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Danger at Lakeside Farm
By Patricia H. Rushford, Cheryl Dunlop
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2007 Patricia H. Rushford
All rights reserved.
"Jessie, come inside please. Your dad and I need to talk to you." Mom pressed her lips together and ducked back into the house.
Uh-oh. My stomach did a backflip. I couldn't imagine what they wanted to talk about, but right away I thought of my friend, Max Hunter, and wondered what she'd done this time. I scooted away from the table on the porch where I'd been helping my little brother, Sam, put a puzzle together. "I'll be back in a minute," I told him.
"Are you in trouble?" he asked, hope registering in his blue eyes.
"You wish." I hurried inside and pulled out a chair at the kitchen table where my parents were waiting. Dad was playing with the handle of his coffee cup, and Mom had her hands clasped in front of her. "What's wrong? If it's about my room ..."
"It's not about you, Jessie." Dad glanced up at Mom. Not a good sign. His worried gaze shifted back to me. "It's Max."
I knew it. I looked from one to the other, swallowing back my worst fears.
"Max is missing." Mom took hold of my hand. "Mrs. Truesdale called a few minutes ago. The authorities think she may have run away."
This was way worse than anything I had imagined. "Max wouldn't do that." I could barely talk around the lump in my throat.
"Honey." Dad frowned and took a deep breath. "She is missing, and so is a rather large sum of money. It doesn't look good. They've put out an Amber alert, but ..."
I jumped up and clenched my fists at my side. "She is not a thief. You should know that." I turned and ran to my room, where I threw some pillows at the floor and then collapsed on the bed. Mom came in to see if I needed anything, then ended up holding me while I sputtered on about Max being innocent.
"I'm sure you're right, Jessie. The police are looking at all the possibilities."
At least she agreed with me, but that didn't make me less miserable. "We have to do something. We can't just sit here."
She hugged me tighter. "I know it's hard, but there's really nothing we can do, except pray and let the police do their jobs."
I didn't want to accept that, but I didn't have much choice. I washed my face and went back out to the porch, where I tried to focus on the puzzle.
Later, during the five o'clock news, I sat in front of the television set trying to figure out where my best friend might be and praying that God would keep her safe.
According to the news anchor, "local officials" were saying that Max Hunter had been a troubled girl. They also said she was wanted for questioning in a recent theft and vandalism act. Had been? They made it sound like she was dead.
The accusations infuriated me. I knew Max hadn't stolen or vandalized anything, and I doubted Max had run away. But how could I prove it? Part of what they were saying was too true. Max did have a troubled past. She'd been abused and had lived with an aunt and uncle who did drugs. I had to admit that running away was something she might do, but not without telling me. Well, she might do that too, I realized. But she would never steal. Never.
As much as I wanted to believe my declarations of innocence on Max's part, doubt seeped into my mind like water into a leaky boat. More than anything, I wanted to believe in Max, but with all that had happened in the last few days, I couldn't be sure.
Max had changed a lot since she first moved to Chenoa Lake. She'd been wild and crazy at first, wearing outrageous mismatched clothes and coloring her hair every shade known to humankind—sometimes all at once. I eventually learned that the clothes mostly came from thrift shops. Still, Max made up her own rules about what to wear. No one in our sixth-grade class at Lakeview School likes Max much, but I think that's because she doesn't especially want them to. Max has a prickly side and isn't afraid to show it.
For some reason Max and I hit it off—maybe because I don't fit in any more than she does. See, I have leukemia. That in itself isn't a huge thing, but during my chemo treatments, my hair fell out and never grew back. Anyway, most kids in school ignore me, like they're afraid they'll catch the cancer too. Some of the girls are mean. Part of the problem is mine, I guess. Max tells me I can be a little prickly too. I like to think I'm just being honest.
And speaking of honesty, I wished now Max hadn't gone to live with Amelia Truesdale. Maybe if I'd thrown a fit the day she told me about her plans, she would have stayed with us and not gotten herself into this mess.
But wait—I'm getting ahead of myself. This fiasco with Max and Mrs. Truesdale started about a week ago—the day before I got out of the hospital after having a bone marrow transplant.CHAPTER 2
Max had come to the hospital to see me like she did most days. She hitched herself up on the edge of my bed and blew a bubble with her fat glob of raspberry bubble gum. "When are you getting out of here?"
"Maybe tomorrow," I said. "I hope so anyway."
"Good." The bubble popped and covered most of her freckled nose. She peeled it off, shoved it back into her mouth, and kept chewing. Max heaved a deep sigh like she was bored, then got up and walked to the window.
