It was just past 7:00 PM, as I was sat in my car outside of a small diner when I got it, the amber alert. My phone began to fiercely vibrate and ring. I was going to look into it, but I was so hungry that I just silenced my phone, and figured I would check it out later. Those things generally didn’t amount to much anyway, at least not in my experience. On that, I put my phone in my pocket, and headed inside.
The diner was small, quaint, and rather empty. It really typified what it means to be a hole-in-the-wall. Not sure what else I would expect, I was in a small town several miles off the highway, in rural Missouri. The reason I was out this way was that I was taking a cross-country road trip to see my brother, James, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly three years. He lived out in California, and I in Virginia, so time spent with him was at quite the premium. I missed him, we had such a good relationship, always have, really, but since he moved out to the west coast for work, I barely get to see him. So, this year I decided to change all that. This was the year I would finally pack up the car, and head out west to see him. In addition to my brother, it would be nice to see my sister-in-law, Heather, and my two nephews, Justin, and Carson. They rarely got to see Uncle Matt, and I couldn’t wait to see how much they had grown.
I was sat at a booth on the far side of the diner. My server was an older woman named Shirley. She was very warm, and pleasant, kinda like the town I was in. I ordered a burger and some fries and wolfed it all down with a level of ferocity I thought unachievable. It’s not that I was starving, just that I wanted to get back on the road as soon as possible, to head to my motel for the evening. After all, I had a long day of driving ahead of me the next day, and I wanted to get settled in for the night as soon as I could. The plan was that I was going to get the bulk of the remaining trek done tomorrow and be at my brother’s place the following day.
I then paid for my food and headed back to my car. I got in my car, put my keys in the ignition, turned the key, only to be met with nothing. Damn it, I thought. What a terrible time to incur car trouble. I tried several more times but to no avail. So, I got out of the car and immediately noticed a rather large puddle of fluid pooling near my feet. I got down to look under my car and saw that I was indeed leaking some fluid. Not being even the least bit a car guy, I couldn’t have even hazarded a guess as to what it was, but I figured it was the culprit of my car trouble. As I reached into my pocket, to retrieve my phone to call Triple-A, seeing as how it now appeared that I was going to need to call a tow truck, while simultaneously preparing to hurl a string of expletives at nothing, and no one in particular, to curse my luck, that would make a mechanic blush, I was interrupted by a voice from behind me.
“Car trouble?” Said the voice. I turned around to see a pleasant looking balding middle-aged man, wearing glasses, leaning his head out of the driver side of a dark blue minivan.
“Uh…yeah, I suppose so.” I responded.
“What do you think is wrong with it?” He asked.
“Couldn’t tell ya.” I said. “But I’ve got Triple-A, so, I’ll be fine, just a little delayed.”
“Oh, nonsense,” he replied. “How about this, we’ll use our Triple-A, no sense using one of your tows on something silly like this, besides, we never use ours. I’ll have my wife call them.”
I looked past him to see a woman sitting next to him in the passenger seat. She had shoulder-length, wavy, almost platinum blonde hair, and vibrant green eyes. She gave me a small wave and a smile.
“Uh…thank you,” I stammered out. That was awfully kind, I thought. I was nearly speechless.
“Just trying to pay it forward, name’s Larry, Larry Williamson.” He said, while flashing a toothy grin, and holding his hand out for a handshake. He seemed amiable enough, I thought. I walked over to him, and shook his hand, thanking them again, and introducing myself.
“I’m Matt, Matt Woodson.”
“Nice to make your acquaintance, where ya headed, Matt?” He asked.
“California, to see my brother and his family, in San Dimas.”
“Well, that’s a bit of a ways from here, now, isn’t it?” He said, with a chuckle. “Do ya have somewhere to stay, tonight?”
I told him that I had a room booked for a motel just outside of Columbia, but that given my current situation I likely wasn’t going to make my reservation. To which he responded with the most generous gesture I had ever been offered.
“Well, we’re headed that way, too, and we’ve got a room at a hotel not too far from there, you can ride with us, we’ll drop ya off at your motel, then swing by in the morning after your car’s been towed, and pick ya up and take ya to it. How’s that sound?”
At that, I was completely, and utterly floored. I again didn’t know what to say. I just accepted their offer, not seeing much in way of a viable alternative.
“Great, well, we’re going to head down the road to the gas station, to get some gas, we’ll call Triple-A from the gas station, and tell ‘em that your car is here, why don’t you head back inside the diner, and stay warm, and we’ll be back in a jiffy.”
I thanked them again, before they headed off, and I went back inside the diner.
“Back so soon?” Shirley joked, upon seeing me re-enter.
“Car trouble,” I responded, before several people in the diner suddenly got worried looks on their faces. Don’t know what all that was about. I went up to the lunch counter and ordered a cup of coffee. I sat there sipping my coffee, thinking about how I was going to explain this to my brother, when I heard the honking of a car horn. I turned to see Larry hanging out of the driver side window, waving at me. I quickly downed my coffee, and left a couple of bucks on the counter, before heading off.
