|A Year and Change|
"COME BACK TO JESUS" the sign read over the head of a benevolent Saviour offering his open arms to Interstate 580. It was the same sign Benicia Swainson had seen in Macon, and, indeed, the same sign that was displayed across the country now. Overseas, except in nations that were already Christian, the message was "Come to Jesus" in dozens of languages, but here it had always been "Come Back to Jesus." This was the motto of her father's church.
The latest version of the sign didn't have her father on it, but many had.
"Well, I guess we're almost there," said Benicia after they passed the sign.
"Lord willing," said Patterson, sounding like a true believer.
<Almost there,> thought Benicia. <Daddy's come and gone since we started.> They'd been on the road for nine days since leaving Georgia. Patterson had given up trying to make small talk some time in Texas.
Benicia Swainson had not been with her father since Christmas. Still, his late-night arrival was not a surprise, somehow. Benicia had had a feeling she would be seeing him soon. She'd starting feeling it even before the "Bring Back the Children" appeal.
She'd been brought to the School Director's suite and found her father with Dr. Murcheson, talking over school business--business business, that is, the school's finances. Her father was holding forth when she entered the sitting room. A half-finished drink was in one hand; the other was pointing a finger up, stirring air in a familiar gesture as he made his points.
"I thought we would get a little more help here. We supported this President, and you say we still have IRS trouble?"
Murcheson, whose doctorate was in law, not education, said, "Not for us directly, but the decision on contributions still stands. They are still not tax-deductable."
"So how bad is it?"
"I'd say the school will lose between three and four million over the next semester."
"I can stand that."
"No you can't, John. The school is set up as a seperate entity; you can't use Church funds for it. If you do, you could expose the Church itself. And if you cover it with personal funds, the IRS is going to wonder where they came from."
Her father finished his drink, set down the empty glass, and said, "I'll think on this. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like some time alone with my daughter."
Murcheson vanished. Benicia's father reached into a small drawer and pulled out a lighter and a package of cigarettes. "Smoke?" he offered.
Benicia accepted. After lighting up and taking a drag, she said, "How long have you known I smoke?"
"I knew at Christmas," said her father. He did not light up; he had never been a smoker. "These killed your mother, you know."
After another drag, Benicia said, "You're closing down the school now?"
"Maybe," he said.
"I won't be sorry," said Benicia.
"It won't matter to you," said her father. "I'm sending you to California. You'll be living with Aunt Lucy."
"Aunt Lucy?" That was surprising. "In Hollywood?" Aunt Lucy had been a starlet of sorts, and she had lived in a rather seedy part of Hollywood for many years, since before Benicia had been born.
"No," said her father. "I've set her up in a place in the north of the state. A place called Orinda."
Benicia said, "There's more . . . "
"Yes, there is more, Benicia," said her father. "Will you do it?"
Aunt Lucy's new place wasn't new; it was a quite ordinary-looking single-story house. In fact, if you looked close enough, it was really a double-wide trailer that was disguised by the additions of a small garage and a porch. It was isolated, actually north of Orinda, which turned out to be a small town nestled in a narrow valley.
"This used to be a ranch," said Aunt Lucy (actually Great Aunt Lucy). "Still is, but the family that lived here, they got old and sold off most of the land before they died."
Since Aunt Lucy hadn't finished unpacking her boxes, Benicia wondered how she knew this bit of local color, and asked.
"Oh, from the cowboys!" said Aunt Lucy. "A couple of them came to get the cattle here and take them somewhere else. They'll probably be back in about a month. They shift the cows around between fields. Actually the cattle are just a dodge so the owners don't get taxed higher. Ranching hasn't made real money here for a long time."
Patterson was gone, so Benicia risked asking, "Do you think Daddy owns the land?"
"Maybe. Maybe friends of his. Best not to think about it, Betty. And definitely the best thing not to talk about it."
Benicia saw several students with "Come Back to Jesus" pins on her first day at Orinda High, and one of them had tried to hand out literature--something the school administration had come down on immediately. The rest were easy enough to avoid, at least in the first week. None of them recognized her. The last pictures of her released were two years old, and they showed her as just another uniformed schoolgirl in pigtails. In the current fashion of short skirts, knit tops, colored tights, and and colored hair or wigs, and without the plain-lensed glasses she always wore for those official photos, not even the people with the "Come Back" pins recognized her as Benicia Swainson, the daughter of the Reverend Johnny Lee.
The students with the pins did recognize a girl she was looking for, though. Benicia had seen the girl several times without making her--in this case because she was wearing glasses she did not wear in her official photos, real bottle-bottom lenses. It wasn't until she actually overheard two of the pin-wearers asking her, "Do you know where the children are?" that Benicia realized the gangling girl was one of her targets.
Patterson reappeared a few days later, and asked her about her progress on the drive back to her home.
"I've found one of them, but I can't get close to her. There's always some kid from the Church right there. I'm afraid they'll recognize me."
Not all of what she had said was the truth; she didn't think she'd be discovered.
