Young J.T. Starett frowned, and continued to look around, not impressed with anything or anyone he saw. Today was supposed to be a special day; he came to work with his mother this morning, skipping his seventh grade class with permission. He was excited and edgy after a sugar cereal breakfast and a fitful night of intermittent sleep. J.T. looked up at his mom, a pleasant looking woman with blonde hair pulled back into a bun, tightly, which she believed removed wrinkles from the corners of her eyes. Her face was animated and she was smiling at the others in the room, using her hands for emphasis. The room was small, too small for the number of people present and the mix of adult scents, body heat and moldy old books was overpowering.
The teachers assembled in their get-ready room every morning in preparation for the bell signaling the start of first period classes, then they would proceed to their respective rooms. J.T.’s mom took advantage of this gathering of her peers to push him this way and that, facing him towards this tweed jacket or that wool-pleated dress. She talked non-stop about him to whoever would listen, praising her son and outlining his positive characteristics. He did not look up and made no eye contact, more like belt contact or shoe contact. J.T., who was small for his age but strong and athletic, felt belittled to be on display like this, his mother treated him more like a little kid instead of the star seventh grade lacrosse player that all his classmates had come to admire.
“But Mildred, what a handsome young lad you have,” a nearby woman said, who smelled strongly of lilacs and soap.
“Yes, he’s a fine one, that,” a man with a drooping mustache bent over to stare into his face. J.T. backed away, repulsed by the man’s tobacco and mint breath. He squirmed in his mother’s grasp, wrinkling his long-sleeve dress-shirt at mid arm where she held him firmly. What’s going on, he thought, this is not fun, momma said she would take me to watch the high school lacrosse team practice, maybe meet some of the players, not any of this other stuff. He wanted to scream, but knew better and held it in. Disappointment crowded his face; he moved his eyes from place to place to avoid acknowledging any of these terrible people. Just take me to the practice fields, he thought.
“Momma, I’ve changed my mind, I want to go home,” he said, more whiney than demanding.
“Nonsense Little Jonny,” that’s what she always called him and he hated it, embarrassed, he dropped his chin to his chest.
“We shall have a splendid day,” she said. “I have plans for us. You’ll see, it’ll be wonderful.” J.T. reluctantly let his mother drag him out the door with all the other teachers, pulling him by the wrist. They headed down the hall that was lined with shiny metal lockers on both sides, reflecting the harsh overhead lighting, and the waxed floor-tiles glared back at them. The teachers moved like a phalanx down the corridor, one or two peeling off as classroom doors were passed.
Finally they arrived at his mother’s classroom. It was full of high school sophomores, talking, moving, sitting, standing, a dizzying scene. His mother dragged him in behind her, the fair teacher with what looked like an indigenous boy, his features darker and broader than hers.
“Seats everyone,” his mother said sternly when she entered with J.T. in tow, and the students found their places and noisily settled in. There was a brief quiet. Every set of eyes focused on the pair at front. This unsettled J.T., he wanted desperately to be somewhere else.
“Class, this is Little Jonny!” and she stepped aside with a half bow and extended her sweeping arm to point at her son. J.T. turned a tawny red. Oh no, he said to himself with alarm, this isn’t happening!
Everyone, with much more volume than required, shouted, “Hello, Little Jonny! They all began to snicker and titter amongst themselves. How could my mother do this to me! J.T. scanned the room for an back door or partition into which he could escape. Seeing nothing, and feeling trapped, he looked out at the students in front of him, all staring back laughing, saying snide comical things to each other, slapping hands, punching shoulders like they just heard the rudest joke.
J.T. pivoted and looked up at his mother, she was fixed, looking down at him with a huge admiring smile, showing her perfectly white teeth, and with a twinkle in each of her pale blue eyes, adoring her dusky son, oblivious to the scorn being heaped upon him by her class.
Without giving it another thought, he sidestepped his mother, and bolted for the door that they had come through, fumbled with the handle for a second, flung it open and ran out into the hall. The classroom erupted with a hearty laughter that could be heard from one end of the school to the other. His mother’s pride turned to horror, her joyous facial features dropped as though weights were suddenly attached, as she watched J.T., humiliated, run out of the classroom. Mildred hiked her long dress up with both hands and started towards the door, stopped to address the class briefly and appointed the closest girl in the front row as monitor, then hurriedly went to look for her rattled little boy.
