Levi sat on the shore of the pond waiting for John who had disappeared beneath the water’s surface minutes earlier. John walked straight in, fully erect and did not stop until he vanished under the water. Levi did not think the pond deep enough to cover the height of a man but then nothing in those woods should have continued to surprise him. John emerged a minute later from the water walking out much the way he entered, fully erect and holding items in both of his hands. In one hand he held a skull.
“I’m surprised no one ever found this. This is part of my remains.” He handed it to Levi. Levi tucked the wet skull under his arm like a football. He felt a little odd to be holding the skull of a man with whom he spoke.
In the other hand John held out his wedding ring and his old rusted, water logged watch. “Please give these to my daughter,” he said. “Let her know I didn’t run out on her mother.”
Levi placed the watch and ring in his pocket. “I’ll take care of it for you. Are you okay to walk in those wet clothes?”
“I’ll dry off in no time,” John replied.
Levi led John to the wood’s edge where they once again saw the old home in which he used to live.
“You aren’t here because of a curse on these woods,” Levi explained. “That’s why you did not vanish like the others. You are here because you are holding on.”
Levi placed the skull down, jumped the ditch to the other side and ran across the dusty road, hopped onto the creaky, old porch and paid no attention to the wasps buzzing around. John watched him knock on the door and within minutes Levi led John’s protesting wife by the hand to the road. He brought her to John’s side of the drive, right to the ditch and John smiled when he heard how cantankerous his wife had become. He remained behind a tree as he did not want to scare her. At this distance he recognized how much she had aged but beneath the wrinkles and frail figure, he still saw his girl.
“I do not want to be this close to the woods!” she protested and tried to free herself from Levi but gave no more resistance than a five-year-old child.
Levi rolled his eyes at her stubbornness but understood her fearfulness, “I have something to show you.”
“I don’t want to see what you found! I want no part of it! Those woods are damned I tell you!” Doris yanked her arm away with unexpected strength generated by her intense fear of what may inhabit the trees. She turned and shuffled her feet back towards her house.
“Doris, don’t go,” John called and emerged from his hiding spot.
Doris stopped dead and pivoted as fast as her old bones allowed. She gazed at Levi in amazement. Levi grinned and pointed to the woods. She followed his finger and saw her husband standing at the edge under the slight shadow of the trees appearing as young as the day she last saw him and still as handsome.
She gasped and fell in the road to her rear. Her lips moved but no sound came forth.
John jumped the ditch and limped to her in haste. He was younger than she, but still not young. “Doris! It’s me John,” he put his hands on her face. “I didn’t run away. I didn’t leave you!” The fear of this belief had festered within him for over twenty years. The thought his wife believed he ran out on her. Finally, miraculously, he had the chance to explain.
“John?” she whispered with disbelief. Her eyes widened and she touched his face; the one she often thought of when she stared at his empty recliner. She grabbed his shoulders and felt within them the strength of a man much younger than her.
“Yes, dear it’s me.” He grabbed her hands. His eyes watered when he felt her hands’ weakness and her gnarled knuckles. He pulled her from the dust. “I didn’t leave you.”
She touched his unchanged face. “Oh, John I have missed you so much,” she murmured.
“I have missed you too.”
“You look so young like the day I last saw you.”
“I know,” he answered understanding how insecure she might feel for appearing so much older. “You are still my girl though.” He hugged her gently.
“Why did you not come to me?” she asked through forming tears. “I have waited for you for so long.”
John took a deep breath and tried his best not to cry. “I could not,” he replied with a quiver in his voice. “I could not.” He rubbed her back and squeezed his eyes shut.
“I know. I remember now. You can’t cross the road.”
He took a deep breath. “I have to go. I can’t stay in these woods another minute. I wanted to say good-bye and tell you I love you, tell you I didn’t abandon you. I wanted to tell you how much I have missed you. I’m sorry darling. I must say good-bye. I wish you could come with me. I want my girl.”
“Please don’t go! Don’t leave me here! I am miserable without you John! I’ve waited and watched for years for you to come back to me! You can’t leave me now!” She hugged him with all her reserve strength and cried.
“Shhh!” he whispered and stroked her thinning white hair. “We will be together soon. I promise. When next you wake, we will see each other.”
“What am I going to do without you? I am so lonely here. I have no one!”
John brushed away one of her tears and smiled at her. “You don’t have to hold on any longer, Doris. Don’t hold on dear! What now will keep you here?”
She laid her head on his chest. “Nothing,” she whispered.
He put his finger under her chin and her eyes met his. “Don’t be afraid then Doris. Have faith and you will see!” He kissed her forehead like he had every morning before going to work and she smiled and leaned into him. “Good-bye Doris. Come to me soon and we will watch the sun rise together.”
She cried again. “Good-bye dear. I love you.”
“I love you, baby! So, so much!”
John turned to Levi, smiled, and mouthed the word “Thank you”. He disappeared a second later.
The old woman fell forward when John vanished and wept harder. Levi rushed to catch her. He held her elbows while she cried until her long moment of anguish had passed.
“Thank you,” she muttered. “Thank you for bringing John back to me.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t last longer.” He felt like he should hug her but also felt his embrace would comfort her little.
“It was enough,” she whispered. “All I needed.”
