Cold Rain - WichitabyJakeRivers©
I fully realize that the laws for child custody and adoption are much more complex than represented here. The real laws are frequently counter-productive and in many cases provide less support for children -- rather than more. Several people have suggested that I change the time of the story back to when the bureaucracy was smaller -- but for obvious reasons I wanted it generally in the current time frame.
So with poetic license and the forgiveness of my readers, I give you this story. I offer specific apologies to the Sedgwick County Department District Attorney's Office of Child Protective Services for impinging on their professionalism with my liberal use of artistic license (that is a colloquial term used to denote the distortion or complete ignorance of fact).
Thanks to RoustWriter for his edit and comments on an early version of this story. And thanks as always to Techsan for his great editing.
Such a tragic scene - two kids stranded in the rain.
I'd gone to the train station in Newton, Kansas, to pick up my mom -- she was coming to stay with me for a few weeks for Christmas. The roads were bad and I was running late. A cold winter storm - this was almost the middle of December - had moved in. The temperature was hovering a few degrees above freezing and the rain had occasional flurries of sleet mixed in with it. Even with the four-wheel drive of my Range Rover I expected to find the roads treacherous.
This may be a surprise to some but Amtrak doesn't set up its schedules with the folks in Newton in mind. The eastbound train usually arrives early in the morning at 3:01 and the westbound arrives a few minutes later at 3:25. I say arrive -- this is a whistle stop so the arrival and departure times are as near simultaneous as Amtrak can possibly make them. If there are no passengers or freight to pick up or drop off the train doesn't even slow down.
My mom was coming from Princeton, Illinois, where she lived with dad on the family farm. I'd checked the train status before I left home and found it was only running two minutes late. Glancing at my watch I'd figured I'd make it okay after all. I pulled into the station just as the eastbound was pulling out.
I parked and poured a large cup of hot chocolate from my thermos and wandered on out under the edge of the roof to watch for Mom's train to come in. I was bundled up pretty good in a fairly new sheepskin jacket - the kind with the big furry collar - and mused a bit about my failed marriage with Eileen. It was a not uncommon story: married too young with a wife that wanted to "experience life." I guess Mom was coming out to console me and make sure I ate right. Once a mom, always a mom.
I heard a noise, almost a whimpering sound, off towards the end of the platform. I couldn't see anything through the heavy, cold rain so I walked a few paces down the track. I saw a huddled mass kind of tangled together but I couldn't see clearly what it was. As I walked closer, I could see two small kids, one largish, cardboard-like suitcase and what I heard was out-and-out crying, not whimpering. I guess the strong biting northwest wind had muffled the sound.
I stood there looking down at the kids, my heart giving a lurch as I took in the sad pair before me. The two kids were poorly dressed, a light jacket on each. There was a girl of maybe six and a very small boy that looked about three … but turned out to be four. Both were emaciated and the sneakers they were wearing were falling apart and wet from the rain.
I'd never seen such a tragic scene - these two kids stranded in the rain, half frozen from the cold. Apparently someone had dropped them off during the brief stop. A chill colder than the rain came over me - it dawned on me that someone had deserted these two beautiful, bedraggled children. I saw the lights from the westbound train and heard the lonesome whistle as it resonated with the pain in my soul at seeing kids left in this state.
I grabbed the kids and took them under the overhang. I ran back for their suitcase, hoping it would wait to disintegrate until I could get the kids taken care of. I sat the kids on the wet suitcase, took off my coat and wrapped the heavy warmth around them. They looked like they were in shock and didn't say anything - they just sat there, startled out of their tears, looking at me with eyes large and round.
When I saw the kids I'd poured the hot chocolate back in the thermos. Now I poured a half-cup and tried to get them to sip a little bit to warm them up.
A loud squealing of brakes announced the arrival of the incoming train. When it came to a stop my mom stepped down, a porter close behind her putting her two small bags on the wet asphalt. It was getting slippery; the temperature must be dropping. I took her bags and led her over to the kids.
"Land sakes, Ben. What's this?"