Max is about a foot taller than me and almost as thin. She's actually normal in height—I'm short, or petite as my mother likes to say. She had on loose cargo pants with a ton of pockets—her favorite style—and a baggy blue tie-dyed T-shirt. My mother says she bought Max some new clothes, but I haven't seen them yet. She looks like a boy from the back with her hair all stubbly. It's actually kind of cute, but the style had not been hers by choice. Her aunt had shaved all of her hair off to punish her for something. It's growing back in, and so far Max hasn't tried to color it. I think her hair is brown with red highlights, but I'm not sure yet.
"Why do you want to know when I'm going home?" I asked.
Max turned back to me—a distant look in her eyes. "Huh? Oh, nothing. I just wondered."
It must have been frustrating to have me take so long to get well. Unfortunately, having a bone marrow transplant is not a quick fix. I'd been in the hospital for more than a month, and so far, everything seemed to be going okay, but I still needed to be careful. The doctors say my immune system is still fragile. All that to say, I have about as much strength as a stalk of overcooked asparagus.
I wondered if Max had found another girlfriend to hang around with. I hoped not. Right away I pulled the thought back in. I wasn't being fair. Just because I'm stuck here doesn't mean Max can't make new friends.
The way Max was acting, I could tell she was up to something. But then, my friend was always up to something. Since Max and I had become friends this spring, I'd gotten into more trouble than at any other time in my life. Of course, some of that trouble had been my own fault. But that's another story.
"I've been thinking." Max came back and settled herself in the chair beside my bed. She didn't like sitting still and seemed even more restless than usual.
"That could be dangerous." I smiled at her.
She shot me a look that said she didn't appreciate my attempt at humor. "If you're going to be such a smart mouth, I won't tell you." She blew another bubble and reined it in.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"No, you're not." Max grinned, showing the small gap between her two front teeth.
"So tell me what you've been thinking about." I leaned back into my pillow, trying not to look as tired as I felt.
"You're not going to like it."
She blew another bubble. "Okay. I'm thinking about moving into the foster home Child Services found for me."
"You are?" I didn't bother to hide my shock or my disappointment. I didn't want Max to leave, and I thought going into a foster home was the last thing she'd do. That's what she'd told me. "I thought you were going to stay with us." To be honest, I didn't even know she'd been thinking about moving out. She'd been living at my house while I'd been in the hospital trying to get strong enough to go home. I'd even talked to my parents about letting her stay with us permanently. Guess that wasn't going to happen. I wondered if my parents had pressured her.
"Don't take it personally, Jess," Max said.
"Who is it?" I asked, probably sounding as annoyed as I felt. I didn't much like being left out of a decision as important as that.
"You're kidding." Her announcement surprised me, and for more reasons than one. I knew Amelia Truesdale and couldn't see where she and Max had anything in common. Amelia, as she insisted everyone call her, was as much of an antique as our church. She'd been going to Saint Luke's since it was built in 1923, or almost that long. "Mrs. Truesdale doesn't seem like the parental type," I said. "She has to be at least 90."
"So?" Max pushed herself out of the chair again and paced over to the window and back. "She's 79."
I shrugged. I suppose age shouldn't really matter. Mrs. Truesdale has outlived three husbands, and she's still living on her 50-acre lavender farm and gardens. "How did ...? I mean, why would ...?"
"Why would she want me?" Max lowered her gaze to the floor. "I don't know. Maybe it's because the state pays people for taking in rejects."
"That's not what I was going to say." It made me mad when Max got down on herself like that. "And you are not a reject." I may as well have been talking to a fence post. She'd gone over to the window again and was staring at something outside. It seemed to me that Mrs. Truesdale was too old to be a foster mom, and I told Max that.
"My caseworker said something about Amelia being a special case. Or maybe I'm the special case. I'm not sure, but I guess she's certified."
I understood how she'd come to see herself as a reject. Max was an orphan and probably had good reason to feel that way. Her parents had died in a plane crash, and then she'd had the bad luck of living with an aunt and uncle who were lousy parents. To make matters even worse, she'd been placed in a foster home once and had been abused there too. I'd helped her get away from her aunt and uncle, and I think she appreciated that. She misses them, but like she told me, she's happy they're getting the help they need.
"Do you like Mrs. Truesdale?" I asked.
Max shrugged and turned around to face me. "I only met her once. She seems nice enough, but I need to talk to her. Get to know her. I want you to go out there with me."
"Sure." I took a drink from the glass of water on the bedside stand and then scooted back up in the bed. Max wanted my opinion, and I appreciated that, but I still didn't like the idea.
"Like you said, she's pretty old." Max folded her arms.
"I thought you said age didn't make any difference to you."
She frowned and sat back down in the chair. "It doesn't, but what if she croaks while I'm there? What if my hanging around is too much for her?"
"Oh, Max, I doubt that."
Max chewed on her lower lip. "I'm not thinking about living with her because I need a parent. I'd be doing it to help her out with chores and stuff."
I had to smile. Max had a good heart, and I was beginning to see benefits for both Max and Amelia.
