boy moved to set the supper tray back on the shelf built into the bars. “I thought you called me.”

“No, I didn’t call you.  I’m trying to pray,” Jake said.  Boy didn’t move.

“Thanks for supper.  It looks good, but I’m not eating tonight.” Jake waited for him to leave, but Boy remained just outside the cell, staring at his feet, as was his usual demeanor.

“Are you a praying man, Boy?” Jake asked, hearing how dumb it sounded.

“Yeah.  I go to church, too.”  A big gape-toothed grin transformed his face.  “Ma says just ‘cause I’m retarded, I don’t hafta be stupid. She says only stupid people think they don’t need God.”  He paused.  “She says I’m mustn’t call people stupid, though.

More proof that high intelligence isn’t everything, he thought.

“You can take my tray away now,” Jake said, too self-conscious to resume praying out loud in front of anybody, and too confused to pray silently.  He had tried that, but it had seemed to him no different than thinking. New to this praying business, he had a notion his predicament called for his best effort. He felt more confident speaking aloud.

“Did you want to talk to me about something?” he asked Boy.

Boy nodded, licked his lips a couple of times and nodded again.  “She ain’t true,” he said, finally. “That lady.  The one with pointy hair.”

“Barbara? She wants me to go home with her. She’s my ex-wife, you know.  What do you mean by ‘not true’?”

“Not true,” he insisted, visibly agitated. “Like when you saw boards and if they ain’t true or they don’t line up.  She don’t line up.”

At Jake’s uncomprehending look, Boy shook his head as if amazed that anybody could be so dense, picked up the supper tray and slumped back to the front office.

Not true, Jake wondered.  What does he mean?  Is he trying to say she was lying? Hardly a revelation at this point. Perhaps Boy was simply struggling to give voice to some of Denny’s vague concerns.

He went back to talking to God, his voice low, until he couldn’t think what else to say.  “Well, that’s about it, God. I’ll talk to you again tomorrow.  Uh…goodnight.”