"I don't know, Mom. When I got here a few minutes ago they were at the end of the platform sitting together trying unsuccessfully to stay warm. Their clothes are soaked so there wasn't much chance of that. I guess they came in on the eastbound and someone on the train dropped them off. Let's get them into the station and get them warm, then we'll figure out what to do."
Just then, the station agent walked out, locking the door behind him. I went over and talked to him, pointing to the children, and explained what I thought had happened.
"I'm sorry, Mister, ain't nothin' I can do to help. I got a mare ready to drop a foal and I gotta get home. You live in Wichita, right? Whyn't you take them to Child Protective Services - they're part of the Sedgwick County District Attorney's office. Sorry again, mister, but I gotta run."
With that he was gone. Mom and I quickly talked it over and decided the best thing was to get them warm and fed. We put the kids in the back seat of the Range Rover and put the luggage in the back. We drove to my small ranch, ten miles or so northeast of Wichita. I bred miniature horses as a hobby while working for what used to be Beech Aircraft, now Raytheon, as an Aeronautical Engineer. Mom sat in the back with them and got them to drink a little of the now not-so-hot chocolate.
When we arrived at the ranch, Mom put the kids in a hot tub of water to warm them up. I looked through their suitcase to see if I could find a change of clothes. On top of what few clothes that were there was an envelope - I put that aside while I looked for something for them to wear. At the bottom of the meager few clothes was a threadbare nightgown for the girl and a pair of oversized pajamas with holes in the knees for the boy.
I took the clothes into the bathroom and gave them to Mom and asked if the kids had said anything.
"Not a thing. These poor little tykes … just look at them. They are pretty nigh starved."
I went back in the kitchen and fixed some more hot chocolate and warmed up some soup. Mom brought them in and they ate the soup ravenously, along with the oyster crackers I'd put in a bowl on the table.
SEARCHING FOR LOVE
While they were drinking their chocolate I was able to get their names from the girl. Her name was Anna and she spoke in a broken but only slightly accented English. The boy's name was Pasha, which I found out later, was the Russian familiar name for Pavel.
Mom got the kids asleep on the pullout sofa in the den and she went off to her room, looking a little too tired. Pouring a large brandy, for "medicinal purposes," I opened the envelope to see what I could find out. There were two letters; one in broken English and one written in what I assumed to be Russian; for sure, it was written using the Cyrillic alphabet. There was also a photo of the two kids with a small, dark haired woman who looked about thirty. She was pretty in a hard-edged way with short dark hair and had a tired look to her. From the size of the kids I guessed the picture was about a year old.
I looked at the short letter first:
To a good person,
My name Ludmila Serova. Come from Russia to get married. It was a trick and they made me bad woman. I can take no more, no more! My kids need home -- no have family. You good person take my kids love them. They you kids now.
I no can take more I go way. Kiss hug my kids. Tell I love them. The man on train he sees me. No good for me no good save kids.
Goodbye good person god loves you.
I was crying by the time I finished reading this sad missive of pain. Reading between the lines I could see some of her hard life and problems. I washed my face in the hall bathroom and came back to look at the birth certificates. They did confirm that Ludmila was their mother but both were marked as "father unknown." The ages were four and six and one item grabbed my attention: Anna would be seven on Christmas Eve!
This was Saturday and I would go into town Monday morning to talk to the authorities to see what I could do. There was nothing in the envelope besides the letter. I was sitting on the sofa sipping another brandy when mom came in to talk to me.
After looking at me for a long moment -- I guess to gauge my mood -- she asked, quietly, "Do you want to talk about Eileen?"
Avoiding looking at her, I snapped, "No, I really don't want to talk about her."
Mom was silent for a while, then put her hand on my arm and kissed my cheek, "Okay, son. I'm going on to bed."
I took her arm and pulled her back down to the sofa. "Hey, I'm sorry, Mom." I didn't say anything for a couple of minutes, then added with a smile, "Mom, she left because she was jealous of you … she knew you would always be my best girl!"
She laughed and gave me a big hug.