J.T. Starett ran down the lighted hallway, pushed his way through the bar-locking entrance doors with a bang and out into the sunlit schoolyard. He looked both ways and decided to head straight across the parking lot, to the adjacent practice fields and into the woods beyond. He didn’t stop until he was a few hundred yards down a wooded, dense and leafy path. He rested his hands on his knees and panted loudly, trying to catch his breath and simultaneously swallow, although his mouth and throat were dry as cotton. Now what? His brain was buzzing, no real ideas came to him, so he walked deeper into the forest. Soon, his breathing returned to normal, and he traveled past several forks, taking the one that appealed to him at the moment.
What was momma thinking, he repeated over and over to himself? A day he had long looked forward to, one that promised to be such a fun day, had turned out so terribly. The depth of his shock and disappointment was deep. He knew his mother would be worried about him, but he couldn’t go back there, not now, not ever to that horrible school filled with those horrible people.
J.T. walked on, through the midday and into the late afternoon, as if in a trance, until a clearing appeared through the trees. He went slowly to the edge of the woods and stopped. What he saw was the backyards of several houses lined up in a row, some had patios and picnic tables, barbecue pits and others had dog houses, tool sheds and the kind of things you would expect. J.T. sat down gradually in increments, he suddenly felt very tired. Allowing himself to lay on his side then placed his hands under his head and fell fast asleep right there at the rim of the forest.
It was several hours later when he awoke, it was dark. As consciousness dawned within him, he became confused, a panic overtook his mind, he jumped upright and turned circles in place. He scurried out of the woods, like he was being closely pursued, towards the only house with no lights showing on the inside. He was scared and unsure of himself, yet he moved forward. J.T. brushed the leaves and small sticks off his clothes as he advanced. Crouching low he hurried towards the darkened house.
I wish I were home, he thought, eating tacos for dinner with momma. Tuesdays were taco nights, and he could almost taste the tangy meat and crunchy corn tortillas filled with shredded cheese to overflowing greasy goodness. Hunger raised itself to the forefront of his senses.
J.T. arrived at the back of the darkened house, cocking an ear inward; he heard no sounds coming from within. J.T. was undecided, he wished he could go home, but had no idea how to get there, passing so many forks in the narrow path to get here, and he certainly didn’t want to be lost
in the forest overnight. No sir! Hoping for a phone inside or a place to wait out the night, he sidled up to the back stoop and tried the door, it was locked. He heard a sound behind him, like a soft shoe hitting the ground.
There was a sharp chill in the early autumn air, normal for upper Montana, signaling the change of seasons in Whitefish, a small town nestled in the northwest part of the state, among national forests of the Rocky Mountains not far from the Canadian border. This change was not unwelcome for the hardy people living up here, it being a respite form the unrelenting heat of the short, but intense summer. The cool weather also signaled an annual alert to prepare for the oncoming winter, which brought on a rise in folks’ activity level not just from the cooler weather but as a reminder that not enough had been done; stored, cut, stacked, canned, or smoked for survival. Winters can be brutal for the unprepared up here.
J.T.’s mother, Mildred, tired from another sleepless night, stood hunched over the kitchen sink, staring out the window while absently peeling potatoes. She hadn’t gone to work since J.T. went missing three weeks ago. Her hair hung down in unkempt strings and knots, wearing the same clothes for days, she had lost any desire to care for herself. Every moment was spent going over the last hours of her time spent with her son before he disappeared. Of course she blamed herself, showing him off like a prize lamb at a 4H show, with no concern for his feelings. She thought herself selfish and inconsiderate, undeserving of such a fine son. She sank deeper into depression with every passing day.
She never hated his father for leaving; she knew it when she first met him. He was a rogue, a woodsman and an adventurer. Fondly she remember her courtship, short as it was, and her small marriage ceremony, no kin of his or hers out this way. Less than a year later she was blessed with a baby boy, and didn’t care whether the father ever came home again. She had what she wanted. The father, of mixed Indian and French heritage, stayed away for days, then weeks after the baby was born. Then he left for good. Mildred scarcely noticed.