No sign of Denny.  Probably not allowed back in tonight.  Jake looked forward to talking to him again.  He wanted to ask him how God usually answered questions.  He wondered how he would know what God said about whether or not he should go back with Barbara, and did she really want him back?

~~~~~~~

Jake rolled out of his bunk at 6:00 a.m. Thursday morning, dropped to the floor and did 25 quick pushups to start his blood pumping.  In one strong, cat-sleek motion he stood to his feet.  He stepped over to the tiny stainless steel sink, splashed cold water on his face and brushed his teeth.  As he dried his hands on a paper towel, he caught his reflection in the shiny aluminum square that passed for a mirror and saw a mug perfect for the purpose of scaring small children and sending dogs howling down the street. He’d have to ask Boy what he could do about shaving.

He grabbed the tablet and pen Faye Waters left for him, sat on his bunk and started a list of questions he wanted to ask her:

  1. What legal procedures were necessary to overturn the court decision of two years ago?
  2. Will that affect what happens with the case against him for havingAustinin his truck?
  3. Are Poppy and Kate in trouble?
  4. What about Denny?

Two hours and the supervised use of three disposable Trac IIs later, he ran his hand over his smooth chin.  “No prize, Garret, but that’s a get-down-to-business face if ever I saw one,” he told his mirror. “Stripes don’t do much for you, though.”  He straightened the collar of his clean prison-issue shirt.

Jake was the only inmate in theBooneCountyjail that day, so all of his callers talked to him cell-side to avoid the extra nuisance of having to move him to the visitor’s room.

At 9:00 o’clock, Special Agent Gil Bosch appeared.  He was notably disinterested in Jake’s story, which was just as well; Jake had made it clear that he didn’t intend to discuss any of his case without his attorney present.  Bosch’s sole concern seemed to be Denny.

“How do you know Turco?” was his first question.

It occurred to Jake that he shouldn’t discuss Denny without an attorney either, but decided to go ahead as long as he could do it without saying something that could put his friend at risk.

“Actually, Denny found me and I surrendered to him.  He drove me toHarrisonwhere I gave myself up to the young agent in your office.”  He congratulated himself for shaving.  From the looks of him, Jake wouldn’t have been surprised to find out Bosch ironed his underwear and socks.

“So, how long did he hold you before turning you in?”

“Hold me?  He had me in his custody from the time he picked me up Tuesday morning until I gave myself up to your agent.”

“You’re saying he harbored you for a whole day before he turned you in?”

“No.  That is not what I said.  I don’t know what you’re after, but until my attorney shows up, I think we’re done here.”

“Who’s your attorney?”

“Faye Waters.”

Bosch’s dark glare preceded several unintelligible phrases of what might have been profanity if it had made sense.

“There’s a weasel in the hen house, Garret.  You know it and I know it. I’ll be back at 3:00 with another agent and a tape recorder, and you’d better be prepared to be straight with us.  We’ll be conducting a full interview and if you want your attorney present, you see to it she shows up.” Bosch walked out without looking back.

Jake finished his lunch at about 11:30 and pushed the tray back through the door slot toward Boy who had waited, slack-jawed, during the entire time Jake had taken to eat a large bowl of chicken soup thick with plump noodles and fresh biscuits with butter and honey.

“Does anybody ever break into jail just so that they’ll be able to eat your Ma’s cooking?” he asked.

Boy appeared not to have heard him.  He set the tray on the floor outside the cell and returned to face Jake.  He pulled a compass from his pocket and showed Jake.  “See?” he asked, turning around in a wide circle.  “The needle always points north.  True.  It’s always true,” he said triumphantly. He pocketed the compass, picked up the tray and shuffled down the hall.

Jake stared after him.  What was that all about, he wondered, and then it hit him.  Barbara.  Boy tried to tell him last night.  Barb wasn’t true. It was more basic than that she was lying or that she couldn’t be trusted; she didn’t have a plumb line along which to measure her thoughts or actions. No compass. No onboard GPS to tell her where she was.  She couldn’t tell the truth because she didn’t know the difference between truth and deception. Memories that for years had flitted around in his mind with no place to land suddenly began falling into place. The kids, the money, her erratic behavior…

Now what am I going to do? This new understanding generated a whole new list of questions.

Considerably relieved at having his confusion interrupted, he watched Boy place a chair directly outside the cell. Faye Waters, wearing an excellently cut suit in a flattering bronze color, sat down, met Jake’s eyes head-on, and smiled confidently.

“I have in my possession the results of the Internet search my office has conducted. We have made certain discoveries concerning Barbara Norman Garret and her activities of the past two years. I believe these discoveries will significantly impact the disposition of the case before us today.”  She tapped the stack of printouts she had retrieved from her briefcase. “We need to discuss as much of this as possible before Special Agent Bosch arrives at 1:00—“

“3:00,” Jake said. “He said he’d be back at 3:00.”

“He will be here no later than 1:00,” she corrected. “He and a U.S. Marshall will transfer you toFort Smithto appear before a Federal Magistrate for your preliminary hearing.  That is scheduled for 4:00.”

He hadn’t thought of that.  Should have. “Will you be there?”

“Certainly.” she assured him.  “I will be available to speak about your character and the assumed probability that you’ll flee prosecution.  A federal defense attorney will be making the points I shall have provided for him.  I’ve also been advised that the boy’s family has been contacted and that his father will be in attendance.”

“Austin’s father?” Jake couldn’t believe his own ears.

“Yes.  At this point we are not informed as to Mr. David Page’s purpose or of his frame of mind. My intention is to speak with him before the hearing.  Have you heard directly from the family?”

“No. I’ve been thinking about them. Praying for them, to tell the truth.  I know what it’s like to worry about my kids and I’m kicking myself for what I put them through. I’ve been thinking about writing them a letter telling them exactly what happened and how sorry I am for not turning him over right away…” His trial balloon deflated with each decided shake of her regal head.

“No! Certainly not! We may earnestly hope that the family is well satisfied with the child’s soundness of health and emotions and that their relief at having him safely in their care again has overcome the anxiety they experienced while his whereabouts were unknown.  Reminding them that you detained the child for a longer time than necessary can only exacerbate an extremely sensitive situation. You must remind yourself of the exact circumstances of the case.  You did not abduct the child.  Austin Page himself entered your truck—your property—without your consent, placing you in legal jeopardy, although of course we will not press that last point.”

“Will I be coming back here after that?”

“The magistrate will determine whether you will be bound over for trial; I presume you will be. At that time he will set bail. If you are bonded out you will not be required to return here, although there will likely be certain restrictions on where you can go.”

“You mean I might be able to go back to work?” Jake hadn’t even considered this possibility.

“Perhaps. We’ll discuss that later.  Now we need to review your previous case and what has transpired with your ex-wife since then.”

Jake filled her in. At the news of Barb’s cell-side visit her eyebrows shot up, and when he outlined Barb’s proposal that she and Jake go back to Nebraska to raise the children together Faye shook her head emphatically ‘no.’ Before he could ask for more information she began reading from the documents she held on her lap.

“Arrest for possession of a controlled substance.  Served 30 days in the county house of correction.  Arrest for possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, reduced to possession. Sentenced to three years, served six months and paroled.  Three arrests for child neglect and endangerment. County house of correction all three times.  July of last year the Department of Children’s Services removed both children from the home and placed them in foster care…do you need to hear more? You tell me she came in to see you yesterday. I find that most interesting as will her parole officer. By being inArkansas, she’s in violation of parole.  As a matter of fact, she is supposed to be wearing a home monitor unit.  Her fall partner, one Michael Lee Owens, whereabouts unknown, is wanted for skipping bail as well.”

Jake hadn’t heard one word after ‘foster care’ but it had taken him a few seconds to turn his voice up loud enough to satisfy his rage. “My kids are in foster care?” He couldn’t sit down.  “I thought they were with her mother!  I mean, that’s bad enough, but foster care?

“According to my information, they’ve been placed in homes inLincoln—“

“What do you mean ‘homes?’ They aren’t even in the same home? They separated them?” He stopped pacing to face her, his thoughts wild. “That’s it! You have to get me out of here.  I have to take care of my kids. Do something about my probation!  Those kids have been through enough.”

She held up her hand.  “Please hold steady, Jake. First of all, it’s highly unlikely that the District Court ruling can be overturned.  You voluntarily entered a guilty plea pursuant to the plea agreement.” She flipped through the stack of pages on her lap, stopped, said “Hmmm…” flipped back a couple of pages and resumed.

Something Faye said earlier finally registered. “Mike skipped bail, too?  I thought he was in jail yesterday.”

“According to my information, Owens hasn’t been heard from since sometime Tuesday.”

“She lied about that, too. I don’t know if I can believe anything she said.” Jake sank down on his bunk and leaned back against the wall, his eyes closed.

“Nice to see our felon and his attorney relaxing together,” Special Agent Gil Bosch droned.  “Ms. Waters, you’ll have to leave now; our prisoner needs to change into street clothes before we hit the road.”

Boy ushered her out and came back with Jake’s clothes, mysteriously neat and pressed and showing no sign of having been crammed in a duffel bag for three days.

Boy left but Bosch didn’t.

“Do you have to watch me change clothes?”

“You have a problem with that?”

“I’m not hiding anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.  Or do you get a kick out of watching?”

Probably not a real good time for jokes, Jake thought, but something about the guy rankles worse than bad-fitting jail-issue underwear. Never thought I’d reach the point where my own Jockey shorts would seem like a luxury.

Bosch stood there with a satisfied expression until Jake finished dressing and putting on his shoes.  “Y’know, Garret, you’re nothing special in your tighty-whities, but this, now,” he said, snapping leg shackles into place, “this is big thrill for me.”

He linked Jake’s handcuffs to his own wrist and together they walked—shuffled in Jake’s case—out of the cell, past the front desk where Boy stood worrying his lower lip, and out into the sunshine.

“I’ll be driving and Federal Marshall Blaine Osland here will assume custody from here on out.” Bosch released the cuff from his own wrist and transferred it to Osland, standing beside the van. “Your chariot, Garret. Enjoy the ride.”

Chapter 45—Federal Court

            Tina wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. She didn’t think she’d ever felt this cold before. Normally she complained when rooms seemed too warm.

It had to be nerves.

She remembered telling Jake she’d never found a restaurant cool enough. He’d countered by accusing her of wanting to live in a meat locker.  During one of the few movies they had attended together he had complained about the cold theater and put his arm around her, telling her he needed a hot-blooded woman to keep him warm. She had laughed at him then and snuggled up as close as she could, wishing she could remove the narrow armrest between them.

Now there he sat behind the defendant’s table, wearing a pale gold short-sleeved shirt, and from her spot in the courtroom, about 30 feet away, she could see sweat beads glistening on his forehead. A warm flush rose up her neck as she pictured the way his hair tightened into little ringlets when he perspired. She sneaked a quick side-ways peak at Alex and found him staring at her, amused.

“I’m cold,” she whispered.

“Keep thinking about Jake,” he teased.

She socked his arm but quickly regretted it.   She leaned toward him and hissed, “How can you make stupid remarks at a time like this?”

Before he could answer the bailiff called “The United States vs. Jacob Philip Garret.” Jake stood, his hands folded in front of himself. Tina thought he looked oddly confident and, well…radiant. Must just be the way the afternoon sun reached in, highlighting the copper glints in his hair.

Sure didn’t look like a jerk who could so easily dump a girl.

The day of the divorce Tina hadn’t paid particular attention to the ambiance of the place, but this courtroom, despite being a federal court, surprised her with its seediness.  Dark paneling, obviously seventies-era fake wood Masonite, lined three walls all the way up to 15-ft. ceilings.  Windows from the ceiling to about a third of the way down provided light and relief from dreariness on the wall to Tina’s left.

Facing Tina, the Federal Magistrate presided over the court from his bench high enough on the wall to afford him a view outside.  On the floor below him, the Assistant United States Attorney and Jake’s Federal Defense attorney faced each other from behind matching tables set at right angles to the spectator benches and the Federal Magistrate’s bench.

If Alex hadn’t begged her to come with him to his brother’s preliminary hearing, even arranging for other stylists to take her appointments for two days, she wouldn’t be here, no matter how much Gloria pleaded. Jake himself had told her to forget him, but how could she when Alex and Gloria kept trying to manipulate her life so she would have to confront him?

‘Try to forget’ he’d said in the voice-mail message. Forget him. Oh sure.  She had thought they had something special.  Pictured a life together, children, a house—the works. Then, without any warning, he leaves that stupid message. Forgetting Jake wouldn’t be easy, but she had to do it and go on with her life.

Why Gloria cared what happened with Jake, Tina didn’t understand. She wouldn’t have supposed that theAustin’s grandmother would be such a pushover for Jake’s so-called conversion.  She recalled with amusement Alex’s stunned expression when, during their drive fromDallas, she had revealed thatAustinsaid Jake ‘got Jesus in his heart.’

As she sat there listening to the preliminary hearing proceedings she found herself praying for Jake, and the instant she turned her attention to the Lord she felt ashamed. She feared she might burst into tears on the spot.

I know, Lord. You’re right, as usual. I know it grieves You if I’m cynical about Jake’s conversion.

She hated feeling mean and cranky, but she couldn’t stop thinking about that stupid message on her answering machine. Every time she recalled each lethal word she felt as betrayed and abandoned as she had the first time she listened to it Saturday night. She swallowed the giant lump in her throat.

She’d been so sure there had been a woman with him.  Now she didn’t know.  Maybe it had beenAustin.  Or even her grandparents.

Bless him, Lord.  Protect him and bless him, even if I can’t be with him, thank you for making Yourself known to him.

Her eyes filled. She had to stop thinking about their relationship and what might have been or she could lose it right here in front of Mr. I-Think-I’m-God Federal Magistrate, the Honorable W. Robert McMasters. She wondered what the W. stood for.  Weak, she decided.  Only an innately weak person had to strut the way this man did when he’d walked in an hour ago.

Cody Smith, the Assistant United States Attorney, wore tan slacks, navy blue blazer and a too-red tie for what Tina thought must surely have been his first real case.  His face shining with evident delight in his own importance, he presented the charges.

Tina had trouble understanding him. Listening carefully, she deduced that Jake was being charged with three separate accusations: violation of probation, kidnapping, and fleeing apprehension.

Smith argued that Jake should be held without bail, citing his job as an over-the-road truck driver and the fact that the current case arose out of hiding the child for four days. Upon finishing his short but enthusiastic presentation, the young attorney smoothed the sides of his short blond hair with a self-satisfied flourish of both hands and sat down.

Louis Glover, Jake’s federal public defender, detailed the events of the past few days, particularly emphasizing that the child had voluntarily entered Jake’s truck, remaining undetected for several hours, and that Jake had voluntarily surrendered to the FBI inHarrison.  He stressed the word “voluntarily” and used it frequently. In asking for reasonable bail, he deferred to “Ms. Waters, attorney for Jacob Philip Garret.”

When Faye Waters stood, Tina and Alex glanced at each other. “Where did Jake find that absolutely delicious attorney?” Alex whispered. “It’s a good thing I brought my check book.  She’s definitely top drawer and will no doubt charge accordingly.”

“For Pete’s sake, how can you tell anything about her just from looking at her?”

“Isn’t it obvious?  Listen.”

Indeed Ms. Waters presented a convincing case.  She pointed out that her client had not violated the terms of probation; contact with his own two children had been proscribed, but the original district court agreement did not, in fact, prohibit contact with any other minor.  Further, regarding the current kidnapping case, the child himself admitted to having entered Mr. Garret’s vehicle.  She alluded to facts recently discovered that would explicate Jake’s reaction upon discovering the child in his truck, then moved quickly away from that point at the indignant “Your honor!” issuing from the government’s table.

