As usual, I was silent at breakfast. Occasionally I saw Gran or Gramps looking at me, but they didn’t say anything except to each other. Gran gave me my pill and I went out to work in the cornfields.
We now had a vegetable stand out by the road. There was a money box with a sign showing prices and people who took things were on their honor to pay. We had begun picking corn and harvesting some vegetables. During the morning, a car stopped at the stand and Gramps called to me to run over to it and see if the people needed any help. I sold them some tomatoes, some cucumbers, some green beans, and six ears of corn.
In the late afternoon Sam came to see me. The air was pretty cool. It was the first cool day we’d had, so we didn’t go to the creek. Instead we sat on the porch and talked for a while. Well, he talked. Mostly I just listened.
At night I was afraid to go to sleep, knowing what would happen, but I finally drifted off. Sure enough, the dream came back and again I woke up screaming.
I still hadn’t said much of anything to my grandparents, but they were very patient.
When I awoke on Wednesday, it was raining ─ not pouring, but the kind of gentle rain that could last all day.
After breakfast, there was a knock on the door and Sam came in. Once again he didn’t wait to be invited; he knew he was always welcome. He was wearing a poncho, and Grams suggested that he take it off and hang it over one of the chairs on the porch.
I got up from the table, and Sam and I washed and dried the dishes. When we finished we went out onto the back porch. Often we sat with our legs hanging over, but they’d have gotten wet that day so we opted to sit in the chairs instead.
Sam had brought a book, so I got mine and we read companionably. It would be more accurate to say he read while I pretended to. As I sat there, I realized I was enjoying being with him and I decided maybe he really was a friend.
Sam stayed for lunch, and we spent the afternoon on the porch. At one point he got up and went into the house. I heard him ask Gran if he could sleep over again. I wondered if he’d lie against my back like he had the previous time. Secretly, I hoped that he would. But I wondered what would happen if I had another nightmare and woke up screaming. What would Sam do? Would it scare him?
When we were in bed with the lights off, Sam was indeed lying with his chest to my back and his arm draped over me. For some reason, I began to talk. I don’t know why. Maybe it was just time.
“I need to tell you what happened.”
I felt him nodding gently.
I hesitated for a moment before saying, “My parents had a rule that I had to be home by 9:00 o’clock on school nights. That evening I was at a friend’s house and lost track of the time, so I was half an hour late getting home.
“My father scolded me and told me I’d done that once too often, and because of that, I couldn’t go to a friend’s party the next Saturday.
“We argued, each of us growing more and more angry. Mother joined in, too. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to change their minds. ‘I hate you!’ I yelled. ‘I hate you both!’” Then I stormed up the stairs to my room and slammed the door.
“A few minutes later I heard Dad outside my door saying that they were going out for a little while, and when they returned, he expected an apology.
“Dad had a new 1953 Chevy Corvette convertible which he cherished. It was the inaugural model, and I think he may have cared more for that car than for me. At least it never argued with him. I heard him start the car and then he drove out of the driveway and took off up the street, the engine making its signature purring roar.
“By midnight, I was sleepy, so I undressed except for my boxers and went to bed.
“About 1:00 or 1:30, I woke up to the sound of the doorbell ringing and someone pounding on the door. I looked out the window and saw a police cruiser in the driveway.
“When I heard the knock, somehow I knew what had happened. I think it was the most terrible, frightening sound I’d ever heard in my life.
“Hurrying downstairs, I opened the door. Two police officers were standing there. One of them asked if it was the Wilcox home. When I nodded, he asked if they could come in. I led them to the living room. I was so scared I was shaking.
“We sat down and one of them asked my name. I told him and then he asked if I was the only person in the house. I nodded and he sighed.
“‘I’m afraid we have some bad news for you, Joseph,’ one of them said. ‘There’s been an accident.’
“The other one went on, ‘Both your mother and father are dead. The car they were in slammed into the back of an eighteen-wheeler and they died instantly.’”
“Oh God,” Sam said and he hugged me closer.
“By then I was shivering,” I went on, “shaking so hard I’m sure they could see it. When they learned I was alone and only 13, they called someone. Soon a lady arrived. She said she was from Child Protective Services. She told me to pack enough clothes for a few days and she would take me to a safe place.