I got in the backseat of the minivan, where I was sat next to two kids. A boy who looked to be about seven, who was playing some type of handheld videogame system, he had short brown hair, and an overall jovial demeanor, and a girl, who I would have guessed was about five, with light blonde hair, who looked glum, and somewhat uncomfortable. I just figured that she wasn’t too keen on being couped up with her family on such a long trip.
“Everybody, buckle up!” Larry said, and off we went.
“Matt, this is my wife, Mandy, and our two kids, Jacob, and Melissa.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you all.” I said. “Did you call Triple-A?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, Mandy did at the gas station, said that due to worker shortages they won’t be able to get someone out to pick up your car until at least tomorrow morning, they guessed around 8:30, at the earliest.”
Figures, I thought. That would be my luck.
“But I wouldn’t worry too much about it, these things have a way of working themselves out.” Larry posited. “So, you said you’re on your way out to California, to see your family, where ya comin’ from?” He asked.
“Virginia,’ I responded.
“Oh, nice, we’ve never been out that way before.” Mandy replied.
“It’s pretty nice, can’t really complain. Where are you all from? And where are you headed?”
“We’re from Florida, just outside of Pensacola, and we’re on our way up to Montana, for Mandy’s niece’s wedding.”
Sounds lovely, I thought.
“So, what is it that you do for work, Matt?” Mandy asked.
“I work in web development, helping make websites for all sorts of companies.” I told her.
“Sounds fancy,” she said.
“Well, not really,” I responded. “But it keeps the bills paid, which is all that matter I guess.”
“Nonsense,” Larry said. “I love what I do. I’ve been employed for years, but not worked a day in my life.”
That old adage, I thought.
“Did you have to go to school for that?” Mandy inquired.
“Yeah, I got my bachelor’s degree in computer science from Ohio University.”
“Oh, the Buckeyes?” Larry said.
“No,” I said with a slight chuckle. “We’re the Bobcats, much smaller school. We play in the MAC.”
After that, the conversation died down, and I went on to looking out the window, and just enjoying the Missouri countryside for a bit. It was a nice, calm evening, with only a few clouds overhead. There wasn’t anything overly exciting to see, but there were a lot of farms, and arboreous areas. It’s actually a rather beautiful part of the country, if you’re into that sort of thing.
“Dagnabbit!” Larry blurted out of nowhere. “It looks like the oil pressure is low.”
That’s not good, I thought.
“If you need to pull off the road and pick up some oil, I could pay.” I offered. “It’s the least I could do.”
“No, that’s okay, I think we’ll be alright.” Larry responded. “She may be old, but she’ll make it.” He said, reassuringly.
“We have too many cars.” Melissa said, speaking for the first time.
“Yeah, that’s our little environmentalist right there.” Larry interrupted. “She thinks a family of four having three cars is too many, admittedly our carbon footprint could be a little smaller.” He said, with a small laugh.
“We have seven cars, daddy.” She shouted. “People give us lots of cars.”
“That’s right, sweety, daddy’s company lends daddy lots of cars, but that’s enough about our cars, how about you kids tell Mr. Woodson about your favorite animals?” He suggested.
“My favorites are tamarins.” Melissa said. “Because they’re so cute and little monkeys.”
“That they are.” I concurred.
“And at home, we have three pet dogs.” She continued.
“Oh yeah, and what are their names?” I asked
“Larry, Curly, and Moe, they’re Alsatians” she said.
“That’s funny,” I said. Although I found it rather strange that a pet would have the same name as one of its owners.
“I like dinosaurs!” Jacob exclaimed.
“Oh yeah, what’s your favorite dinosaur?” I asked.
“Plesiosaurus!” He excitedly replied.
“And why’s that?”
“Because it has ‘please’ in its name, and that’s a polite thing to say, so it was probably a really nice dinosaur.”
I love kid logic. Doesn’t make any sense, but hey, if it makes sense to him, I guess.
It wasn’t long after our exchange about dinosaurs, that we pulled into a dimly lit, rather seedy looking parking lot.
“Alright Matt, here’s your stop, we’ll be back around 10:00 AM to pick you up.”
On that note I exited the minivan, but not before asking them if they wanted gas money for going out of their way to help me. Mandy said that wouldn’t be necessary. A sentiment that was echoed by Larry, who insisted that they were just doing what was right, and to just get a good night’s sleep. With that, we parted ways for the evening. I entered the motel’s front office, checked in, got my key, requested a 9:00 AM wake-up call, and went to my room. It wasn’t much to speak of, but it was shelter. I took a quick shower and headed to bed.
The next morning began with the bedside phone ringing at 9:00 AM, it was the lady from the front office, giving me my wake-up call. I thanked her and rolled out of bed, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and headed down to check out of my room. I paid the $65 and went to go wait in the parking lot for the Williamsons. After about 40 minutes of waiting, I had a worrying thought. What if they had forgotten about me? What if I end up stranded here, now? No, couldn’t be, the Williamsons were nice people. They wouldn’t go through all this trouble just to leave me here, would they?