Waters spent the next few minutes detailing Jake’s impeccable work record and his exemplary behavior in every respect, concluding with an eloquent request for reasonable bail.  She pointed out that in the two years since theNebraskadecree Jake had never been delinquent on alimony or child support payments and had had no judgments of any kind from any judiciary body.

When she finished, she thanked the Magistrate and sat down.

“Your honor,” Glover said, “Mr. David Page, Austin Page’s father, asks to speak to this issue.”

McMasters nodded his assent and David stood up.

Tina hadn’t dared turn toward him before even though he and Will were seated directly across the aisle and she had sensed his surreptitious glances from time to time.

Before entering the building she had noticed Gloria and Laura strolling around the square with the children. She had even considered offering to take a turn watching the little ones so the women could go inside with Will and David.  Thankfully she had quickly recovered from that momentary glimpse into insanity. As if Laura would let her touch another of her children.

Now that David had his attention focused entirely on the Magistrate, Tina had a clear sight line, and felt free to study him closely. She noticed that he seemed terribly tense.  He held on to the bench in front of him as if he might fall over without it.

“Your honor, the blame for the mess we’re all here for,” he began nervously, checking the edge of his front tooth with his tongue between phrases, “is at least partly our fault as parents.”

He took a deep breath.  “My wife and I both had gone out of the van for only a few minutes, but during that time, Austin left the van too, and then he got into Jake, er, Mr. Garret’s truck.”  He took another deep breath and continued. “We don’t believe Mr. Garret ever intended any harm to our son, and really,Austincame back to us is great shape, you know, sir?  He actually had fun, so we can’t be mad at Mr. Garret.”

He cleared the back of his throat with a cough and then glanced back at Will who nodded encouragement.

Tina listened, astonished, as David resumed: “Your honor, my father-in-law and I want to post his bail so Jake can go back to work.” He nodded at Will, who stood briefly and then sat down. Silence hung heavily over all of them until McMasters, after staring at him for what seemed like five minutes, finally nodded, indicating that David could sit down.

Dust motes danced in the sun rays sparkling through old leaded glass windows that could have profited by a good going over with Windex and paper towels.  The clock pendulum clicked back and forth, back and forth, and nobody seemed to breathe.

McMasters concentrated on his notes, flipping his pen up and down with a sharp whack.  At length he gazed down into the waiting courtroom and began speaking, his buttered-molasses Southern bass voice edged in amazement.  First he narrowed his eyes on the Assistant U.S. Attorney.

“If your supervisor hasn’t bothered to warn you yet, I will.  I don’t like eager young attorneys wasting this court’s time just so they can gain some experience.”

Smith gulped and rubbed sweaty palms on his nice new tan slacks.

“Mr. Smith,” the Magistrate continued, “before you pursue this case, I strongly recommend careful research.  Be sure you apprise yourself of the ‘recently discovered facts’ Ms. Waters has so recently discovered.  Whatever they are I would personally be interested if they can explain what I’ve just seen here.” He sat up a little straighter and growled, “Mister Page.”

David stood again.

“Mr. Page, you have given me something today that I dearly love: a new experience. Thank you, son. You may sit down.”

He fastened his eyes on Jake who had remained standing throughout.  “Mr. Garret, these good people here are willing to stand your bail. I hope that humbles you.

“Now:  there seems to be ample evidence to charge you with fleeing apprehension and interfering with custody of a minor.  Therefore,” he paused importantly, “I am binding you over for trial.  Arraignment is scheduled for Monday, at 9:00 a.m. in this courtroom. Despite the reassurances of David Page and of Ms. Waters, I have to agree with Mr. Smith that you pose a significant flight risk. Therefore, I am setting bail at $250,000. You can thank Mr. Page that I didn’t set bail at a million.”  He looked at each attorney in turn.

“Is there anything else?”

Tina, and the rest of the courtroom, waited tensely, but no one spoke.

“Bailiff, call the next case.”

Chapter 46—The Encounter

“I need to talk to Jake’s attorney and probably the kid’s family, too,” Alex said. “Wait for me outside. I’ll buy dinner.”

Tina hesitated. She’d hoped they could leave before Jake came out of the courthouse. As if reading her mind, Alex pleaded, “You at least have to give him a chance to talk to you.  I know you’ve been through a lot, but I also know you love him and he loves you.  You can’t give up until you’ve talked to him.”

She lifted her hand in a gesture of grudging assent and turned to leave.  There, waiting by the door, wearing matching smiles stood Poppy and Kate.  She hurried over to them and as soon as they were out in the marble hallway they embraced.

“Group hug,”Austingiggled and wormed his way into the midst of the three-way huddle. “I just came inside to go to the bathroom and there you were!”

“You’re still a rascal, aren’t you boy?” Poppy released the two women and picked upAustin, throwing him over his shoulder, head first, like a sack of oats.  He carried the child as the three of them walked out into the warm sunshine.

“How do you do, Ma’am,” he said, extending his free hand to Gloria.  “This grandson of yours is quite a boy, Mrs. Stoner.  I’m Poppy VanderLeiden, and this is my wife, Kate. I understand you know our Christina.” He setAustinon his feet.

“I am delighted to meet you at last,” she said, shaking first Poppy’s hand and then Kate’s, “and please call me Gloria.  Yes,Austinis a handful.  Thank you for taking such good care of him.”

“This can be none other thanAustin’s mama,” Kate said, as Laura stepped down from the minivan after nursing the baby, “and she has her hands full, too.” She held out her arms to the kicking and crowing Ariel. “Your children are beautiful, my dear.  They look just like you.”

Laura smiled gratefully and finished buttoning her blouse before shaking hands with Poppy and Kate. “She is growing so fast I can hardly hang on to her when she sees someone who might play with her,” she said.  “Thank you for taking care of our son. He did a very foolish and naughty thing, and he’s just lucky it turned out well.”

She turned her head as Gloria ‘ahemmed’ loudly.  “Oh, I know, Mom. Not lucky, blessed. We prayed for him, and then we found out he was safely at your house,” she explained to Poppy and Kate. “I guess you could say you were an answer to our prayers.”

Tina stood watching, wondering at all the goodwill flying around like gnats at a picnic.

“I believe I need a cup of tea and maybe a little something sweet.” Kate said. “Shall we all go?” Without waiting for an answer, she said “Christina, why don’t you wait for the men and then you all can join us at Debbie’s Diner down the street, just off the square.”

Austin and Allison chimed in, demanding ice cream. “Ice cream sounds good to me, too, especially if they have hot fudge sauce to pour over it.” Kate said. She handed the baby to Laura and, grabbing a child in each hand, started walking toward the restaurant. Poppy and Gloria followed.

“You go on ahead,” Laura called after them.  “Save a place for me.” She smiled at Tina.  “Let’s sit on this park bench and have us a little confab, okay?”

She couldn’t think of a good way out of it, so she sat down.  As Laura moved to sit next to her, Ariel opened chubby pink baby arms. Tina couldn’t resist reaching out to take her.

While Laura talked, Ariel lifted her hand to Tina’s hair, apparently fascinated with the way it slipped through her fingers.  “You’re a little flirt, yes you are, a-BOO, a-BOO!”  She shook her hair and Ariel threw herself back in a chortle Tina could feel bubbling up from the little girl’s tummy.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Laura started to say, but went back to what she had been talking about when she saw Tina making kissing sounds at the baby.

“You’re a natural, Tina,” Laura said, and went on, blithely unaware of the hollow ache in the pit of Tina’s stomach. “I want to talk to you about Tuesday night.”

She continued to play with the baby. “What about it?”

“Please forgive me?”

“For what? I would have been a whole lot meaner than you were if I had a little boy likeAustinand some hairdresser chick showed up with him.”

“There were so many things I didn’t understand Tuesday night.”

“Forget about Tuesday night. What about today?  What’s the matter with you people?Austin’s family, the very people who have been put through hell, offer to make bail for the guy who ran off with their son?  What’s up with that?”

Laura nodded and smiled, leaning close to wipe the baby’s chin.  “What is that perfume you’re wearing?Austinhas been pestering me to wear perfume like yours.”

“I wear Red Door by Elizabeth Arden.  It’s the only thing that works for me.  Everything else smells like diesel fuel on me after a couple of hours.” She answered distractedly.  She felt vaguely guilty thatAustintalked about her to his mother.

“Austinis funny.  Don’t mind him, Laura.  He has a big crush on me—it’s what boys that age do—but there’s no one on earth like his mama. Nobody, believe me.” She heard herself rattling on, as she tended to do when she felt nervous.  She hated it when she rattled on.

“I know. My mother told me the same thing.  Say, how do you know so much about kids?  Look at you here with Ariel.  AndAustinthinks you’re the perfect woman. You don’t have children of your own, right?”

“No.” Tina wanted to cooperate with Laura’s attempt at friendliness, she really did, but all this talk about children made her jumpy.

“You and Jake are in love, right?  Well, you’re young enough so you can still have as many children as you want.  I guess you’ll be raising his two from his first marriage, too. You’ll have a house full before the wedding!”

“How do you know about Jake’s kids?  Or me, for that matter. And what wedding? I’m not marrying him; let’s be clear bout that!”

“Are you sure? Poppy and Kate—what fabulous people!—called us last night—that’s how we knew we needed to be here this afternoon—and explained all about why Jake freaked out when Austin—I should absolutely beat the child for what he did—when he found Austin in his truck.”

“Poppy and Kate called and spent time explaining?  Now I know you’re out of your mind.  Poppy’s so paranoid about the phone I have a hard time believing he called, period, never mind telling you ‘all about Jake.’ So what’s the deal here?  How do you go from being ready to string me up to auditioning for the job of being my wedding planner?”

Laura smiled, dimpling prettily.

“I just know you and I could be great friends,” Laura said,  “You have almost as much patience for listening to horse hockey as I do, and how are you at being catty? Shall we sit here awhile and make fun of badly dressed people?”

“So this friendly bit.  It’s all…horse hockey, is that what you call it?”

“No, but I can see why you’d think so.  Tuesday night? I wanted to scratch your face, spit in your hair and pour skunk oil all over you to see ifAustinstill thought you were a heavenly-smelling goddess.”

“That seems fairly extreme. What changed?”

“David first. He totally met God at that prayer meeting, Tina. It was amazing! And now I have a whole new husband. Well, I loved him the old way too, of course.  And he loved me, but we’d drifted into being this plain old couple with kids, which can be okay, I suppose, but we were just going through the motions.”

Tina could imagine worse things than ‘being this plain old couple with kids.’

Laura went on, “Mother says that he’ll still be David and we’ll still have struggles, but he’s trying so hard to be a good husband and dad! I’ll give you an example: Like Tuesday night?  He didn’t dishonor me in front of everybody or anything, but when we were back to my parents’ house he sat me on the bed and talked to me in a way he never has before. He said I’m beautiful, but my attitude was making me ugly.”

“He talked to you and now you’re fine with everything? Forgive me, but isn’t that a little simple?  David found God, talked to you, and now you’re ready to be bosom buddies with the woman you wanted to pour—what, skunk oil?  Skunk oil? Where were you going to get skunk oil?”

She looked at Laura whose eyes sparkled back at her and she couldn’t help it.  She laughed. They both laughed.  And the baby couldn’t contain herself.  She giggled until she had to rest her head on Tina’s chest.

Laura was the first to regain her composure. “You know very well there was more than talk. We prayed together and I prayed about getting closer to God myself. You’re a Christian too, so you know I had to repent of my stinkin’ thinkin’ where you and Jake are concerned.   But enough about David and me.  Let’s talk about you and Jake.”

“There is no me and Jake.”  At Laura’s look she confessed, “Sure, I love him.  I’m crazy about him.  He’s sweet and funny, and—“

“And absolutely adorable! I may be married but I’m not blind.  Whooh!” She fanned her face with her hand.

“Yes, that too.  But think about it.  He ran away! Instead of talking to me about it, he dumped me. Laura!  Listen to me: He left a wretched message on my answering machine and dumped me.”

Ariel looked up, her eyes big and solemn.

Tina lowered her voice and patted the child reassuringly. “He didn’t trust me enough to talk to me. We could have worked through this together.” She felt like crying but set her jaw and refused. She had to stay mad or she wouldn’t make it.  “He didn’t respect me enough or need me enough to tell me what was really going on. I married one man who didn’t share his life with me or respect me. He excluded me from what was important to him! I don’t need to do that again! I will not do that again.” She heard the rage in her voice.  “Jake has proved that’s what he’d do, too. Any woman who thinks she’ll change a man after marriage is a fool, and I won’t be a fool again now.”

“Left a phone message, huh?  That was pretty lame.” Laura twirled her finger through her hair. “Poppy told us about Richard, too.”

“Poppy sure turned into a blabbermouth all of a sudden!” She bit her lip to keep from crying.

“Yeah, but I’m glad he did.  Everything makes a sense when you think about it.  I must say that Richard guy must have been some special kind of stupid to cheat on you, but he wasn’t a Believer, was he? And neither was Jake when he did all those dumb things you talk about. He’ll be different from now on.”

“Please! He received Jesus as his personal Savior; he didn’t have magic dust sprinkled on him. And now he’s going to be perfect?”

Tina suddenly remembered something Laura said earlier in the conversation “Wait. Didn’t your mother tell you that David will still be David and you’ll still have struggles?”

“Yes, but he’s already become much more in charge.  He’s more…fatherly and a better husband. And my attitude change will help a lot, too.  What about you?  You’re a Christian, right?  Shouldn’t you be willing to give Jake another chance? From what I hear, his first wife treated him like dirt.  How would he know he could count on you to be more supportive?”

“What makes you think he even wants me anymore?”

“Now you’re being ridiculous.  Even Austin, who would prefer to keep you for himself, tells everybody that Jake is crazy about you.Austinsays Jake told him that you’re a “babe.”

“How much is Jake paying you to argue his case?”

“I’m not arguing his case. I’m arguing your case.  You love him, and he loves you, and I think you’d be crazy to miss out on a wonderful guy because you’re hurt and ticked off.”

“I’m not—“

“Of course you are, and I don’t blame you.  Tell me this: have you prayed about this?  Because if God wants the two of you together—and He might, you know; Jake is going to have to raise his own kids, too—Poppy told us about how Jake’s ex is on drugs and going to jail and all—then God will give you all the help you need to make it work.”

She brought her hand to her mouth, shocked. “I’m sounding just like my mother.  Horrors! But it’s the truth anyway.”

“What?  I want to get back to your theory about God wanting us together, but first tell me about Jake’s ex and how in the world Poppy knows all this?”

“Jake’s attorney, working with some guy—I can’t remember his name but Austin calls him a giant—found out about it. You’ll hear the whole story when they’re finished inside.”

She checked her watch.  “Listen, I have to go over to the diner and help Mom with Austin and Allison. Will you keep Ariel?  You can bring her over when the men come out.”

Without waiting for an answer, she left.

Tina looked down at the child in her arms and thought that if she ever had a baby of her own she wouldn’t let anyone touch her, much less walk away while a relative stranger held her.

And yet she understood. In a sudden, gracious glow she sensed the presence of the Lord. Understanding washed over her: This was Laura’s way of demonstrating the mystery of fellowship, of being family. Because they both, she and Laura, were members of the Body of Christ, they were sisters, not strangers, and Laura authenticated God’s powerful love by trusting Tina with her baby.

The child in her arms also prevented her from leaving before talking to Jake. At that moment Tina loved Laura’s baby intensely.

Ariel looked up at her, smiled, and reaching up to pat Tina’s lips, softly cooed and bounced gently.  She knew instinctively what the baby wanted.

“Jesus loves me, this I know,” Tina crooned, looking into trusting eyes as blue and deep as a pure mountain pool. When she bent her head just right, she could feel the baby’s breath on her face. She stood, rocking back and forth as she sang. Slowly, reluctantly, feathery golden lashes fluttered and finally closed while Tina’s song went on.

