Barnaby 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. Barnaby 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 Barnaby. Barnaby tucked the wet skull under his arm like one would a football. He felt a little odd to be holding the skull of a man with whom he was speaking.
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.”
Barnaby looked at the dripping wet old man and 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.
Barnaby led John back to the wood’s edge where they could once again see the worn down old home in which he used to live.
“You aren’t here because of any curse on these woods,” Barnaby explained. “That’s why you did not vanish like the others. You are here because you are holding on.”
Barnaby placed the skull down, jumped the ditch to the other side and ran across the dusty road, hopped up on the creaky, old porch and paid no attention to the wasps buzzing around. John watched him knock on the door and within minutes Barnaby 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 could see how very old she had become but beneath the wrinkles and frail figure, he could still see his girl.
“I do not want to be this close to the woods!” she protested and tried to pull her arm away from Barnaby but could put up no more resistance than a five year old child.
Barnaby rolled his eyes at her stubbornness but understood her fearfulness, “I have something to show you.”.
“I don’t want to see anything you may have found! I want no part of it! Those woods are damned I tell you!” Doris yanked her arm away with unusual 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 rotated back around as fast as her old bones would allow. She looked at Barnaby in amazement wondering how he could produce such a tone of voice. Barnaby 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. He looked as young as the day she last saw him and still as handsome.
She gasped and fell in the road to her rear. She could utter no words.
John jumped the ditch and ran to her the best he could with his limp. 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 looked 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 how fragile and gnarled they had become. He helped her up out of 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 answered with a quiver in his voice. “I could not.” He rubbed her back and squeezed his eyes shut to fight back the tears.
“I know. I remember now. You can’t cross the road.”
He took a deep breath. “I have to go,” he said. “I can’t stay in these woods any longer. I wanted to say good-bye and tell you I love you, that I didn’t abandon you. I wanted to tell you how much I have missed you. I’m sorry darling. I have to go but I can’t hold on here any longer. I have to say good-bye. I wish you could come with me. I want my girl back.”
“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 very soon. I promise.”
“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 did every morning before going to work and she smiled and leaned back into him. “Good-bye Doris. Come to me soon and we will watch the sun rise together.”
She began to cry again. “Good-bye dear. I love you.”
John looked at Barnaby, smiled, and mouthed the word “Thank you”. He disappeared a second later.
The old woman fell forward when John vanished and began to weep harder. Barnaby rushed to catch her. He held her elbows while she cried until her long moment of anguish had passed.
“Thank you for that,” she muttered. “Thank you for bringing John back to me.”
“I’m sorry it could not have lasted longer.” He felt like he should hug her but also felt it would do her no good.
“It was enough,” she whispered. “All I needed.”
He helped her back to the start of her driveway where she insisted she could go on without his assistance. Barnaby 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 went to sleep and never woke.
Barnaby waited a moment then stepped onto her porch and shut her door. He thought she should be alone with her grief and decided he would 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 John her father. The call he was pleased to make but one he understood would be met with skepticism. 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?
Barnaby sighed when he looked at 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 get away but he also feared forgetting. After today would he ever have the strength to return to the trees or the beach? Could 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? The answer was 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. Barnaby re-entered the woods and grabbed John’s skull. He carried it under his arm and headed back to his tent which he had not seen for what felt like ages. Sticking up right in the ground in the tent’s center stood a sword. He looked around to see if anyone was watching 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 it’s hilt. He did not know how the sword got 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.
Barnaby ran out of the woods dragging the tattered remains of his tent, threw them in his car and sped away. He did not glance up 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 he could be in heaven with her or at the least that she could come visit him. He had spent such a short time with her and yet he 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,” Barnaby replied and he held out the pale, mud stained skull of John Callis.
His father looked at the skull aghast, “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 moved his mouth but nothing came out. Barnaby turned and walked away. He did not turn his father in to the police. John had his peace and so too did Doris. Barnaby also knew that when his book came out, treasure hunters and thrill seekers would comb over every inch of the woods and eventually reveal the truth about John Callis’ demise. He also knew Doris’ daughter would launch a police investigation once Barnaby called her, but what evidence would she have? No one would believe Barnaby’s story but his father and that suited Barnaby fine.
Barnaby 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 right away but neither would back out and go to a different aisle. 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 Barnaby uttered, “I forgive you father.” He paused to look his stunned father in the eyes then continued on with his shopping never again to speak with him.
He did not forgive him for killing John Callis. He wasn’t sure his father was the one who actually pulled the trigger, but that didn’t matter. Only Doris’ daughter could forgive him for John’s murder but she knew nothing of Barnaby’s father and so Calvin would have to find forgiveness with the Lord if ever humility found its way in. Barnaby forgave Calvin for his upbringing. He forgave him for taking his mother away. He forgave him for all the belittling comments that dug at him more deeply over the years than he realized even when he convinced himself he no longer cared. He reasoned if he could forgive a pirate for trying to kill him, than he could forgive his father for his ill treatment though the pirate’s attempted murder truly did not hurt his feelings as much.
Barnaby rolled into his gravel driveway and began to cry before he even unbuckled his seat belt. Every bit of sadness and fear he experienced from the previous night came pouring out of him and he wanted to burn it all up before he entered his house. He thought again 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. He imagined kneeling down and scooping her up.
His wife came down the hall and Barnaby hugged her as though he had not seen her for many months. She wore sweat pants, a t-shirt, and her hair was tied up in a bun as she had not yet showered, but he could not remember her looking more beautiful.
She hugged him back, his tight embrace surprising her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He closed his eyes, fighting back the tears and sighed. “How would you feel if we got started on a family?” he whispered in her ear.
She pulled away and looked at him a bit shocked but answered him quickly. “I would like that very much.” She looked at 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.”