This story is by Darrell Eugene McGuire and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Officer Alan Caldwell saw the flicker of light on the horizon in the autumn night sky above the trees, a fire, and pointed his squad car in that direction, called in his report and location, ramped up the vehicle’s speed. Around a slow curve, there, beneath a tree, left side of the road, he saw the automobile. On his right a semi, the tractor on its side, trailer decoupled and twisted against a bank. He saw the driver climb down from the cab.
He’s all right. Look to the automobile.
The car was angled into an old, dead pine tree, the right front quarter collapsed back into the chassis. Smoke spiraled upward from beneath the hood.
Officer Caldwell flew out of the squad car, left the door open wide, and ran as fast as he was able to the automobile. Inside, he observed two figures in the front. An adult male was half under the steering wheel, one arm stretched upward. Another, smaller form was partly visible on the floor on the far side beneath the crushed dashboard and windshield. Caldwell grasped the handle of the driver’s door and immediately startled away, his hand seared from the heat. He tore off his tunic, wrapped it around his hand. Grabbed again at the door handle. Unable still to pull the door open, he unholstered his revolver, reversed it, pounded at the window. Reached in through the broken opening, unlocked the door, and yanked it open.
Caldwell tugged the broken figure of the man from the tangle of the steering wheel. Flames billowed from the engine compartment, and engulfed the front section of the car. The officer stepped back and coughed up smoke as the inferno lapped at his face and seared his lungs. He pulled the body outward. To his surprise, the man he endeavored to save resisted and frantically reached back into the car, toward the child crumpled against the far side in the flames. Caldwell pulled again, and the recalcitrant lurched back away from him, and reached again through the driver’s door, reached toward the child’s body. Reached out his hand.
Christ the Redeemer reached out his hand.
There is a place, not far north of San Luis Obispo, where the Earth lifts up to the sky in a broad swept ramp, with a view to the west of a green meadow spread out toward cap crested waters of the Pacific Ocean. Azure waters blend into the similar hued stratosphere above, softened by an ever-present wisp of fog. There in that place lies a cemetery and at the eastward end of the cemetery rises an old white brick chapel. A grove of oak trees caresses the cemetery on all sides, save the one that faces the sea, and gathers close about the little chapel. The chapel points up toward the heavens. Despite its diminutive appearance, it still manages to surpass in height the old oaks that are nearest to it. Common sense might dictate that such a building should have fallen long ago, with seismic activity that jostles its foundation from time to time, a brick structure poorly suited to sudden movements of the Earth. Some said it was faith that held it together.
A narrow road meanders from the north down through the meadow and back toward the chapel. At first glance, one sees the statue before the entrance at the west end of the building. Some thirty feet high, it is a smaller remembrance of Christ the Redeemer, the statue that stands atop a hill overlooking Rio de Janeiro. This Redeemer clutches the left hand to his breast, while his right hand reaches out, as though to beckon forth those who need his help. Behind the Redeemer stands the church.
On this day, a deep blue sky yielded to a soft mist that puffed up over the Western horizon, while a darker threat of rain clouds moved in swift behind. There stood before the chapel’s brief and shallow stair-stepped entrance some five automobiles of varied vintage and class and a white Lincoln hearse.
Within the chapel, there is a chamber walled with stained glass windows that punctuate old faded pine panels. On this occasion, down at the end of the nave, at the transept and tiny apse, there across its narrowed focus, lay a small, plain oaken casket. The casket was closed up, with no view as to who rested within.
Before the casket, in the front of some twenty rows and two seats in from the center aisle, sat a small lonely figure, veiled and dressed in black, still, quiet. Alone. None else occupied any seat in that aisle. In the row immediately behind, Office Alan Caldwell sat among a small throng of mourners. They quietly waited for the lone figure to rise, to speak, to moan or utter any sound or manage any movement at all. There was none.
A small balcony overhung the back region of the chamber, up where a choir would normally stand for Sunday services. There stood the small specter of another, also in black and veiled. The veil was slightly open to reveal a white oval face with dark shadowed eyes and no further clearly visible features. She was the image, the soul of the one in the box. Unseen by others. In time, she would begin to sing a tribute to the dreams that lay within the coffin.
Elsewhere up the highway, a room with sun-stained, flowered wallpaper served as half of a recovery ward in an old hospital from a previous era. The room wrapped around a faded gray hardwood floor that looked up to a dark shadowed ceiling. A single window slanted light in from the west end of the room. The window was partially covered by an ancient brown paper window shade that flapped slightly with the breeze that wafted in from the open frame, flapped with a slow uneven bump and knock. Bump … knock … tap … bump … knock … tap. A beam of sunlight, filled with dust and specks of iota from this inner world, limned and diffracted by the wooden frame of the window, shone in across the chamber. The fractured light traced an irregular triad of spotlights across a lone figure in a multi-levered bed from another century. The bandaged, casted figure in the bed was free of conscious involvement in its surroundings. A metal IV pole held two bottles that dangled with tubes running therefrom down toward the bent arm of the broken figure.
They’d almost made it. He had objected, of course. Alexandra had pleaded, “Leo, we need the money. We’ll have a better life after this.” He had relented and agreed to take Rosa with him. The child had made it easier to get through Customs. Cocaine bags sewn into her garments went undetected. They needed only to get to Monterey on time, and the money was theirs. The curve in the road intervened. And the truck.
Back in the chapel, high in the balcony, the specter of the child lifted her eyes upward, and began to sing, in a light soprano voice, the aria, “Ebben! Ne andrò lontana”, that was “Well, then! I’ll go far away”, from the opera La Wally by Alfredo Catalani. Her favorite. The voice continued to soar above the mourners, as they followed the lone black clad woman from the chapel and into the string of automobiles. The shadow of the voice followed them still through the damp air as they drove down toward the place where the coffin would be laid to rest.
The grave-side ceremonies were brief and softly spoken, old words fell around them in their traditional dust to dust refrain. As storm clouds gathered and stirred the air, a light sprinkle of rain began to fall. When all else had departed, there by the grave stood, alone again, the woman for whom they had all grieved. Officer Caldwell waited at the roadside.
As the rain then became more forceful, and ran down her face and through her garments, the song from La Wally continued down through her own consciousness: “Well, then! I’ll go far away! Nor ever more see you again!”. As the rain mingled with her tears, the woman sank slowly to her knees and moved her hands to ground and pushed both arms out before her, and slid forward until her body and her face melded to the wet earth of the grave’s mound. Her arms gradually spread out wide until her figure lay there in the form of a cross upon the grave.
She had sacrificed her daughter, her only child, to her greed.
She had prayed and begged for forgiveness. Her God demanded more of her.
There was a crime, and there was a sin. The crime would be punished.
The sin had a price. The price was paid.
Contrition yielded deliverance.
As the song ended, the rain withdrew.
The sun lit bright on her life. A life renewed.