~~~~~~~

Across the square, Denny stepped down from the Humvee. His breath caught in his throat as he observed Tina with the child, swaying back and forth in the dappled sunlight. Without taking his eyes off them he reached back into the truck and fished around under a tarp to retrieve a point-and-shoot camera that he thanked his lucky stars was still back there. He held it up to his eye and clicked until the auto-rewind told him he was out of film.  He replaced it in its hiding spot, hitched up his jeans as well as he could and disappeared inside the courthouse.

~~~~~~~

Jake spotted the little tableau when he and Denny emerged five minutes later, followed by Alex, Will and David. His heart felt as if it might explode. “What I wouldn’t give for a picture of that,” he breathed.

“Tell you what. Buy me some supper and I’ll see what can be arranged,” Denny said, following his remark with his unique chuff-chuckle.

Will and David exchanged raised-eyebrow looks.

“I could stand a hamburger or something myself,” David said.  “Where’s the rest of our bunch?”

Tina turned and saw them. “Everybody went to Debbie’s Diner,’ she said, nodding toward the side street.  “They are waiting for you there.”

“Page, you better take your kid,” Denny said.  “Jake and Tina have serious talking to do.”

~~~~~~~

Tina crossed her empty arms over herself, chilled because of the absence of the baby’s sweet warmth. She lifted her chin and looked Jake straight in the eye, fighting to hold down the great lump of pain and anger ballooning inside her. She opened her mouth to speak, but her voice failed her.  Before she could try again, Jake held his arms out and despite her resolve, she permitted herself to be swallowed up in his strength.

How can I do this, she wondered. How can I push him away when I need him to comfort me in my loss of him?

His arms felt so strong and safe. All her senses reached out to embrace him.  She remembered the taste of his kiss and the way he liked to hold her face between his hands when he kissed her. She lost herself in the scent of him, the sound of his heart beating, and his voice saying her name over and over again—“Tina, oh, Tina, Tina, Tina.” When he had walked up just now, his eyes, his incredibly warm brown eyes were brimming with tears. She wanted to comfort him.  She wanted him to comfort her.

The message on the answering machine. Long, lonely days of being excluded from his life. A future of wondering where he was and who he was with.

She inhaled sharply and pulled away. “How could you? How could you just dump me with nothing but a stupid little message?” She picked up her fists, ready to beat on his chest, but he grabbed her wrists.

“I was wrong to do it that way.  I’m sorry, Kitten. You’re right.  The message was stupid.  I was stupid. How can I make it up to you?”

“I could forgive the stupid message.  That’s not even what makes me the maddest.  You didn’t trust me, Jake!  You ran away. You left me out and you ran away.” She pulled her wrists away and fished in her pocket for a tissue.

“You are right. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that.” He stood quietly. “Oh, Tina. Is there any chance for us?  Please…”

“I don’t see how.  How can I commit my life to a man who runs for the hills when something goes wrong?” She knew she was right.

“Something has changed, you know.  I’ve changed.  I’ll never be the same. May I tell you why?”

“You ‘got Jesus in your heart.’Austintold me.  That’s not magic, you know.  I’ve had Jesus in my heart for over a year and I still sin sometimes.”

“You sin? That’s hard for me to believe.” Jake smiled, and then grew serious again.  “What I did was indefensible. I make no excuses. I simply ask you to forgive me.” He held her face between his hands but she shook her head violently and broke free.

“Whether it is because I am a Christian now, or because I finally grew up, I am a better man now today than I was a week ago.”

When she didn’t respond, he continued, in the manner of one remembering; of understanding dawning and confusion dissipating like morning mist.

“Barbara has been messed up for a long time, more than I ever realized, but it wasn’t all her fault.  I should have been more involved in their lives; maybe I could have helped Barb. I think she’s sick, maybe. For sure I should have seen that she couldn’t take care of the kids.” He shook his head to clear it.

“I love you, Tina. I want you to marry me because I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want us to be together.”

She couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t look in his face or she might weaken. For so long she’d prayed for him to become a Believer.  She hadn’t even realized how she’d longed to hear those words, “I love you; I want you to marry me.” But he couldn’t just show up all contrite and sweet and have the last few days go away. She wished he would stop talking and leave. But he didn’t.  He just kept talking in that husky voice of his.

She loved his voice.

“Even if I hadn’t messed up,” he went on, “and you said ‘yes,’ you’d be letting yourself in for heavy-duty struggles. Not only would you be marrying a screwed up truck driver who tucked his tail between his legs when the going got tough, but you’d be marrying a guy trying to raise two kids who have had their lives jerked around for two years. More than two years.”

He stood with his hands in his pockets and it seemed to Tina that he was still thinking aloud, that he was working it all out as he talked to her. She had to admit he had changed somehow. He sounded peaceful, confident. The change looked good on him.

“It won’t be easy, I know that. I’ll need more guts and good sense than I’ve shown so far,” he went on, his voice growing more resolute. “I can do this. With God’s help, I mean.  I’ve only prayed for four days so far, but I’m determined that prayer is a way of life for me from now on. I have to learn how to really tap in to God’s wisdom or I’m not going to make it.”

“But I needed you, Jake.  I needed you.  When I heard that message, I hurt so much I wanted you to hold me, to comfort me. To hear you say I should forget you…” She pressed her fist into her chest where she still felt his rejection like a knife to her heart.

“You didn’t even trust me enough to tell me what was going on, or need me to help you. I can’t forget that message and how much it hurt when I heard it. You left me out of your life at a critical time.  We should have gone through this together.

He turned toward her again. “Remember the message, Tina.  I don’t want you to forget it. What did it say?”

“You dumped me.”