“I wasn’t thinking straight; I was just numb. I threw a few clothes into a pillowcase and followed her. She took me to a children’s home where another lady showed me where to sleep.
“In the morning, the lady at the home told me that my grandparents had been called and they were flying in the next day. I sat all day just staring out a window. Some of the other kids tried to get me to talk, but I didn’t say anything. In fact, when I said ‘Thank you’ to Gran the other day, those were almost the first words I’d spoken since the accident.
“The day after my grandparents arrived, we went to the funeral. I couldn’t believe it was my parents lying there dead in the coffins. The next day we flew here.”
I turned toward Sam. We both were crying. He hugged me to him for a long time as we both sobbed.
At last I said, “But you don’t understand the worst of it. All this time I’ve known that I was very, very guilty. The last words I’d said to them were, ‘I hate you both.’ If I hadn’t said that, they probably wouldn’t have left. Or if I hadn’t been late. Or if I hadn’t argued with them.
“I’m sure they drove to the club they often went to. I’m sure they drank. Dad doesn’t…didn’t…drink often, but when he did, he usually drank too much. So, by the time they got back in the car he was probably roaring drunk, and he plowed into that truck without even seeing it.
“I haven’t been able to get over feeling guilty. You see? It was all my fault.”
Sam held me and we cried silently.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he whispered in my ear.
“Yes, it was.”
“No, it wasn’t. They were the adults. They didn’t have to drive off. Your dad didn’t have to drink too much. He didn’t have to get back in that car so drunk he couldn’t even see a truck. None of that was your fault.”
I didn’t believe him. I knew what I’d done and what I’d caused. “I never even got a chance to tell them I loved them.”
Sam just held me tightly, murmuring in my ear. I had no idea what he was saying, but somehow I was comforted by the sound.
When we’d both stopped crying, he said, “You need to tell your grandparents how you’re feeling.”
“Because if I tell them what I did, they’ll hate me. I killed their son and their daughter-in-law.”
“No you didn’t,” Sam replied quietly. “And you need to give them more credit. They won’t hate you. They know about kids. They know you didn’t cause the accident. They’ll keep loving you.”
I just shook my head.
We lay there for a long time, but eventually we fell asleep with Sam still holding me. I didn’t have a nightmare that night.
We both slept until Gramps called us. We dressed and went down to breakfast. I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t eat much. Sam tried to keep up a conversation with Gran and Gramps, but he wasn’t very successful. I knew they could see that we’d both been crying.
It was still raining when we finished eating, so Sam decided to stay, saying that he and I would do the dishes. Gramps said he was going to town because he had a couple of errands to run. He asked if we wanted to go along. Sam looked at me and I shook my head, so Gramps drove off alone. Sam and I stood at the sink, silent, him doing the washing and me the drying.
Most of that day was sort of a blur to me. I know we went back out on the porch. I know Sam kept trying to convince me that I should talk to Gran and Gramps. I know I refused. If anything else happened before Gramps returned, I don’t remember it.
Much later in the afternoon, we heard the truck sloshing up the dirt drive. Gramps came out on the porch and handed me a large bag. Puzzled, I looked in and then pulled out two pairs of overalls. “Hope they fit,” was all he said before going back in the house. Sam patted me on the back.
For the next three days I stewed over what Sam had said. Rationally, I knew I wasn’t guilty of anything except disrespecting my parents. But I couldn’t get past that feeling of guilt.
Every day, Sam came over after work. Because it was warmer again, we went to the creek. We both stripped our overalls off and walked into the water. We didn’t talk a lot, but then, at the creek we seldom did. We enjoyed the cool water and lying in the pool.
One thing did happen, however, I stopped having the nightmares. I didn’t know why except that after that rainy night when I told Sam about the accident, I slept through the nights without ever waking up.
One evening, I looked in Gram’s sewing kit and found some strong black thread. Weaving threads into a kind of rope, I repaired something which was my treasure.
The next morning at breakfast I told my grandparents that I had to talk with them.
When we finished eating and were drinking our coffee ̶ yes, I drank coffee, too, although they drank it black and I put in lots of cream and sugar ̶ Gramps said, “I see you’re wearing the ring.”
I nodded and told him I’d say why but I had something else to say first. I didn’t need to tell them about the accident; they already knew probably more than I did. But I did tell them about the argument and what I’d said, and how I was feeling guilty believing I’d killed my parents. By then I was crying. Damn, I thought, will this never stop?