Patterson said, "I'll see what I can do."
Patterson was one of her father's fixers, someone who took care of problems. Apparently he took care of this one, because the school administration suddenly began taking an interest in the harassment of Pleione Umino. The pin wearers backed off, at least at the High School itself.
Pleione didn't go in for short skirts, even though Sarah always said she ought to show off her legs. She preferred jeans, but while they were permissable by the relaxed dress code of Orinda High, they were not by her mother, not for school. So, she usually wore a fairly long skirt or dress to school. But cheerleaders wore short skirts, and while she felt no discomfort while practicing or at a game, she did feel self-conscious in her costume in front of everyone at lunch. Katerina hadn't come that day, so Pleione left the cafeteria after buying her orange juice, and found a tree to sit under outside.
It was there that she was approached by another girl, a stranger. Pleione put the morsel she had in her chopsticks back into her bento and said politely, "Hello. I'm Pleione Umino."
"Betty Beringer," said the stranger. "I saw the Holy Johnnies were after you before."
"Oh, yes," said Pleione. "But they leave me alone now. At least at school."
"Can I sit with you?"
"Sure," said Pleione, wondering if the girl was going to try to get close before asking about Auntie Makoto and her children.
The girl wore a skirt about as short as Sarah's or Deja's--or the ones Pleione remembered from old photos of their mothers--and her own mother. The girl knew the tricks of sitting down without uncovering what prying eyes would be looking for, though she did not seem as smoothly practiced as Sarah or Deja.
"What's that?" asked the girl. "What you're eating?"
"Oh, this is a bento, a box lunch. Japanese style. Rice, a plumb, pickles, a little sashimi, shrimp, tofu . . . Mom's home cooking for me."
"I suppose it is for you." The girl pulled a sandwich from her bag and began eating it. "Pastrami. Aunt Lucy's idea of lunch. Not bad; there's actually a decent delicatesson in this little town. Kosher, too."
"Kosher?" asked Pleione. "Are you Jewish?"
"No, but I've lived around Jewish people. Not for awhile, though . . . are you Jewish?"
"No. I have friends who are." <This one doesn't seem to be one of those capital-C Christians, but . . .> "Are you new here?"
"I'm a freshman."
"No, what I meant is, did you just move here? I remember seeing you before, but you never seemed to be with anyone."
"Oh. Yeah, I'm new here. My pop had me in a boarding school, but I said, enough! So I came out here to live with my Aunt. Great Aunt, actually. Don't feel sorry for me. This is a thousand percent better than that boarding school! I don't even want to talk about that!"
After tackling more of her sandwich, the new girl said, "Besides the Holy Johnnies, there's only one girl I've seen you with. Are you new here, too?"
"I'm a freshman like you, but I live pretty close, I guess," explained Pleione. "In Kensington. It's on the west side of the hills, and on the other side of Berkeley."
"That's still pretty far from here."
"I know. I applied last year. Sarah and Joline and Paula did too, but they didn't get accepted. Only Val and I. And Johnny, of course."
"Johnny?" remarked the new girl.
"Johnny Brown," said Pleione a little more dreamily than she wanted to. "He plays football. He's a kicker. All the high schools around here tried to recruit him, but his mother picked this one."
"Is Val the friend I see you with?"
"Yeah. Valentina Petrov."
"She didn't drop out, did she? I haven't seen her since the beginning of the week."
"No. She's got measles. The kind you can't get vaccinated for."
"Yeah. I don't know if she gave it to us or got it from us."
"My family. I had 'em when I was nine, just after we got back from--"
"Oh, from visiting some place down south. You would never have heard of it. Anyway, now all the really little ones in the house have the measles. Taggy and Merry and Atty, and all my Auntie's babies, and Meti-chan . . . It's a mess."
"You live with aunts?"
"My mom's friends. We all live together, most of us. Kind of weird, I guess, but I like it most of the time. Mom and Dad had a house in Palo Alto for awhile, but we moved back."
Patterson got right to the point. "Did you find out anything important from your new friend?"
"She doesn't know where the children are," said Benicia.
"You're sure of that?"
"Yes. I'm sure," she reiterated. "She thinks they could be in with friends overseas. Probably Japan, but she isn't sure."
"That's not too helpful. That's what we already figured."
Benecia shrugs. "She doesn't know. But I think she thinks someone does know."
Benicia shrugged again. "All I know is it's someone besides the lawyer. I could tell she wasn't really agreeing when I said only her lawyer would probably know."
After a pause, Patterson asked, "What else did you get on them?"
"You sound like you want some dirt."
"Don't get smart with me. Every word you say gets back to your father. Now, what else did you get?"
Benecia waited until just before Patterson was about to speak again. "She's got a crush on a black football player. I don't think Daddy will want to make anything of that, will he?"
"Nothing. I didn't get her alone for that long. Is there some kind of big rush now?"
"Just keep me up with what you find out."
Previous: Prologue: Fine Choices
Next: Memories of Tokyo
Story Index Main Index