“That’s not entirely accurate. I did tell you to forget me, but you didn’t, did you?  Because we belong together and you know it. You wouldn’t be so angry if you’d forgotten how good we are together. I know I said I was no good for you, but I don’t believe that was ever true.” He shoved his fingers through his hair in frustration.

“I know I’m different now,” he said after taking a deep breath. “Do you remember that I told you I had never loved anyone the way I love you?  That was the absolute truth.  Still is. I love you: Christina VanderLeiden Hilbert.  I want to change your name.  I want to see you singing and rocking babies.  Our babies, yours and mine.” His voice broke. “I do need you. I need your help, and not only with the kids, although I can’t bear to think of doing it without you. I need you!”

Oh, it was tempting.  She could see them praying together in their own kitchen—she wanted a big heavy old table—one baby in the highchair and another growing under her heart, Joey and Annie sitting there with them, knowing they were safe and loved…No! I can’t do it! Life never turns out the way you dream it should and people don’t stay. They don’t really change, either. If I love them too much they die or run away and I’ll be alone again.

“If I hadn’t changed, if I still ran away from a tough situation,” he said as if he read her thoughts, “would I be standing here begging you to forgive me?”

Won’t he ever quit talking talking talking?

“But I do see where you’re coming from,” he said finally, when she didn’t answer him, tears in his voice.  “I’m asking you to pray about it, to ask God to give you forgiveness for me. And I’ll be praying for you, too.” He sighed.

“I ache for you, Tina. I want to be part of what God does in your life to make up for all the hurt you’ve gone through, but with or without me, I pray that God will heal your broken heart.”

She sobbed, and found the tissue inadequate. Jake reached into his pocket, pulled out a white handkerchief and like an old hand at being a dad, wiped her nose and jammed the handkerchief back in his pocket.

He tried to tip her chin up but she couldn’t trust herself to meet his eyes.

He stepped back, hands at his side, and said in an even tone—she heard a last-word kind of voice, “There is one more thing I must make clear.  As much as I love you and need you, I cannot do what I intend to do and should have been doing all along—taking care of Joey and Annie the way they deserve—if I have to spend all my energy pleading with you to get on board. We’d need to be a team. Partners. We need to be two operating as one, with God’s help.  I know that now.”

“No more begging, Tina,” he said, standing taller. “If you are going to stay mad, it won’t work at all.  The kids would sense it, I’d resent it, and we’d all end up hating each other.”

This is what it must feel like to be told to stand in the corner, she thought. Cornred.  She couldn’t think. For sure she couldn’t give in. Not after all she’d been through.

It might be too late anyhow.

“You’ve made yourself quite clear.” She lifted her chin but couldn’t make herself meet his eyes. “I understand,” she said, hating how little and mean her quavery voice sounded.  Finally she waved him toward the diner. “Go. Find the others. Tell Alex I’ll wait for him in the car.”

She began walking away, every step taking her farther away from him, moving her closer to the loneliness she feared most.

Jake did not follow.

 

Chapter 47—Alex and Tina

            Tina hadn’t anticipated needing them, but now she inwardly thanked Alex that he had asked her to keep his Trooper keys in her purse. If only she had driven her own car! If she had, she could have left directly after the hearing, be well on her way home by now, and probably wouldn’t have this terrible headache, either.

She didn’t want to take anything for the headache, though, because if she did, she might be able to think. She could not stand another minute of thinking.  Not about Jake.  Not about Jake and the life they could have had together if only…

She really had to forget him.  Just seal all that, that…feeling, that emotion way down in a part of her heart so deep she’d forget it had ever been any other way.  Twice now she had fallen in love, and both times with flawed men. No big surprise; they are all flawed. Every one.

Pray for him, he had said.  Maybe tomorrow.  Not today.

She felt more alone than ever, now that Poppy and Kate had taken Jake’s side. Who could she talk to?  Not Alex, that’s for sure.  Alex, although the older of the two men, looked up to his brother, she realized, but maybe now that Jake ‘got religion’ as Alex referred to it on his way here, his opinion might change.

Alex tapped on the window and pointed to the lock. She let him in and handed him the keys.

“The rest of them—your grandparents, David and Laura and the kids, Gloria and her husband—they’re all staying at the Ramada,” he said.  “How about we grab a couple of rooms, too.  Even if we drive like maniacs we won’t be home until midnight and I hate driving at night—“

“Is Jake staying there?”

“Yes.  I’d have more time to talk to him, too.”

She made up her mind. “I’ll drive.  I don’t mind driving at night.  You can sleep if you want and you can call…your brother tomorrow.” She couldn’t bear to use his name.

“Tina…”

“Get out and go around to the passenger side.” She slid behind the wheel and tried to start the engine. Her hand shook and she couldn’t turn the key. “Don’t tell me this stupid car or truck or whatever it is isn’t automatic!”

“I’m supposed to trust my life to a woman who can’t drive a stick? Never mind.” He stepped out again and resumed his place in the driver’s seat.

The next words he spoke were when they were back on Interstate 40. She had been about to turn on the radio when he roughly pushed her hand away and took a deep breath. Then he let her have it.

“I know you’re a lot younger than I am, but I still can’t believe you’re being such a miserable, mean little brat about my brother,” he began. “And your attitude about his conversion is appalling!”

She stared at him, open-mouthed.  He kept his eyes on the road, focused on driving.

“I wish I had a nickel for every time you and Gloria Stoner told me that forgiveness and restoration were cornerstones of the Christian faith.  When I once had the temerity to ask a question about forgiving the unforgivable I believe you were the one who so sweetly—sickeningly, I thought at the time—explained that Jesus paid the price ‘while we were yet sinners.’ I have a very good memory, Ms. Hilbert, and I remember it well. I thought it was a load of rubbish when I first heard it in Sunday school, and I still thought so when you said it, but I do remember you saying it.”

For the first time Tina saw the resemblance between the Garret brothers.  She heard no trace of the style of speech Alex usually affected in the salon.  The man speaking was definitely Albert James Garret, older brother of Jacob Philip Garret and there was no question whose side he was on.

“Jake came into the diner absolutely devastated. When your grandmother tried to comfort him, he said you were right and he was stupid.”

Tina felt as if an arrow had hit her heart.  She didn’t know if the stab of pain came from hearing about Jake’s distress or because Kate had comforted Jake, obviously taking his side, or because truth could still penetrate despite her best efforts to seal it all away from her.

Alex laughed dryly. “Kate said she didn’t raise you to call anybody stupid and she wants to have a talk with you.”

She turned her face to the window. Forgiveness.  Jesus paid the price. Restoration. Jesus paid the price paid the price paid the price. Alex’s voice echoed over and over again in her mind. Forgive…Jesus paid. Alex’s voice, yet more familiar somehow.

The throbbing in her head had grown so fierce she wished someone would stick a needle in her skull to relieve the pressure. Just as she began to conjure up a glorious technicolor vision of a foot-long needle entering her skull causing a great hiss as steam escaped, followed by the release of the headache, Alex’s voice pounded on. Forgive, Jesus paid.

“He called that night but you weren’t home so he left a message,” he shot her a sharp look when she made a choking noise, and resumed, “Then when he wanted to try again Poppy told him not to, that he might be putting you in danger. He protected you because he cares so much about you, woman! Why is that so hard to understand?”

When she didn’t answer, he swore eloquently and at length. “I give up.  If you’re so pig-headed he’s better off without you.”

They rode along in silence for three hours before stopping for gas and coffee. When they were back on the road and up to cruising speed Alex finally spoke again.

“You go ahead and rest for a while if you can. I’ll drive all the way home.  I’m so wound up I couldn’t sleep now if I had to. Remember now, you don’t have to work tomorrow.”

“Thanks for changing my appointments for me.” She didn’t exactly feel grateful, but she knew he did it for what he thought were good reasons.

“You should also know that when you go back on Saturday I won’t be there.”

“Did you arrange to take the day off?”

“No. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking ever since we leftFort Smith. I don’t think I’ll go back to the salon at all, except to resign and call my clients with suggestions about other stylists who might suit them. I don’t want anyone but you taking care of Gloria Stoner.”

“What are you talking about? You’re everybody’s favorite! And I’ll miss you. I don’t want you to leave. What are you going to do? Are you going to another salon?”

“My brother needs me. From what his attorney told us, I don’t think he’ll spend another day in jail and he will have custody of Annie and Joey. They’re great kids, but I keep thinking about how mixed up they probably are by this time. I think I can help. I’m sure going to try. I love those kids, they like me I think, and I’ll do whatever it takes. And, since he won’t have a wife,” he paused and she could feel him glowering at her in the dark, “I’m going to move to the ranch and keep house for the three of them.”

“You can’t be serious. Does Jake know?”

“No, he’s going to call tomorrow and I’ll talk to him about it then.” He glanced at her and then turned his attention back to the road. “If I believed in that stuff I’d have to say the idea popped into my head like divine inspiration.  I just know it’s right.”

“I’m glad Jake doesn’t have to face this alone, Alex.” Tina laid her hand on his arm. “You’re a good big brother, and he’ll probably welcome your help.” She rememberedAustinbragging about being a big brother and how God wouldn’t let anything happen to him because he had to take care of his sisters.  “I wish I had a brother like you.”

She could feel him staring at her.  “I could be your brother, Tina.  You don’t have to be alone. I can help you with Jake’s children if you want me to.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

She’d taken Schotzie to “Happy Tails to You Kennel” where he had his own sofa and color TV.  She knew he enjoyed himself there, but the apartment seemed dismal in his absence.  Without changing into pajamas she flopped on her bed.  1:37. “What kind of a stupid hour of the night is that?” she asked the empty room, and watched the clock change to 1:38, the little blue dot in the upper right corner indicating “a.m.”

I could be your brother, Tina. She could hear him. You don’t have to be alone, Tina.  She must surely have run dry of tears by now, but no, here they came again.  You don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to be alone.