"I guess I would like to talk about it. I've had it all bottled up inside of me and it's been festering." I thought about it for a bit, collecting myself and remembering. "I told Eileen when we got married that I was more or less a stay-at-home guy. With the work at Beech and everything I have to do around here, I just don't feel like going out. She told me that was what she was looking for, that she liked peace and quiet.
"Then about a year ago -- that was more or less four years after we got married -- she suddenly wanted to start going out dancing on the weekends. I tried to accommodate her, but some nights I was just too worn out. Finally one night she came out of the bedroom with her dancing clothes on and with a stubborn look on her face she told me she was going out dancing. We started a big argument but she looked at her watch and just walked out the door.
"I was standing there kinda with my mouth hanging open and heard a truck drive up. It dawned on me someone was picking her up! I ran outside just as the truck took off. I stewed for a long time and thought about trying to find her but there were just too many places. If they had gone out west towards Maize or south to Haysville or Derby I'd never find them. Hell, for all I knew they might be going to Hutchinson or almost anywhere.
"I drank too many beers and just sat there in a fugue, wondering if my marriage was over and whether I cared or not. I heard a noise but it was a few minutes before I realized it was that truck coming back. I grabbed the poker from the fireplace and ran out. I guess the guy saw the light from the front door 'cause the passenger door flew open and she came rolling out ass over teakettle.
"The truck was peeling out of there, tires spinning in the mud and I knew I couldn't reach him before he was gone. I threw the poker as hard as I could and heard a satisfying crash of glass -- I think I hit his rear window and then he was gone.
"Eileen was sitting there in the mud with her skirt around her waist and her shirt unbuttoned. Mom, she didn't have a bra or panties on! I wanted so bad to kick her but I couldn't. I ran inside and locked the door with the chain, grabbing a bottle of Jack Daniels.
"The next morning her car was gone and I never saw her again. My lawyer, Jerry Allen found her and she wanted out of the marriage as bad as I did. Jerry came by one day about six months ago with signed divorce papers and a list from her of the stuff she wanted and I took the rest to the dump. I never was able to find out the name of the guy that she went out with. Probably just as well."
Mom gave me a hug and stood up, "Honey, you'll find a good girl some day. They aren't all like Eileen."
"I don't know, Ma. I'm pretty bummed on finding someone now."
She went on to bed and I sat there staring at the fire for a long time. I slept fitfully, woke up early and went out to the large barn to take care of my ponies. Everything was a winter wonderland of white. The trees were covered with ice and the ground was slippery with a sparse coating of snow over a thin layer of ice. It was still overcast and much colder than normal for this time of year but it did look like the rain was over. I finished my chores and went inside to fix breakfast for everyone.
I made a pot of coffee and sat looking out the window thinking about the kids. As soon as I heard Mom stirring around I made some chicken-fried steaks and sausage gravy with a big pile of fresh biscuits. Mom brought the kids in, yawning and rubbing their eyes as kids do, and we sat down. It was clear that the kids had never had sausage gravy served over a hot biscuit - they started slow and then really dug into it. Mom cut up their steaks and gave them a large glass of milk … and then another. It was obvious the kids were undernourished.
We tried talking to them. The little boy spoke no English at all and the girl spoke a broken English about a year below her age level - the kind of English you get from watching too much television. We didn't learn much, other than her mom cried a lot and they didn't have much to eat on the train. The language barrier was going to be a problem.
The weekend was both good and bad. It was a challenge trying to communicate with them and they were clearly upset and heartbroken that their mom had left them. They didn't understand. I showed them the letter and I think I got through to the girl how much her mom really loved them.
Even the good part was bad in a way. Simply put, mom and I were falling in love with them. They both had dark, curly hair and - when properly teased - had angelic smiles. They were very quiet and were enraptured when I put something on from the Animal Channel: a special on baby animals. The first laugh I heard from them was from watching baby lions playing with each other. I guess at some level, kids all over the world are pretty much the same.