What more could she do? The authorities and her neighbors searched for the missing boy for what seemed to be more than a reasonable time, but J.T. wasn’t their boy, she would never quit hoping, praying. Eventually all the searchers went back to their homes, most stopping by her place to share a sincere hug and heartfelt well-wishes, such as they were, for the future. She was dazed, unbelieving, by the official end of the rescue effort. If her son was gone forever, she didn’t want to live, but she hung on just in case Little Jonny would one day show up and need her.
Her appearance and her health declined to the point, that if anyone had seen her, they would have been shocked and immediately called for medical attention. Mildred never left the house, even as her food stocks ran low, her appetite long gone. The autumn turned to winter and she didn’t care. If her boy was out there, there was a slim chance he would ever survive a Montana winter alone. So, she didn’t want to either. If there was a heaven, she would meet him there, she thought.
There was a constant background rumble and an occasional jerk to the side, heard and felt from as if from a distance. A throbbing headache built to a crescendo that slowly brought J.T. back to the present. The side of his head hurt and his hair on that side, he discovered, was matted with blood. He looked around, at first unable to focus, then eventually made out hazy items scattered around his body. He was in the back of an old delivery truck. He was bound, wrists and ankles tied with rodeo rope and he heard voices behind him.
“You sure this’s the road for Kalispell?” A man’s voice asked.
“Ain’t but one,” a young woman answered. There seemed to be a tension in the air between them. J.T. listened.
“Okay, I still say we get a motel room, and call the boy’s folks for money, arrange for a drop- off then we go south before winter sets in and enjoy ourselves.” The man declared.
“That’s a waste a time,” the woman countered, “you know we don’t have nothin’, a phone number or even who this boy is anyhow, fer chrissakes, Earle!” She turned to look straight at him, “We should stop right now and question that little bugger back there, see what we can find out. How we gonna make a plan when we don’t know what we got? Huh? Answer me that, Earle?”
“I told you, we have to get on his good side, loosen him up, feed him, wrap him in a warm blanket, that sorta thing, you know?” Earle said tentatively.
“Hogwash, Earle, waste a time, like I been sayin’.” She went on, “You stop this vehicle and go back there and scare the bejesus out a him, and a few minutes later I’ll go back and sweet talk his young butt.” She paused, “Earle, he’s a damn boy, we ought to be able to handle this, dammit!
Nothing made sense to J.T., sitting in a strange room in a strange place with a determined man and woman asking him the same questions over and over. In what seemed like a never-ending cascade of similar days and nights, he tried mightily; he really did, but just couldn’t provide them any answers. The questions he heard found no matching responses in his mind. He wanted to help these people but just couldn’t understand what it was they wanted from him.
Outside a chilly rain was falling, the man called Earle came in from the outside and shook off his jacket and threw it on the chair. He approached J.T. slowly, his face unshaven and very serious. He was a stout man that ambled when he walked; he sat down next to J.T. on the bed and looked him in the eye.
“Now son, this can’t go on forever, you understand? You need to let us help you. You want help don’t you? You want to go home, don’t you, back to your folks?”
J.T. stared at him, he heard the words but it was like hearing a foreign language. He had no idea what this man wanted from him. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Man, you deaf or what, talk to me! Say something, dammit!”
Johnny stared expressionless at the man. Earle stood up in a huff, kicked the side of the bed with his boot, knitted his brows together and after a moment, let out a heavy breath and walked sullenly over to his jacket, looked back at J.T., cursed and left.
This went on for days, weeks, and J.T. had come to regard this as his normal daily life. He wanted to help the gruff man and his sweet girlfriend, Jolene, they seemed so anxious, and they were clearly looking to him for guidance. He tried to think but still nothing came to him, he just couldn’t grasp the situation. Occasionally an image, a new picture or scene would enter his mind, he pondered these memories, but no connections presented themselves. The side of his head was still numb, but some feeling was returning to the outside edges of the slightly concave area. He began to wonder why one side of his head was rounded and the other flat, almost inward. But that was all he could do, wonder.
“How much money we got left, Earle?”
“Enough for another couple weeks here is about all, Jolene.” “You feeling desperate yet, Earle?” She asked.
“Pert close, Jolene.”
J.T. woke with a start, sat straight up in his bed; Jolene was rubbing the inside of his thigh, smiling at him. He felt a warm stirring in himself, he knew what it was, but confused as to why. Jolene repositioned herself so she could stroke a larger area of his smooth inner leg. She appeared happy, her full lips painted pink were slightly apart, her long face surrounded by reddish brown hair that framed her fair-skinned prettiness, her fingers long, slender and active. J.T. felt uncomfortable and squirmed away from her touch.