“So why am I alone? I know why. Because I’m stupid, that’s why. Stupid, stupid, stupid!”  At 1:49 she buried her face in her pillow and cried herself to sleep.

Chapter 48—LeavingFort Smith

Jake looked forward to driving his truck again.  He supposed there might be a few tough conversations with the paint company about their merchandise on the trailer he had dropped. According to Denny, the load remained intact at the truck stop near Rolla, and he figured if he offered to haul it the rest of the way toDallasfor free they might be willing to use him again sometime.

Mostly he looked forward to time by himself, time to sort through all the crazy things that had happened the last week.

Tina.

He could not let himself think about Tina until he could be alone at the ranch.  He knew that when it all hit him he’d need to go down by the river where he could run bawling into the sky like a calf taken away from his mother.

He might not even have time for that, though. From what Faye Waters told him, by the end of next week he might be out there with his kids.

Now who in the world could step in and take care of them while he was out on the road?  He didn’t know how to do much besides trucking. He didn’t know anything about ranching, and he sure didn’t know what to think about staying home with the kids full time. How were they going to react to him, anyway?  He looked over at Denny.

“Hey, Turco.  You like kids; you certainly knew how to deal withAustin. Looking for a job?”

“Don’t even think about it,” Denny growled. “I don’t help with homework and I don’t look good in an apron,” he chuckled, “not that we wouldn’t make a cute couple.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.  If Faye is right and I don’t go to prison and Barb goes to jail, I could have custody of my kids by the end of next week.”  It didn’t seem real to him yet.

“I’d say that if you can manage financially,” Denny said, chewing on the inside of his thumb, “you should plan to spend at least a couple of months making a home for the kids.  At least.  Maybe through the summer and then by the time school starts in the fall you’ll have a better idea of how it’s going and who might be able to help.”

“Pretty much how I have it figured.”

Jake thought how good it felt to be on the road with Denny again, under more relaxed circumstances this time. He didn’t like to think of himself as a loner, but his relationship with Denny made him realize how much he’d been missing by not having a friend. The past two years seemed to him like a long, narrow, dark tunnel from which he was only now emerging. Not sure if he felt more excited than scared or the other way around. Either way he found it enormously reassuring to have the big man in his corner.

“By the end of summer Christina might come to her senses and decide she wants a home down by the river,” Denny chuff-chuckled. “You never know.”

“You’ve known her longer than I have, Turco.  What are the odds of that happening?”

“Like I said, you never know.”  Denny exited the highway and pulled the Humvee off to the side, reached back and pulled a map out from under the tarp, dislodging the camera. He handed the camera to Jake. “Remind me to take this film into Wal-Mart.  There might be pictures on there for you.”  He smoothed the map on the seat between them.

“Thought you knew your way around these hills,” Jake said.

“Yep.  I do.  This is for your benefit, Bubba.  What we’re gonna do is take that road there, see?  That’ll take us up to Poppy and Kate’s place so you can pick up your truck.  Eventually.  It’ll take just a little longer.”

At Jake’s murmur of objection, Denny explained, “It’ll take a little longer—not a lot—but I want to take you over the road Emily Grace got killed on.  No way you could drive your fancy wheels up there.” He pulled back onto the road. “But this thing, now, if this goes over the edge it’s no great loss.” He chuckled at his own joke.  “So if I yell ‘bail,’ don’t ask questions, just jump. If I were you, I’d try to jump out of the way of the truck. In other words, you’d better jump over top of me.”

Jake kept quiet.  He figured Denny’s amusement covered it for both of them.  So far, considering his experience, he had to believe that no matter how crazy Denny appeared, he wouldn’t risk his neck or his vehicle just to show off a mountain road.

Before they had gone far on Hogsback, Jake had cause to re-think his opinion.

Denny cranked the steering wheel sharply left to avoid large rocks that had broken loose from the limestone cliff on the passenger’s side. Jake held his breath as the truck stopped abruptly, the driver’s side front wheel suspended in midair above at least a 150-foot drop. He backed up slowly and re-negotiated his way around the rocks, scraping Jake’s door in the process.

It occurred to Jake that he probably wasn’t helping much by gasping and stomping on a phantom brake pedal at every tight spot. He risked taking his eyes off the road for a quick glance at Denny who, tongue between his teeth, kept his head thrust forward, anticipating the next turn.

All at once they came to a wider place. The drop-off on the left stayed about the same, but the limestone wall on the right gave way to a clearing, and perhaps a quarter mile behind that, a poor little farmstead with its barely-red barn, no larger than a two-car garage, missing shingles on its sagging roof. Just ahead of where they had stopped the truck, about 100 feet from the road, stood a 1950’s trailer house on cinder blocks, cloudy windows duct-taped in place. A screen door hung outward, flopping wearily back and forth. Chained a few feet from the door, an emaciated Rottweiler lay on his side, flopping his tail hopelessly.

Denny shut off the engine and sat chewing his thumb.

“Is this what you were looking for?” Jake asked.  “Is that a meth lab, do you think?”

Denny nodded but continued to stare. Jake followed his gaze.  What was that?  What were they seeing? Something black and white fluttered in the doorway, an inside door half-closing and opening repeatedly.

“Something’s off, Jake.  Something’s way off here.”

They both rolled down their windows.

“I’m getting a real funny smell,” Jake said.  “What is that? I recognize it from somewhere.”

“We gotta get outa here.” He moved to turn the key. “Ether.  You’re smelling ether.  That’s a for-sure sign of a leaky meth lab; when you smell ether, it’s ready to blow.”

Suddenly the something black and white jumped down and ran in frenzied circles, barking frantically, then just as suddenly went back through the door.

“A child!” Jake jumped down from the truck before he could think. He saw what the little dog had been trying to do.

“Wait!  Jake!  You don’t know what’s going on there. Wait up! You’re gonna get yourself shot, man! Stop!”  Denny’s actions belied his words as he, too, ran toward the trailer. “Aaargh!” Denny stumbled and fell, his knees slamming painfully onto rocks.

Jake heard, looked back and saw what happened, but knew he couldn’t stop. Denny could take care of himself.

The smell grew more pronounced as Jake neared the trailer. God, help me! Please keep me from getting killed!  Joey and Annie need me, but I can’t leave this little tyke, either.

Then he, like Denny, stumbled on the rocky ground but he stayed on his feet. He wondered as he ran how anybody managed to haul a trailer way up here. When he reached the door, he understood why the dog couldn’t pull the child free.  The little boy, maybe four years old, had fallen in the doorway, likely knocked out by ether fumes.  When the dog pulled on the boy’s foot, his body—unconscious or maybe even dead, Jake couldn’t tell—half-closed the door and made it impossible to slide the child all the way out.

“Jake, this thing is gonna blow any second!  Grab the kid and let’s get outa here. Hurry!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jake saw Denny regain his footing and run over to the Rottweiler, clip the chain with wire cutters he carried in his pocket and start back to the truck, the dog unprotesting in his arms.

Just as he reached in to pick up the little boy, Jake heard a low whoosh, like the sound made by a cheap fake-leather couch when a person flops on it.  He carried the child toward the truck and the bellowing Denny, the little black and white dog at his heels.

“Didn’t you hear that?  We gotta get outa here. It’s starting to explode right now.  It’s going to blow sky-high, man, let’s go!” He had already started the engine and shifted into low by the time Jake laid the boy on the back seat.

“This one’s alive. He’s still breathing, he’ll come to,” Jake said. “I gotta go back.  There’s another one.”

“It’s blowin’! The explosion’s already started!  It’s too late, Jake, it’s too late, Listen to me!”
“We can’t leave a child in there,” he screamed as he ran, “You stay here with this one.”

He ran back, careful to avoid rocks this time, entered the trailer, grabbed another child, this one a slightly larger girl, also unconscious, lifted her up on his shoulder, and had just stepped out of the door when he heard the end of the world.

Chapter 49—Jasper,Arkansas

The two men sat balancing their heavy dark oak chairs on back legs. Dust lit by sunshine cast the room a pale, morning shade of gold, but the room seemed warm, andNewtonCounty’s Sheriff Roger Staley manfully warred against a nearly irresistible temptation to fall asleep by pretending to hang on every word coming out of Gil Bosch’s mouth.  When the crackle of the sheriff’s usually quiet radio interrupted the FBI agent’s diatribe on the subject of the general wink-wink attitude toward the law he’d observed amongArkansascitizenry, it startled them and both chairs landed on all fours with a resounding thump.

“This is an emergency!  Mayday!  Mayday!  SOS!  Whatever will raise somebody off his fat backside long enough to send a med-evac chopper up here.”

The voice sounded familiar to both men.

“Identify. What’s your 1020?”

“Where I am is at that meth lab on Hogsback.  It blew…” He coughed and struggled to breathe. When he returned to the mike he wheezed impatiently.  “We need a chopper.  NOW!”

“Turco.” Bosch muttered. “Listen, Turco,” he said, grabbing the mike from the sheriff. “You don’t have the authority to call for medical evacuation—“

The radio squawked as Denny compressed the emergency override button.

“GILBERT!”    Denny wheezed, “You wanna talk about the FCC and who has authority for what? Be sure to mention these two little kids we pulled out of this trailer.  Now are you going to send a chopper or what?”

“What’s your 1020?” Sheriff Staley asked, having regained the use of his radio.

Both men listened carefully as crackling fire clamor mingled discordantly with mewling cries of what could have been children. Denny sounded as if he might be choking, coughing—barking, hacking, sucking wind in noisy gasps.

Sheriff Staley stepped away from the radio and grabbed the phone to call the med-evac dispatcher. “Somewhere on Hogsback. An explosion.  Unknown number of casualties.” He hung up and headed for the door. “Keep him on the radio, will you, Bosch?  I’ll go see if I can find him.”

The chaos he could hear on the radio contrasted sharply to the quiet in the office. Questions crawled out of the silence and surrounded Bosch. Yesterday it had looked fine. What set it off today? Kids? Casualties are always bad, but kids… What kids? What were they doing there? And how much had Turco figured out?