My worries subsided when I heard the familiar honk of a car horn, and looked up to see Larry, cheery as ever, waving me over to the van. I walked over and greeted him.
“Mornin’, Matt, how’d ya sleep last night?”
“Oh, just fine, I think I got a full eight hours.”
“Well, that’s good, climb on in, we’ve gotta get ya to your car, Triple-A called Mandy around 8:10 this mornin’, said your car is at Gus’s Auto Repair, just outside of St. Louis.”
“Great, thank you,” I said, and on that note, I got in the van, and we were off.
The kids stayed mostly occupied. Jacob with his game, and Melissa looking out the window, and sometimes singing softly to herself.
After about five minutes, we made it back to the highway, but instead of heading east, Larry took the ramp to go west. I guess he forgot he had an extra passenger on board, and was thinking about getting to that wedding in Montana.
“Uh, hey, Larry, that’s the wrong way, St. Louis is east of here.” I pointed out.
“Oh, that’s right, well, don’t worry, I’ll find a place to turn around, and we’ll get headed back east.” He said, realizing his mistake. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” I said. “You guys have been such a big help and may well have saved my vacation. Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to make it up to you guys.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary, we’re just trying to do the neighborly thing.” Larry said.
“Well, thank you, there really aren’t too many people like you out there in the world, that would go to such great lengths to save someone else’s vacation, and hey, if you guys ever find yourselves in Virginia, around the Roanoke area, look me up, because I owe you guys a drink.”
“It’s no problem at all.” Mandy said.
“Yeah, besides, we all need a vacation once in a while, and boy, I tell ya, I have needed this time off, even though I love my job, it’s nice to be out of the office.” Larry added.
“Oh, I almost forgot to ask, what is it that you do for work, Larry?”
“I work in television production, have for quite some time now.”
“That sounds interesting, how did you come about that career?” I asked.
“Well, ya see Matt, growing up my parents weren’t around much, they both had busy lives, worked multiple jobs, and my alcoholic father spent a pretty significant portion of his life wasting away at the bar. I’m almost surprised they didn’t hold his funeral service there.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I replied.
“Oh, well, it’s nothing, but it was more like I grew up with the TV. I didn’t have much in way of parental figures, but I could see them portrayed on TV. Didn’t have many real friends either, so the characters on TV were like my friends. So, anyway, I just fell in love with the medium, and to this day I still really love some of the shows from when I grew up, in the 70s”
“There was definitely some good stuff back then, what were some of your favorites?” I asked.
“I really liked stuff like Good Times, The Brady Bunch, and my all-time favorite was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it had a great opening theme song, and I just thought she was terrific, pretty, too.”
“Yeah,” Jacob said, looking up from his game. “Daddy really liked Mary Tyler Moore, that’s why he named me Tyler.”
“Tyler? I thought your name was Jacob.” I replied.
“His name is Jacob.” Larry calmly interjected. “You know how kids are, always making stuff up.” At that, Jacob looked a mixture of sad and confused. That was odd, I thought.
Then came a familiar buzzing from my pocket. It was my phone. I hadn’t so much as looked at it since I was at the diner, yesterday. I had nearly forgotten about it in all the recent commotion. I pulled the phone out of my pocket and saw that there was an update to the amber alert from the previous day. That was new, I thought. This isn’t usually how this goes. I clicked on the alert to look into further details. Apparently, the amber alert was for an entire family that was believed to have been abducted and was potentially in grave danger.
Yikes! I thought. That’s not good.
I then looked into the update. The update said that the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department had recovered the bodies of four individuals in a drainage ditch, believed to be the family in question. Furthermore, that they were believed to be the most recent victims in a string of abductions and murders that had been happening across Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It was stated that the alleged assailants are suspected of having abducted people by sabotaging their vehicles, thus immobilizing the victim, then abducting, murdering, and assuming the identity of their victims, as well as robbing them of their money and other valuables, and escaping in the victim’s car once it was repaired. That sounded pretty awful, I thought. I was going to bring it up to Larry, but as I kept scrolling, something grabbed my attention, that left me in a state of shock. I read that the names of the family members that were believed to be abducted were Larry and Mandy Williamson, and their two kids, Jacob, and Melissa Williamson. I couldn’t believe it; I was riding with the people that the amber alert was out for. Did they even know there was an alert out for them? Furthermore, whose bodies were recovered in Crawford County? Either way, I figured I had some good news for the police, that the Williamson family was safe and sound, and that it all must have just some big misunderstanding.
That was until I saw something that just about knocked the wind out of me. The pictures that accompanied the missing persons report on the Williamson family did not even remotely resemble the people I was riding with, and it was reported that they were last seen hitching a ride outside of a shopping center from a couple driving an SUV, after their blue minivan was reported to have had trouble starting.
Who was I with?
Credit : Steven Allen
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