He helped her to the start of her driveway but she insisted she continue without his assistance. Levi let her go and watched as she hobbled up the porch steps and entered her house. She did not bother to even close the door behind her.
The old woman scraped her feet across her dirty kitchen floor, through her dusty living room, past her husband’s old recliner and climbed into bed. There she fell asleep and never woke.
Levi waited a moment then stepped onto her porch and shut her door. He thought she should be alone with her grief and decided to check on her later. He would stop by to get her daughter’s number so he could call and explain to her what happened to her father. How do you explain to a woman that your father’s ghost told me who killed him and oh, by the way, here is his skull for proof?
Levi sighed as he took account of the woods. Nothing remained in there for him but painful memories. He recalled the day he first parked in front of Doris’ home and for the first time actually took a moment to size up the woods. He thought they had not looked so threatening but now he couldn’t remember ever laying eyes on so lonely a place. He didn’t want to leave because the trees held the memory of Victoria and for the same reason, he did not want to re-enter. The wound from losing her would not heal if he did not leave but he also feared forgetting. After today would he ever have the strength to return to the trees or the beach? Would he play in the water with his children one day and not feel the torment of remembering how Victoria vanished before him? With whom in the world could he share his pain? No one. He would deal with it alone, but he knew he paid the price of loneliness to be strong, to feel brave. God would mend him now. God had given him the test he needed; the opportunity to risk his life and prove his courage. The chance to be unique; the chance to feel special.
He had to make one more trip now however. Levi jumped the ditch and grabbed John’s skull. He carried it under his arm and headed to his tent which he had not seen for what felt like ages. Sticking upright in the ground in the tent’s center stood a sword. He turned to see if anyone watched then pulled the sword from the ground. He recognized it as the sword the skeletal pirate used to slash his tent. A small ruby encrusted its hilt. He did not know how the sword arrive there or why it remained behind. Perhaps left as a gift. He smiled at the thought.
I will give this to Maxine he thought. It should help with her husband’s medical bills.
Levi ran out of the woods dragging the tattered remains of his tent, threw them in his car and sped away. He did not glance at the remains of the old house in which Victoria once lived. He could not bear to picture her in the front yard crying. He drove in silence, thinking of her and wishing shamefully to be in heaven with her or at the least that she could come visit him. He had spent such a brief time with her and yet felt as though he had lost his own child. He would embrace the loss and remember the pain so one day he never took his own children for granted.
He heard his dad stir inside when he knocked on his door. His father stepped onto the front porch smelling like he had drunk too much the previous evening. His messy hair and stubbled face trapped flecks of dandruff.
“Do you know what time it is?” he grumbled.
“I have here a relic to show you,” Levi replied and he held out the pale, mud stained skull of John Callis.
His father glanced at the skull and recoiled, “What the hell is this?”
“This is the reason mom left. This is the reason you drink. This is why you hate me so. This is John Callis the man you killed and dragged into the pond. This is your doom!”
His father looked like a fish gasping for air. Levi turned and left. He did not turn his father in to the police. John had his peace and so too did Doris. Levi also knew that when his book dropped, treasure hunters and thrill seekers would comb through the woods and eventually reveal the truth about John Callis’ demise. He also knew Doris’ daughter would launch a police investigation once Levi called her, but what evidence pointed to any suspects? No one would believe Levi’s story but his father and that suited Levi fine.
Levi spoke only once more to his father before he died. He passed him in the grocery store one day. They entered the aisle on opposite ends and spotted the other at once but neither reversed course. Each continued down the aisle towards one another and pretended to look at the goods on the shelf. They were virtually total strangers now, neither having spoken to the other in years. As they passed Levi uttered, “I forgive you father.” He paused to look his stunned father in the eyes then continued onward and never again spoke to his father.
He did not forgive him for killing John Callis. He wasn’t sure his father pulled the trigger, but no matter. Only Doris’ daughter could forgive him for John’s murder but she knew nothing of Levi’s father and so Calvin would have to find forgiveness with the Lord if ever humility found its way in. Levi forgave Calvin for his upbringing. He forgave him for taking his mother away. He forgave him for all the belittling comments that still stung even after he stopped caring. He reasoned if he could forgive a pirate for trying to kill him, then he could forgive his father for his ill treatment though the pirate’s attempted murder truly did not hurt his feelings as much.
Levi rolled into his gravel driveway, leaned his head on the steering wheel and wept before he even unbuckled his seat belt. All the sadness and fear he experienced from the previous night poured out of him and he wanted to burn it all up before he entered his house. He thought of Victoria clinging to his side and riding on his back. He missed her but he understood she lived in a far better place; a place where she never stopped laughing. He smiled thinking about her picking daffodils and running with a bright smile into the arms of her parents. He hoped she would not forget him.
He opened his front door and pictured Victoria running out of the living room and into his arms.
His wife came down the hall and Levi hugged her as though he had not seen her for many months. She wore sweat pants, a t-shirt, and her hair sat tied in a bun as she had not yet showered, but he could not remember her looking more beautiful.
She hugged him, his tight embrace surprising her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. She pulled away and recognized the anguish in his face but asked no questions. Caressing his cheeks with both hands she kissed him and lingered with her lips on his for several seconds, assuring him of her love. “I am proud of you. I need you to know that.”