He could still hear the fire, but the coughing had stopped.

“Turco?  You still there?” No answer. “Turco?”

“Yeah?” Barely more than a whisper, followed by more coughing.

“You know it’s against FCC regulations for a citizen to transmit on the county frequency. You could be in a lot of trouble. When this is over, maybe you ought to come in and talk to the sheriff about it.”

“Trouble?” Denny asked, barely audible. “Tell you what, Gilbert…” He paused for breath.

Bosch hated it when Turco called him Gilbert, and Turco knew it, too.  One of these days he’d have to teach him a lesson about respecting authority.

“Listen up, Gilbert,” Denny began again, “I’ll let you know when I’m ready to turn myself over to Staley for unauthorized transmission on his precious county frequency.”

He coughed and resumed, his voice almost gone. “You be sure to be there because I have a couple of questions of my own.” He coughed again and when he next spoke, he had regained some volume.

“For you, Gilbert. About this fire. And if my buddy Jake here doesn’t come out of this—and it doesn’t look too good right now—you will have a nice fair trial right there in the sheriff’s office.  I’ll be the judge. I’ll be the jury. And here’s the part I’ll enjoy most, I do hereby volunteer to execute the sentence myself.”

Bosch stared at the radio for about 20 seconds, then turned it down and made a couple of phone calls.

Chapter 50—Friday Night

            Schotzie, barking furiously, jumped off the sofa before Tina heard the knock on her door. A chill ran down her spine. Tight security and limited access were the main reasons she had chosenFultonTowersafter her divorce. Theoretically no one could find her apartment unless they called from the gate and she buzzed them in. 10:00 p.m. Who could it be?

The knocking continued.  “Tina, it’s me. I have to talk to you.”

She wrapped her robe around herself and tied the belt while she walked barefoot to the door and peered through the tiny fisheye ‘spy’ window. “It’s Alex, Schotzie.  He’s harmless. Now hush.”

“Have you heard from Jake?” Alex asked before closing the door behind him.

“No.  I didn’t expect to.  Wasn’t he going up to the cabin to pick up his truck?”

“I think so, but he said he’d call.  I’m absolutely certain he planned to call, but I haven’t heard a word.  I’m worried, Tina. Can you call your grandparents?”

“I suppose I could, but they go to bed early. This is late for them.  Are you sure he said he’d call you today?” Alex’s demeanor alarmed her.

“Yes!  Something’s wrong.  I feel it.  Please call Poppy. Please!”

“All right. Grab a Coke out of the fridge, or maybe you want something to eat. I went to the store today so there’s actually food…”

“I’ll take care of myself, Tina.  Please make that call!”

Poppy picked up on the first ring. “Hello, hello, who is it?”

“Pops, it’s me, Christina.  You sound funny.  What’s going on?”

He had covered the mouthpiece, but Tina could hear him talking to Kate.

“Kate will talk to you now, honey,” he said, his voice thin. “Remember to trust God no matter what happens.”

“You’re right, Alex,” Tina said while she waited for her grandmother to pick up the phone.  “Something is terribly wrong.”

After she hung up, the two of them sat staring at each other across the table.  Tina spoke first.

“They’re worried sick. Kate says Denny drove down toFort Smithyesterday for the express purpose of bringing Jake back up the mountain. They expected to see them by mid-afternoon today. They all left the hotel at the same time this morning, but Denny and Jake took a different route home, for some reason.  Denny’s driving a big old Humvee—I don’t think you could roll it if you tried—I can’t imagine what could have happened.”

“Isn’t there anything we could do?  Anybody we can call?”

Tina looked across the table at Jake’s brother. Same brown eyes. Same worried look. She bowed her head and studied her nails, freshly manicured earlier during this long soul-searching day.  “We could pray,” she offered.

“I wish you would,” he said quietly. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out one of his salon appointment cards. “Here’s my home phone number,” he said as he wrote the number on the back of the card. He stood up stiffly and started for the door. “Call me the minute you hear anything—from Jake, I mean—no matter what time it is.”

“And you’ll do the same?”

He nodded and left.

Chapter 51—The Call

            She’d been hoping and praying for it, but when the phone finally rang, at 2:30 a.m., she nearly jumped out of her own skin.

“Yes! What?”

“Christina?” A hoarse voice, barely more than a whisper.

“Who is this?” Father! Help me!

            “It’s Denny, Christina. I hate to call you like this, but Poppy said—“

“Jake!  What’s happened to Jake? Talk to me!”

“There’s been an accident, Christina. It’s all my fault…all my fault…” His voice faded and she could barely hear him. This is no time for me to be foolish. Lord. I trust You to give me what it takes for whatever happens.  She took a deep breath, inhaling by faith the strength of the Holy Spirit.

“Denny, you are in God’s hands and so is Jake. And God is good. All the time, even now.  Whatever it is, Denny, God knows all about it.” She heard herself speaking and sweet peace swept over her.

“Please tell me.” She didn’t want to ask, but she had to know.  “Is Jake…is he…did he…die?” She crumpled onto the bare floor, pressing the phone against her head so hard that her ear hurt. “Denny?”

“No, no, he’s still alive. But he’s hurt real bad.  Burned!” He choked again.

How terrible this must be for him, Tina thought, given his memories of his wife’s tragic death.

“Where is he? Denny, listen to me: I’ll be there as soon as I can, and so will Alex.  Where is he?”

“You’ll tell his brother?  Poppy and Kate—they called all over trying to find us—I shoulda called them—“

“Denny, pull yourself together, do you hear me? We can talk later.  Where is Jake?”

After she hung up the phone she stared at it for only a few seconds. No time to waste. She punched in Alex’s phone number. It sounded as if he answered before it rang.

She filled him in quickly. His voice sounded amazingly calm.

“My Trooper is gassed and ready to go, so I’ll be leaving within ten minutes.”

“I’ve packed a few things and I’m ready to go, too.  You want to caravan?”

“Why don’t we drive together?”

“Because I’ll have my dog with me and I don’t know how soon I’ll come back here.”

“That’ll work.  Schotzie will love my little truck, and I don’t know when I’ll return, either. Leave your pretty new car in the garage. I’ll pick you up.  I expect we have a few things to talk about.”

~~~~~

She didn’t want to complain, but she didn’t understand why Alex had to drive the whole way as if a patrol car were following them, especially during those dark hours before dawn when it seemed as if the world had ended and they were the only ones left on earth. Most of the way she didn’t think about it; they had so many more important matters to discuss.

“Gloria Stoner came to see me today,” Tina ventured softly. “That was quite a haircut!”

“You should have seen it when she came in!  She said she was turning her back on all her pretensions and didn’t want to bother with all that ‘vanity’ any more!”

“She cut it herself?”

“Yes!  Just hacked it all off to shorter than chin length.  She had it in a zipped plastic bag and told me to donate it to ‘Locks of Love,’ a program to provide wigs for kids going through chemo.”

“You did a great job of shaping it.  She looked ten years younger. Very chic.”

Tina paused and sat up a little straighter. “Gloria told me that you asked her to visit me.” She watched him for any reaction, but he continued to drive, eyes straight ahead.  “Thank you.”

Finally, after seven almost non-stop hours, they had run out of issues to wrestle with and plans to coordinate, but they were both still too keyed up to sleep.  After a gas and coffee stop they turned on the radio and happened to tune in at the beginning of a feature story:

Good morning.  Our Ozark hero of the week, Jacob Garret, an over-the-road trucker based in Lincoln, Nebraska, would have qualified as villain of the week just six days ago.  This morning he lies in Mercy Hospital in Harrison with serious burns he suffered in the explosion of a methamphetamine lab while rescuing two young children who had wandered from a nearby farmhouse.  Four year old Chance Mudrow and his sister, five year old Lacey Mudrow, both listed in good condition, owe their lives to the trucker who happened on the abandoned lab just moments before it exploded, burning him and his companion. 

            Chance and Lacey were not the only lives saved.  Their little dog, an all-American little-bit-of-everything dog and an abandoned Rottweiler were rescued from certain death by Mr. Garret’s companion, Denny Turco, a native Ozarkian.

            Amber Mudrow, the children’s mother, told authorities that the children often explored the area together and that she didn’t remember when she had last seen them, but when she heard the explosion at a trailer near the rural house where they live, she had a terrible feeling that they might be involved.

            Mr. Turco also required hospitalization when he sustained injuries while pulling Mr. Garret and the older Mudrow child from the door of the trailer where they had been knocked unconscious by the force of the explosion. He declined to talk to our reporter and refused to explain why he and Mr. Garret had been investigating the trailer.

 A further mystery is how quickly Air-Evac arrived at the location. The dispatcher would only say that they had received an urgent call for a helicopter ambulance and that directions to the scene were ‘uncannily specific.’

Tina had laid her hand on Alex’s arm when the report began and left it there while the radio personality detailed Jake’s story from the original charge four years ago, including a quote from Faye Waters predicting that he would cleared of all charges and allowed to have overturned the custody ruling by the Lincoln, Nebraska, Department of Family Services.

“I have to see him with my own eyes,” Alex said.

“Me, too,” Tina said.  “Now stop driving like such an old lady! I’ll pay the fine if we get picked up for speeding.”

Excuse me? She heard the still, small voice in her spirit.

“Never mind, Alex.  Don’t exceed the limit. If we want the cloud of protection we had better not speed out from under it.”

Alex agreed. “Gloria once told me that the guardian angels jump off the fenders when you exceed the speed limit.”

Chapter 52—Mercy Hospital, Saturday Morning

            “You walk awfully fast for a short girl,” Alex whispered, puffing along beside Tina, “and what would a nice Christian girl call that trick you just pulled at the nurse’s station.  I thought you weren’t supposed to lie.”

“I didn’t lie.” She felt winded, too, after a nine-hour drive on zero sleep, so she kept her comments brief.

“He’s our brother?  Jake’s our brother?” Alex kept after her. “Somehow I would have thought Mom might have mentioned that little piece of information.”

Tina wasn’t in the mood for debate.  Not about lying and certainly not about being a sister to the Garret men. She intended to use every iota of focus to remember Alex’s encouragement and Gloria’s pointed, prayerful admonition, and with every breath, she implored her Heavenly Father to forgive her for outrageously, selfishly impugning His grace and mercy.

Mercy Hospital’s well-equipped Intensive Care Unit consisted of about six rooms, as far as Tina could see, splayed in a semi-circle around the ICU nursing station, each room within easy eye contact of the nurses when the curtains were open. The privacy curtains, beige canvas on the bottom, open mesh on top, attached to a ceiling track by sliding hooks. Tina noticed most of them were closed today.

They had been told they would find Jake in 4-A. As they approached, Denny stood up from where he had been seated beside Jake and rushed out to greet them.

“You’re hurt, too!” Tina said, “You should have said something. Oh, look at your poor hands!”

Desperate to see Jake, since the radio announcement indicated he was the more severely hurt of the two men, she felt dismayed watching Denny who looked like a giant ad for a bandage manufacturer. He walked toward them with obvious difficulty, a pronounced limp in both legs generating an uncoordinated movement she wouldn’t have supposed possible. Only two fingers of one hand were visible, the rest of them presumably under the mounds of white gauze at the ends of both arms. He wore a hospital gown and scrub pants, both marginally adequate.

“Awww, don’t worry about me,” he said in the same hoarse, whispery voice she had heard on the phone. “Jake took the worst of it but I believe he’s gonna be okay, too, now that he’s awake. We didn’t know for a while there if he’d ever wake up.” He shook his big head sorrowfully and Tina could see how worried he’d been.

“Here’s something else you oughta know,” Denny went on. “He can’t hardly hear, and can’t talk much better.  Doc said that because he can hear some, he figures it’ll probably all come back.  And the not talking is on account of smoke. Chemical smoke scrapes up a guy’s lungs to where he can’t hardly talk. I breathed in some of it, myself.”

“On the way up we heard a news report on the radio. Jake saved the lives of two children?” Tina whispered too; it seemed appropriate.

“He sure did.  Your fella is a real hero, Christina, a real man. Go on in. I know he’ll feel better when he knows you’re here.”

“Alex,” Tina hesitated, her eyes pleading. She knew how worried he’d been—they had spoken of little else for hours.

“You go in first, without me. Remember everything we talked about,” Alex commanded. “My brother is a great guy, and he’ll understand. He and I can work out the details later. Now go on, sis.”

She started toward Jake’s room but turned back and threw her arms around Alex. “I love you, big brother.”

She stepped close to Denny, stood on her tiptoes, and careful not to bump anything bandaged, kissed him soundly. “You are my first and biggest big brother and I’ll love you forever.”

