Steve raised the radio volume and rolled down his window. He was exhausted as it was, and the long somnolent drive south on I-81 was not helping. He had begun to nod off twice already. He thought that perhaps the cold December air rushing in on his face and the loud music would help keep him awake.
I met a man who lives in TennesseeKaren Carpenter's soothing lyrics hinted at a curious irony. He now lived in Pennsylvania and was heading for Tennessee and some homemade pie. He winced, he didn't even like pumpkin pie, but he knew his mother's kitchen would be filled with the aromas of apple, pecan and sweet potato pies.
And he was headin' for
Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie.
He turned into the rest stop that the roadside signs had been announcing for the last ten miles. He pulled in between the painted parking lines in front of a convenience establishment. Of special interest were the flashing neon letters spelling out "fresh-brewed coffee."
Oh, there's no place like home for the holidaysHis hand on the key to shut off the engine, he paused to reflect on the closing lyrics of the song. Those words too reflected some irony. He looked back at the highway and the cars and trucks whizzing by. Not five miles from where he sat was a highway junction. He could take that exit, get back on 81 and the head north to whence he'd come.
'Cause no matter how far away you roam,
If you want to be happy in a million ways
For the holidays, you can't beat home, sweet home.
No, he couldn't think of many, let alone a million ways, that going home for the holidays would make him happy. How long had it been, nine, ten years? The painful memories and guilt were still burning within his soul, still haunting him so many years after that fateful night.
By the time the invigorating coffee had been downed, he had strengthened his resolve. He wasn't going to turn around. His mother had been ailing as of late and she had pleaded with him to come home. She'd told him that it might be his last chance to see her before ... His thoughts trailed off and a lump formed in his throat.
An hour later he passed beneath the first of several Lexington, Virginia overhead signs. He had reached the halfway point of his sojourn. He mentally traced his route from the highway maps he had committed to memory. There was still a lot of Virginia to traverse as the direction of Interstate 81 slowly bent southwest into Tennessee.
The sun was setting when he finally crossed the state line into his native state. He would soon be bidding I-81 goodbye as its terminus at I-40 near Dandridge was only a few exits from his present position. Once again the finger of his mind ran over the mental map. His time on Interstate 40 would be brief as he would then have to pick up I-75. Once on 75 he would drive straight on through to Chattanooga.
As he approached Chattanooga he was nearly overcome with exhaustion. He decided it would be wise to hole up in a motel for the night. The next morning, after a night of sleep, a hot shower, a change into fresh clothes and some breakfast, he would make the final leg of his dreaded trip home. He was only a few miles from the junction to US 27 which would lead him fifteen miles north to his destination.
Sleep proved to be illusive. He drifted in and out sleep as shadowy images of that night resurrected the pangs of guilt that lie buried within his subconscious mind. Random snapshots coursed through his head in a slide show of unwanted memories.
He was standing before an unattended grave. He was alone in a cemetery which sat upon a knoll overlooking the wooden post that marked the city limits of his hometown. He knelt before the grave and gazed upon the lettering etched into the marble headstone: Edward Nolan - Jan.12,1980-Dec.29, 1997.Steve bolted upright in the bed. He was shivering from the chill of the cold perspiration upon his body. The frozen scream escaped, "Eddie, forgive me!"
"Eddie, please forgive me. I'm so sorry I didn't try to help you!" he exclaimed as he fought back the tears welling in the corner of each eye. Above him a howling wind that seemingly had been summoned by unseen forces, tore across the foreboding graveyard. Dead branches in dead trees creaked in a mournful dirge.
He reached out and placed a trembling hand upon the cold marble of Eddie's stone. He tried to speak again, to beg forgiveness again, but the words were caught in his throat. His eyes widened at first in wonder as bits of earth upon the grave seemed to move. The wonder became fear as larger clumps of earth fell to the sides of a rising mound in the center of the grave.
Fear gave way to terror when a skeletal hand, bits of rotting flesh clinging tenuously to it, suddenly burst free from the earth. Bony fingers latched onto his arm and began to pull him. A silent scream froze within his chest.
To be continued... In Part 2 HERE .