That afternoon, we took them to a department store and bought them a few clothes: something to wear to the county offices and some sleepwear plus heavy winter coats. I had everything in the cart and was ready to check out when mom grabbed my arm and pulled me aside, whispering in my ear.
I felt kinda dumb … Eileen and I never had any kids and I'd forgotten such a basic thing as toys. I probably overindulged (from a guilty conscience … though I wasn't sure what guilt my conscience was worried about) but when we got home they were a pleasure to watch. I figured there hadn't been many toys for them - or much joy either.
Sunday morning the storm had completely passed and there was a hard bright sun. The air had that special clarity that winter brings to Kansas; you had the feeling that you could see China except for the curvature of the earth. The remaining snow and sleet would disappear quickly except for a few shady patches. I knew we were going to have a lot of mud by that afternoon.
After lunch I took them out to see my miniature horses. They were all pretty tame and used to youngsters, but I had one that was very steady. She had the coloring and spots of a fawn, so I'd named her Bambi. I put Anna first, then Pasha on Bambi and walked them around the corral, staying alongside the horse. The ride brought excited smiles to their faces. By the time we went in, their cheeks were ruddy from the sun and cold … and my heart was lost to them.
That night they were worn out and went right to sleep. Mom asked what was going to happen.
"I don't know. I do know that I'm getting too attached to them. I've always wanted kids, but Eileen kept saying no. I think we might have made it if we had a child or two. I think she just got bored."
Monday morning at nine, I called the Child Protective Services office. I explained everything to them and after some hemming and hawing about jurisdiction; they agreed to have me come in at eleven. Earlier, I'd called my boss to take a week off - I didn't tell him about the kids, just that my mom was in town.
The meeting took most of the day, but it came down to their not having anyone that spoke Russian. I filled out lots of forms and they took Mom's fingerprints and the kids plus mine. They also took pictures of the kids and made copies of their birth certificates. They had a person in the Sheriff's office they work with. His name was Joe Cates and he came by and talked with us. He was a long drink of water with hair that looked like it wasn't sure what it was supposed to do.
"This clearly looks like child desertion. It will be tough but we will give it a shot. We will check with Amtrak and see if we can find the origin and destination info. We will send the info we have to the police in those locations - though this won't help much if she got off at some other stop.
"We will also check with the State Department; her hometown is on the birth certificates. We will keep you posted, okay? It's a damn shame; those kids are precious. You wouldn't believe how often we see things like this though. I'm guessing that she was tricked into coming over and was caught up in the sex trade. Those are some rough characters. I don't know if it will help but I'll also check with Interpol -- they have a sex crimes unit.
"One thing that is good. With the birth certificates it's clear they are American citizens so we won't get into a pissin' contest with the Russian authorities."
"I have a letter from her that might explain things somewhat. It's in Russian and I need to find someone to do translations and help me with the kids."
"Okay, make sure you get me a copy of the original and the translation. I'll make sure it gets to the right people."
We took the kids back home with us until the following Monday at the same time.
The people at the Child Protective Services office were very nice, but confused about whether they had any authority to handle the case. The bottom-line was they didn't have money in the budget for translation services so it was up to me to find someone.
When we got home, Mom fed the kids while I got on the horn with my faculty advisor at Wichita State and told him what I needed. I'd become good friends with him while I was working on my Master's degree in Aerospace engineering.
"Bill, could you find out if a student or professor in the Modern and Classical Languages and Literature Department that teaches or studies Russian could help me? Or, if that doesn't work, maybe you could also check to see if anyone from Russia is enrolled in any of the other departments?"
"I can do better than that, Ben. I have a girl who is working on her PhD in my department. She just has a couple of classes left to graduate so she isn't too busy right now. She's a lovely girl, very bright and personable but a bit shy. She came here originally on a tennis scholarship but she has turned out to be a brilliant scholar."
The next day I got a call from Bill's student, Alina Zvonareva. She spoke English quite well, and we agreed to meet for lunch the next day. We met at the Olive Garden on North Rock Road, since I knew it would be quiet and it was convenient for both of us.