~~~~~~~

Denny and Alex looked at each other and shrugged.

“My room is 203, upstairs,” Denny said. “I’m not really s’posed to be down here anyhow. Why don’t you come up with me and give the young people a little time together.” He poked Alex with his elbow. “We old guys gotta stick together, right? C’mon. I’ll tell you all about the whole sorry mess I got us into.”

~~~~~~~

      He lay on his side with his back to the door. A sheet, held up by a frame, concealed his body from the waist down. His bare shoulder, obviously seriously burned, shone with ointment. Another frame, attached to the side rail, elevated his bandaged hands. She fought the urge to turn and flee from the suffering hanging in the air like the smell of antiseptic.

Her knees felt weak as she stood in the doorway.  A deluge of intense emotion threatened to swamp her.  Horror about the explosion, rage at bottom-feeders who would build a misery factory and then abandon it at its most dangerous, and grief for children so neglected they wandered into a death trap.

Far overshadowing that anger though, remorse for her own mean little heart rose up from the depths of her being and washed over her. It occurred to her that crawling to Jake’s bedside might be the appropriate way for her to approach him.

“Remember everything,” Alex had said.  What had he reminded her?  Oh, yes, Jesus paid the price.  Crawling wouldn’t help—couldn’t add anything to what Jesus had already done. What’s more, now that she’d seen her own stupidity, who was she to pass judgment on anybody else—Jake, especially—for his failures?

Jake is alive. Hurt, but alive. Focus, Tina. Pray.

Thank you Lord that he’s alive! Please help him forgive me.

Not that she would ever forgive herself for the way she had turned away from him when with all her heart she had wanted to fly into his arms and never leave. She had hurt him, and for what? Because she couldn’t give in? Lose face? During the last two restless nights her stubborn pride had proved itself a cruel and heartless companion.

She stepped around to the other side of his bed.  His eyes were closed, tears on his lashes. She watched him grimace, obviously in pain, and move his lips as if praying. How could I have been so hard on him?  Please forgive me.

He didn’t seem aware of her presence. She remembered his damaged hearing and, pulling a chair near the bed, moved in close.

“Tina, Tina,” she heard him murmur.

“I’m here, Jake.”

His eyes popped open. “Is it really you?” With a raspy whisper he told her, “In my dream I smelled your perfume. Oh! It wasn’t a dream.”  He looked around, his eyes wild. “I can’t hold you. I want to touch your face. I need you close to me.”

He had been dreaming about her. He needed her!                

“Here I am,” she said soothingly as she might have spoken to a child frightened by a nightmare. Leaning in again she laid her face against his and spoke near his ear.

“I’m here, dear one. I don’t ever want to be away from you again.” She felt him relax and turn his head until their lips met.

After a time—actually, quite a long time—she drew back a little bit. She ran her fingers over his face, lingering her touch on his lips and again brushed his lips with hers. His warm breath on her face felt like a benediction. “Can you read my lips, beloved?”

“I can read your lips, Kitten.  I can hear your heart when I read your lips.”

“I am so sorry, Jake. Can you ever forgive me for being so mean?”

“My memory isn’t so good since the explosion.”

“You forgive me?”

“Are you over being mad?”

“I sure am. I’m sorry about being mad, too.”

“You’re forgiven.” He lifted his head enough to kiss her eyelids. “Anything else you want to tell me?”

“Sure you’re ready?”

“I am ready.”

“I want to have a baby.”

He tried to sit up. “Now?”

She pushed him back down, careful of his shoulder. “I can wait until after the wedding.” She laughed at his bewilderment.

“Wedding?”

“Yes, wedding.  Will you marry me, Jake?  I want us to have a wedding, you and me, a big wedding—candles and flowers and music and… I want to walk down the aisle in a white satin dress and you’ll be waiting for me—you’ll be so handsome in a tux—just as soon as you’re well enough. Will you please marry me, Jake?”

“I’m feeling better already.  Yes! I’m fine!  Call the preacher.”

They both laughed and of course kissed again. It seemed to be going better than she had dared to hope.

“I’m ready, too, Jake. More than ready. The minute those bandages are off I want your arms around me. I can hardly wait until we can…be together.” She buried her head in his neck, her cheeks burning.

“It will be sooo good, my beautiful kitten,” he sighed with pleasure. “But what happened? What’s with the change of heart? And what brought on the baby idea?  I mean right now? This trucker comes factory equipped with two children, you know; we’re a package deal, have you forgotten?”

“No, no, of course I haven’t forgotten.”

Where to start. She took a deep breath.

“It’s a long story.  Your brother reminded me that I’m a Christian, for one thing, and that as a Christian I can trust God with my future.”

Al reminded you? My brother?” He sounded as astonished about that as she felt.

“Yes. I hope you don’t mind, but I love him.”

“Okay by me as long as it’s I’m the groom in this big wedding you’re planning.”

“It’s you all right.” He still wants me. He needs me. She kissed her fingertips and touched his lips. “I’m so sorry I wasted even two minutes away from you, my love. I guess I tried to protect myself from being hurt, but I can’t do that; no one can.”

“I promise to do my best to make a good life for us, Tina, but neither of us can guarantee how it will turn out. We’re both a bit damaged.”

“I know.  But the Lord reminded me that He’s in the future—in our future. He’s the one holding me together now, and He will keep me safe in His care, always.”

She swallowed, fighting tears, and went on, pulling words up from deep inside, hoping, praying she could articulate all the changes she had gone through.  “I don’t have to be in control anymore.” The moment she heard herself say it she felt released, as if an enormous weight dropped off.

“I love you!” Almost giddy with relief, she suddenly wanted to tell him everything, all she had left behind, all her dreams for their future and most of all, she wanted to dance for joy.  She felt as if she could fly.

“I know now how much I love you and want you in my life, Jake.  I’ve grown up a whole lot in the last two days, but I still have so much to learn and I want to learn it with you.” She laid her forehead against his until she could speak again.

Finally she pulled back and looked him directly in the eye, speaking clearly so he wouldn’t miss a word. “You can learn a thing or two from me, too, Mister, but I’ll have years to work on you.” She had to stop and kiss him on his nose for the funny way he was grinning at her.

“First of all, I need your promise, before God, that you will never ever ever again leave me out of the most important things in your life.”

“I do hereby so promise, so help me God,” Jake said solemnly, his eyes damp.

Tina acknowledged his promise with a nod.

“Now, here’s how I think it ought to be—if it’s all right with you, that is: First we’ll have that big wedding, and then we’ll raise your children together, with Alex’s help—“

Jake raised his eyebrows at that one.

“Alex, uh, Albert will explain. It’s a family thing,” she said with a wink. “I still want to have a baby, though, okay?  We’ll have a great family—you, me, Alex, Annie, Joey, and our baby. What do you say?”

“That’s it?  That’s your final offer?”

“Well, I suppose I could consider having more than one baby.”

“You drive a hard bargain, woman, but it’s a deal.” Jake said.  And, of course, because they couldn’t shake hands on it, they sealed it with a kiss.

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