When I finished, Gran hugged me and said, “It wasn’t your fault, Joseph. We loved your father with all our hearts, but we always knew he was headstrong, and we knew that he had problems holding his liquor. You had no control over any of that. I’m sure you feel badly about what you said and that you didn’t get the chance to tell them you loved them, but you know what? They knew that. They always knew that. They knew your words came from your anger and not your heart.
“I know that telling someone they shouldn’t feel guilty won’t stop them from feeling that way. You need to listen to what we and Sam are saying, and you need to think about it. The feeling may never go totally away, but it will get a lot better.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly, looking at down at my coffee mug. “I was afraid that when you heard what I’d done you’d hate me.”
“Never,” said Gramps. “We will never, ever hate you. You’re our grandson and we both love you.”
After I thanked them again and got hold of myself, I told them about the ring hanging from my neck, how Dad had given it to me on my twelfth birthday and how I’d torn it off and broken the chain and thrown it on the floor that night when I was angry. “Last night I found some strong thread and replaced the chain.”
“Did your father ever tell you anything more?” Gramps asked. “There’s a family legend about the ring.”
“No. He just gave it to me. He never said anything about a legend.”
When Gramps began to tell me the story, I asked if we could wait until Sam came over so he could hear it too. Somehow, I felt that was important. He agreed.
We all had a lot of work to do. We were harvesting the corn and vegetables which were ready and that required all of us.
In the late afternoon, Sam came over and suggested we should go to the creek. I told him I’d talked to Gran and Gramps about the night of the accident and that they had agreed with what he told me. Then I added, “We need to stay here. Gramps said there’s a legend about this ring I’m wearing, and he’s going to tell us both about it.”
When Gramps came back from the fields and had cleaned up, Gran invited Sam to stay for supper. He grinned, saying, “Thanks, it’s good to get away from my brothers sometimes.”
We had a happy meal together. When we finished, Gramps began to talk about the ring.
“This story goes back to the Civil War. Joseph, an ancestor of yours, Peter Wilcox, ran away from home when he was twelve. He believed he was old enough to fight. He had very romantic ideas about the war, as most young boys did back then. He certainly wasn’t the only one who ran away to join the fighting.
“He joined up with a regiment. The men told him he couldn’t fight because of his age, but they made him a sort of mascot. He helped out around the camp. In the evenings, when some of the men sat around a campfire and sang, he sang too.
“There was a man in the regiment whose last name was also Wilcox. We never learned his first name and we don’t believe he and Peter were related. The man had a gold ring with a gold W set in a black stone. Peter admired the ring and they talked about it more than once.
“One night, when the regiment was camped at Gettysburg , the man, knowing there would be a big battle the next day, went to Peter, gave him the ring and told him that if he didn’t return from battle, Peter should keep it.
“The battle lasted three days and the man never returned. Thousands of men on both sides were killed. Mr. Wilcox never returned, and Peter assumed that the owner of the ring was among those who died. Peter used a piece of rawhide to make a necklace of the ring so he could wear it and not lose it.
“Peter survived the war, grew up, and married. When his son turned twelve, Peter gave the boy the ring and told him its story.
“Ever since then, each oldest Wilcox boy has received the ring and the story when he turned twelve. So that’s how the ring got to you. Who put the chain on it, nobody knows. Certainly, it wasn’t on the ring when Peter received it. I don’t know why your father never told you the story. Maybe he was just waiting for the right time.”
I realized I’d been holding the ring in my hand as Gramps told the story. I looked at him and said, “That’s amazing.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Sam.
“You know,” I went on, “this ring is the only thing I have that belonged to Dad. It’s a treasure.”
On Sunday, Gran, Gramps, and I went to church. I still wasn’t much of a churchgoer, but before the service began, I said a special prayer for my parents, holding the ring as I said it quietly to myself. Then I said one for my grandparents, thanking God for bringing me to them.
At the end of the service, we went out on the church lawn under the elm tree and drank lemonade. Sam came up to me with some other boys and introduced them as kids I’d be with in school in the fall.
One of them, Tony, looked at me and my overalls and said, “Well, it’s good to see that you’ll be properly dressed.” We all laughed.
Another one asked about the ring I was wearing on the chain. I just said that it had been my dad’s and now it was mine.