“Don’t you like that, boy? All the men I know sure do.”
J.T. tried to answer but didn’t know what to say. He knew he should stop this now, but part of him wanted more.
“I just don’t know what to call you, darlin’, what’s your name anyhow?” Jolene cooed for the hundredth time.
“J.T., my name is Jon Thierry Starett,” he said, speaking for the first time in five weeks. Shocked, he heard his own voice and wondered where it had come from. He had answered a question that was asked, he felt excited. He sat up straighter, he wanted another question; maybe he could help these folks after all!
“Jonny! What a sweet name!” Jolene was excited too, now she was getting somewhere. I told Earle we should’ve tried sexing the boy up earlier, dammit! “You like this, Jonny, my touching you like this?”
“To tell the truth, it’s making me a little uneasy, ma’am,” he replied. He was thrilled that he could now communicate with her after all this time. There was a force growing in him, he had recognized it for the last week or so, and here it was blossoming, he wanted to tell Jolene everything.
“I can do more, Jonny, so much more.” She smiled wickedly at him, “Lay back, let me show you.” She put her hand on his chest and pushed him down flat on the bed. “Say, where you from anyhow, Jonny, around here?”
“Where am I?”
“Why, you’re in Kalispell, ever been here before?” She moved her fingers higher on his thigh. “I’m from Whitefish, not too far, just north a ways from here.” J.T. was happy to oblige, he
wanted more questions, he wanted to hear himself answer them with words that pleased her. Jolene’s hand reached a sensitive area and J.T. quickly rolled away like a wrestler performing
an escape move and jumped out of bed. He quickly stood and placed both hands in front of himself, below his belt, covering up his excitement. He was mighty glad to help this woman but was confused about the physical contact. He was free of that now, and he felt better about his circumstance and could concentrate on helping her further.
He though Jolene would be unhappy with his rush from her touch but she wasn’t at all, she was beaming, as proud as punch. She stood, smoothed her blouse and headed straight for the door, pausing while holding it open to say, “I’ll be right back, Jonny, you just hold tight.” She closed the door behind her and left J.T. with his newfound thoughts.
Early winter was not the time to be out on the road hitchhiking, but J.T. Starett had no choice. It didn’t take long for him to piece together his situation now that his absent brain had decided to start working again. He bided his time, giving false information and correcting it when their calls did not pan out. They had considered him to be mentally handicapped and so easily accepted his contradictory stories. J.T. waited until early one morning before Earle and Jolene woke, he walked out of the motel and headed north back home. He caught a ride just after dawn with a Flathead Indian named Victor.
J.T. was just twelve miles from home when Earle and Jolene showed up along side of them in the southbound lane, with the front passenger window rolled down, and Jolene screaming for them to pull over. She was only about three feet away from Victor and real angry, her eyes were humming with intensity.
“Pull over or else, dammit, pull the hell over!” She screeched.
Victor looked at J.T., searching his face for an explanation. J.T. just shrugged, like he had no idea. Victor swung his eyes back to look into Jolene’s fierce gaze, she looked crazed. Victor stomped on the gas pedal.
It took some time for Earle to maneuver the truck back along side Victor’s car, he had to drop back whenever oncoming traffic appeared on the two-lane road. This time there were no words. Earle attempted to ram the car off the road, nearly succeeding a couple times.
Jolene looked Victor in the eye, wind rushing between them and said, “Listen here you damn injun, pull over! You gonna pull over one way or t’other boy. You hear me! Now pull the hell over, he’s ours!”
Victor looked at J.T. “You steal from these people?”
“Exactly the opposite, if you want to know the truth,” J.T. said.
Then they were bumped again, hard, but Victor maintained control on the shoulder of the road
and regained the northbound lane. Jolene was shouting, spittle flew from her mouth. Up ahead was a logging truck, fully loaded, headed south. Victor let Earle ease ahead. Earle took the bait, but couldn’t line up his target properly and decided to let the farm truck pass first, then go on up and finish the job.
Earle slowed to fall back behind the Indian’s car and let the heavy truck pass, but Victor slowed too. They were two abreast filling both lanes, the oncoming logging truck leaning on its horn in long frantic bursts. Earle slowed more, so did Victor. Earle sped up, so did Victor. The farm truck whooshed past, horn blaring.
