Excerpt — Defiant Heart
From the top of the slope, the sergeant watched flashlight beams reach out through the darkness, occasionally crossing one another as his patrol officers picked their way through the underbrush at the bottom of the embankment.
Lightning flashed, followed a second later by the crack of thunder, and the ground beneath the sergeant's feet shook momentarily. In the instant the hillside was illuminated, he saw the car clearly. It had come to a stop halfway down the incline, about thirty yards below where he now stood, its fall arrested by the trunk of an immense oak. The garish light briefly exposed mangled metal and shattered glass, and it appeared as though the entire frame of the vehicle had been twisted at an impossible angle.
In the pool of light cast by his own flashlight, his corporal appeared near the top of the ridge. The man planted a foot against an exposed tree root and held on to a low hanging branch to avoid sliding back down the hillside. Raising his voice so he could be heard above the sound of the rain, he said, "Three people. A man and a woman. Thirties or forties. And a boy, maybe seventeen, eighteen."
"They're all..." the sergeant paused with the sudden irrational thought that by uttering the word he would somehow dictate the outcome.
"Dead," the corporal confirmed. "Afraid so. No one could have survived that."
A shout from the bottom of the hill drew the sergeant's attention, and, as he watched, the beams below converged on a single spot. One of the patrolmen called out, his voice faint against the roar of the storm. "Found a body."
After a moment, he added, "He's alive."
A miracle, thought the sergeant. Must have been thrown from the car as it had rolled down the embankment. He'd seen that happen in bad accidents before. Fate could be so random.
"Sergeant," his patrol officer shouted from below. "The kid's asking about his parents and his brother. What do I tell him?"
The sergeant closed his eyes for a moment. Oh, God, he thought. Poor kid.
As the train whistle blew, the green of the trees that had been sliding by the windows slowly fell away, and a small wooden building came into view. A sign on the structure read "Jackson, Indiana." On the platform in front stood the solitary figure of an elderly woman.
The door at the front of the passenger car opened, and the conductor stepped through.
"Jackson," he called out, starting down the aisle. When he got to Jon, he nodded and said, "We're here."
Jon raised a hand in nervous acknowledgement, then stood as the train came to a stop and gave a slight backwards lurch. Steadying himself, he reached into the alcove above the seat and retrieved a large brown suitcase. It was old, the sides badly scuffed and the four lower corners worn and discolored. He collected the brown paper sack from the seat next to him. It contained two apples and half a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, all that remained of the food that was in the bag when the lady with the sad eyes had handed it to him as he'd boarded the train in Penn Station. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. Then, hefting the suitcase, he made his way down the aisle to the door at the rear of the car.
As he stepped out onto the sunlit platform, he saw that the elderly woman was still standing where he'd first noticed her. Though she was looking directly at him, she made no gesture of greeting. He took a few hesitant steps toward her, set down the suitcase, and asked, uncertainly, "Grandma Wilson?"
The woman seemed to wince. She looked away for a moment. Then, gathering herself, she turned. Over her shoulder, she said, "It's not far," and she began walking. Surprised, it took Jon a moment to react. Not sure what else to do, he lifted the suitcase and followed.
They crossed the dirt-packed road in front of the train station and, after a short distance, started up a paved commercial street. The woman walked briskly, and it was an effort for Jon to keep up with her. He was still favoring his left leg. With each step, the suitcase banged into his right knee.
She spoke without turning her head or breaking stride. "You will address me as 'ma'am.' Understood?"
They turned onto a tree-lined street. When they came to a small white clapboard house, trimmed in blue, the woman climbed the steps to the porch and entered without saying a word. Jon stopped to catch his breath, then, with some effort, slowly limped up the steps and entered the dwelling.
He paused in the foyer. To his left was a living room, the far wall dominated by a fireplace with a large wooden mantle. By the front window stood a baby grand piano. The other furnishings were spare. To the right was a dining area, with an opening beyond which he could see a kitchen. A hallway off the foyer led to the rear of the house.
A framed photograph on the piano caught his attention. It was an old ferrotype, featuring a man and a woman. The woman was seated in a straight back chair, wearing a white dress with a high collar and full sleeves, her hair swept up and pinned in an elaborate bun. The man stood to the side and slightly behind, one hand resting on the back of the chair. Dressed in a high-buttoned suit and looking stiff and slightly uncomfortable, he held a hat in his other hand.
There was something familiar about the picture. Jon couldn't quite place it. And then he remembered. On her dresser, his mother had kept a small photograph in a silver filigreed frame. It was the same man, in the same suit, holding the same hat. A slightly different pose, yes, but the same stiff and uncomfortable bearing. His Grandpa Wilson.
Jon had a vague memory of Grandpa Wilson. Not the man in the picture, but an older man, with gray hair and rough hands, a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eyes. Jon and his brother, Sandy, were in a park with a big lake. They were feeding the ducks. Hundreds of ducks. And one big swan...
"Your room is the first one on the left." The woman was standing in the entrance to the kitchen. She'd removed her hat and tied an apron around her waist. "Dinner is at five sharp."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, picking up his suitcase.
The room was tiny, the space almost completely filled with a writing desk and a small bed, not much more than a cot really. Folded neatly and lying on the bed were a pair of sheets, a blanket and a towel. A cedar chest at the foot of the bed offered the only storage. The walls were devoid of pictures. The desk was empty, as was the chest, which he discovered when he lifted the lid. There was simply nothing to indicate that anyone had ever lived in the room before. It was as sterile as he imagined a prison cell would be.
Jon closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath, concentrating as he did on keeping his body steady. Try as he might, though, his chest still rattled, both on the intake and exhalation.
As it had many times since the accident, something his father once said came back to him. They'd been gathered for the shiva following the funeral for Grandpa Meyer, and his father had put his arm around his shoulders. "I know you're sad, Jon, and that's ok. But he wouldn't want you to be too sad. Better to celebrate the time you had together." Jon had understood that then. And he'd accepted it. Though his grandfather had been a magnificent part of his life, it had been time for him to go.
But his mother and father? That made no sense. And what about Sandy? Sweet, wonderful Sandy. Under the circumstances, how could Jon possibly celebrate anything? It simply wasn't fair. Everything that had been his life had suddenly gone away. Not temporarily. Not for a long time.
As he formed the thought, he was again overwhelmed by a tremendous guilt. He squeezed his eyes tight, willing away the odious thoughts.
He felt a tear escape the corner of one eye and trace a path down his cheek.
After a moment, he opened his eyes and, with the back of a hand, roughly brushed away the offending drop. He would not feel sorry for himself. He would be strong.