"She's too old to be living out there alone," Max went on.
"She isn't exactly alone," I reminded her. "She has a hired hand—Carlos Sanchez."
"Carlos isn't there anymore. He left about three weeks ago and didn't tell anyone where he was going. No one has seen him since."
"Carlos is gone?" Carlos had been a member at Saint Luke's. That's how he and Mrs. Truesdale had connected. He'd been a migrant worker and was glad for the permanent job. He helped her to harvest the lavender and take care of the farm.
"It happened while you were still at the hospital in Seattle," Max said.
"Are the police trying to find him?"
"I guess. Turns out he's an illegal immigrant and they think maybe he moved out of the area to keep from getting deported."
"No kidding." I'd known Carlos for two years and couldn't imagine him just leaving. While I was trying to digest this strange piece of news, Max said, "Mrs. T hired another guy. Martin something."
Maybe it was just my imagination, but I had a feeling something wasn't right. I just didn't know at the time how not right it would be.CHAPTER 3
Max didn't seem to notice my concern over Carlos and kept talking.
"Heidi Ellis says Mrs. T and I would be good for each other." Max sounded as though she were still trying to talk herself into moving.
"Who is Heidi?" I asked.
"Oh, I forgot. You haven't met her. She's my social worker ... um, the lady from Child Protective Services."
"I thought you didn't like her."
"Yeah, well, she was just doing her job, and she did let me stay at your place. She's kind of like your mom and dad in a way. Heidi talks to me like my opinions matter." Max swung her skinny legs back and forth and pressed her hands on the edge of the seat. She seemed nervous, and I didn't blame her. Going into a foster home was a big step for her, especially considering what she'd been through before.
"I don't understand," I said. "You like my parents, and they like you. Why do you even want to move? Did my parents say something to make you think they didn't want you?"
"No. I just think it's the right thing to do."
"Hmm." I tried to picture Max living with Mrs. Truesdale. Her farm was only a few miles out of town on Salmonberry Road. Like so many places in our area, including my house, part of it bordered on Chenoa Lake. I'd never been inside Amelia's house, but I had always wanted to. It's a two-story Victorian, painted light yellow with white trim. It looks like a dollhouse with all of the gingerbread trim. She has a little roadside stand that's open to the public in the summertime. My mom and I have stopped there a few times. "When would you move out there?" I asked.
"As soon as I tell Heidi what I want to do."
"I still don't know why you'd even want to leave. Are my parents too—you know ...?"
"Parental?" Max offered.
"Yeah, like too strict? I know with your aunt and uncle you could do pretty much what you wanted."
She shrugged. "Your mom and dad are nice, but they have a lot of restrictions. I don't want to do anything wrong, but I'm feeling kind of smothered. I think they're worried I'll be a bad influence on Sam." She chuckled. "Personally, I think Sam is a bad influence on me."
I had to agree. My five-year-old brother was cute, but mischievous. "I don't think they need to worry."
"No kidding. He's even teaching me a few things."
"Oh, nothing." She raised her eyebrows and I knew she and Sam had something planned for my homecoming.
"I can't wait to get home," I said. For part of my hospital stay, I'd been too sick to care. Now I was looking forward to Mom's cooking and my own bed, and even my pesky little brother. I was even looking forward to seeing my next-door neighbor, Ivy, who had snubbed me for most of this past school year. Then all of a sudden just before school let out for the summer, she started being nice. She invited me to a party, but I couldn't go, so she decided to postpone it until I was well enough to come.
And I wanted to see Cooper Smally, the guy who bullied everyone he met and had even fewer friends than Max and me. He'd turned from being my worst enemy to being a friend. I wondered if he'd be hanging out with Max and me much this summer. I think he likes Max—but I don't think Max feels the same way.
"Is Cooper home from that camp he went to?" He and his dad had gone to a camp in Oregon right when school got out, so he hadn't come to see me since I got the transplant. He'd sent me a get-well card, though, which I still had sitting on the shelf above the sink with the others.
"Nope. I haven't seen him." Max got up and came to stand beside my bed. "I need to go."
"Sure." I didn't want her to leave, but she'd been there almost an hour.
"I'm glad you're feeling better."
"Me too." I watched her leave, then leaned back into my pillow and closed my eyes. I hated to admit it, but visitors still tired me out. I sighed and hoped I wouldn't always be this way.
The next morning my doctor gave me the all clear and told my parents they could take me home. My prognosis—that's their medical term for predicting my future—was good, whatever that meant. Some kids do great after bone marrow transplants. Some don't. I've decided I'm going to get completely well and live as long as Mrs. Truesdale. I think it would be cool to be a normal kid again. At least that's what I'm praying for.
Excerpted from Danger at Lakeside Farm by Patricia H. Rushford, Cheryl Dunlop. Copyright © 2007 Patricia H. Rushford. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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