J.T. looked back and saw a cloud of dirt and rocks flying through the air some hundred feet off the southbound lane headed northwest. Earle had taken that old truck off the road to avoid a head-on collision, and from the looks of it, that truck would never see any roadway again.
“That was some fine driving there, Victor,” J.T. said admiringly, “Yes sir, some fine driving skills displayed right there.”
“Those people were trying to kill us!” Victor said breathing heavily, still looking down the road.
“Naw, they were kidnappers and they wanted their kid back.” J.T. relaxed in his seat. “Don’t think we’ll see them again.”
J.T. explained the situation generally as he knew it, leaving out the details, he figured Victor deserved to know.
“I ought to let you out right here, boy. I wasn’t ready for no action like that there.” Victor was only mildly annoyed, more proud of the role he played in the outcome, and J.T.’s praise.
“I owe you, Victor, when we get home, my momma will make us tacos,” J.T. said, “I owe you that much.” J.T. was giddy with the thought of his mother’s relief when he walked through the door. He yearned for his mother’s warm embrace, her sweet smell, and the overall softness of her. They were only a few miles outside the turn-off that led to his home.
“Aw, ‘preciate it, but I got to get to work. Got a job cuttin’ trees up north of the lake, pays good, got to have it,” explained Victor, who was only a few years older than J.T. “New government project and they’re hiring everybody, if you’re an Indian anyways. You need a job?”
J.T. had never considered a job; he was still in school and not old enough for serious work. The thought of returning to school, though, had less appeal to him now than it did back in the fall
before all this trouble started. Maybe he would get a job, help his mother out with the bills, and contribute what he could, although he knew his mother would never let him drop out of school.
“Thanks just the same, but I’ve got schooling to do yet.”
The Flathead Indian pulled his car to the side of the road in front of a whitewashed clapboard house. To J.T. it seems like years since he was here, not the month and a half he was really gone. Victor pushed in the clutch with his foot, switched the ignition off, and glided up to the house. He pulled on the handbrake and they skidded to a stop on loose gravel. The two boys exited the car on opposite sides and together they walked up to the front door, J.T. almost laughing out loud, so strong was his anticipation.
The yard was unkept, so unlike his mother, thought J.T., but I’m sure my disappearance was a hardship for her. Nonetheless, he was home, time to celebrate! The front door was locked, they knocked but no one came to answer. “She must be running the bath or out back in her garden,” J.T. said over his shoulder to Victor as they rounded the corner of the house heading to the back of the property.
“Too late in the year for a garden, don’t you think?” Victor said following.
“She’s probably at the schoolhouse then,” J.T. answered when he saw the backyard and the abandoned garden, which was entirely logical he supposed, it’s just that he though she’d be there to welcome him, that’s how it always played out in his head these last few days. The back door was locked too.
“Over here, I can get in the bathroom window.” J.T. beckoned.
Victor helped J.T., gave him a boost up to the window that J.T. knew was never locked. He opened it and slid in headfirst. J.T. walked into the hallway and down towards the kitchen and the back door. He glanced into his mother’s room as he passed and was startled to see her lying peacefully in her bed. He ran to her, “Momma! Momma! I’m home! I’m home!” She didn’t move.
She lay on her back wearing her Sunday dress, best stockings and her shiny black dress shoes. In her hands she clasped a picture of a smiling Jonny in his school clothes. On the table beside the bed was an empty pill bottle on its side, the cap lying on the floor. She was beautiful. More beautiful than any person he had ever known, or even seen. Even in death, her beauty was obvious. J.T.’s heart sank, a force gripped his insides, and he wanted to scream or smash something.
Victor was banging on the back door. J.T. stared down at his mother. There was no pain in her expression, perhaps relief, now she lay still forever. J.T. sighed mournfully, leaned over and gave her a kiss on her cold cheek, “Goodbye, momma, I love you. I will always love you.”
He stood up, the banging louder now at the back door. He walked out of her bedroom without looking back. He reached the back door, opened it but didn’t give Victor a chance to enter; J.T. pushed his way out and closed the door behind him.
“On second thought, I think I’ll head up to that job site north of the lake,” he said, “if that’s okay with you?” J.T. Starett didn’t stop walking, he headed straight for the car, “maybe they’ll have something for me up there.”