by Daniel Richardson, Class of 2015
“Jeeerrreeemmmiiaaahhhh!!!” The little girl called, giggling from her hiding place inside the large metal slide. She wore a lacey green dress, slightly smudged with dirt, a yellow bow pinned in her light brown hair as she waited to be found. In the distance the rhythmic clang of the church bell echoed through the rural town of New Faith, beckoning the city towards the white steeple. The boy seemed not to hear it or at least pretended not to; instead he continued his search around the deserted playground as the warm summer sun beaded sweat against his brow. The sweet sound of soft laughter soon led him to the red slide, the excitement evident on his youthful face as he slid down to where his friend crouched.
“Found you! Now come on, we are going to be late for the service,” he stated his tone was calm, but she could detect the small trace of anxiety rising in his voice as he pictured the red face and angry shouts of his father.
“No,” she replied hesitantly, like the workings of her nine-year-old mind were at war with themselves. “Let’s just stay here for a while, Jeremiah… I don’t want to go to church today.”
“What do you mean ‘no ?’ Mrs. Aniston will throw a fit if you don’t show up for Sunday school again!”
She stared at him, her hazel eyes picking past his defenses, searching for some hidden clue or sign. Slowly her lips began to form a question, one that would take him by surprise and haunt him for the remainder of his days. Samantha had a way of doing that, making him wonder sometimes if she was older than she said she was; he guessed in some ways they both were.
“Do you love me, Jeremiah?” She did not blink but Jeremiah could feel the hope in her voice. In that moment it felt as if their roles had been swapped, that she was older and he younger, caught for once in a loss of words.
“Samantha…” he started, having no idea where he might end. He had never thought about her romantically. Of course she had always been a friend to him, a rare one at that; he never had many friends. Even the adults looked down on him with disdain, calling him “The murderer’s brat” when they thought he wasn’t listening. But Samantha had always been like a sister to him, and she was so young, and so very naive. The dozen answers which had formed at the top of his mind all fell away as he looked again at her innocent face.
“Yes, Samantha, I do love you,” he whispered, and as the words rolled off his lips he knew they were true. So they had remained throughout the rest of his life.
Slowly the scene faded before his aging eyes. The shiny red slide darkened, and the paint transformed into dull brown rust. The rest of the playground followed suit. The wood began to decay and in some places disappear completely while the hot summer sun gave way to a dreary November sky. Jeremiah stood there with one hand clutching the inside of his jacket, the other resting on an old wooden cane. It had been nearly eighty years since he had spoken those words. Eighty long years, filled with regret and sorrow. He had always been a coward no matter what he may have once believed, and he had proven it when he ran away at seventeen. He had known they would be coming for him, coming to rip him from his home and lock him away in some prison cell to await the hangman’s noose. And so he fled, leaving Samantha and all he knew behind in his rush to escape. To his credit, after two years of running he had returned for her, waiting until the safety of night before climbing up and knocking on her window.
“Do you love me, Jeremiah?” she had asked, brown hair flickering in the cool breeze. Her face was tinted red as if she had been crying; but no matter how many times he had told her, told her that he loved her and that she was the shining light in his dark world, she had refused to leave with him. “They will understand. You don’t have to run anymore, Jeremiah. It’s been two years.” But he knew they wouldn’t understand. Instead they would leave him as lifeless as the man he had killed. Samantha has always been so innocent, how could she ever understand what he’d done? Her words only angered him, and he left in a fit of emotion. He swore as he cried himself to sleep that night that he would never love again, that love was for the weak and would only lead to sorrow.
Regardless of this, he had always meant to return, to run back to her and fall to her feet; but then the war began. That god-awful war which brought in boys with promises of glory and returned them home in body bags. He had not set foot in the town of New Faith since that night; and it was here now that he stood, in front of the crumbling ruin of the old school playground.
“Mr. Reed?” the voice of a young man came from behind him, forcing him out of the dark cloud of nostalgia and back onto the solid ground of reality.
“Yes, that’s me,” Jeremiah answered, turning to face the man “Do I know you?” He was young, in his late twenties if Jeremiah had to guess. He was dressed in khaki slacks, a white oxford with a blue tie, and a long black trench coat that was splattered with little drops of water, as if it had rained on his walk here. In one hand he held a brown leather briefcase that looked like it may have been as old as he was.
“I’m Samantha Grange’s grandson, Anthony Grange; I received your letter in the…”
“I’m sorry boy; I’m afraid I don’t know a Samantha Grange,” Jeremiah interrupted him, his face turning to stone as he slowly put in place the pieces of the puzzle.
“Sorry, you would have known her by her maiden name, Ashton. Samantha Ashton.”
So she had gotten married then. He should have assumed as much. It wasn’t like she had been expected to wait for him. Still the news came as something of a shock, like when one dives into a pool, only to find out the water is cold.
“I see. Could you take me to your grandmother then, son? I’m an old friend, and I’d like to see her one last time.” The area was quiet and for the most part peaceful besides the distant murmur of car engines from the town center. It was only the two of them standing there, but still Jeremiah’s question seemed to hang in the air for eternity before being answered.
Anthony was at a loss of words, finally with something of a sigh he responded. “Sir, my grandmother died two months ago.”
The sentence hit him like a bullet. Samantha was dead. His Samantha was dead.
“It was cancer that killed her in the end. I received your letter last week. I’m living out of her old house now you see, and so I have come to meet you, and give you this,” he finished, lifting up the old briefcase.
The warmth left Jeremiah’s shaking hand as he reached out to take the case from Anthony.
“She talked about you a lot, especially after my grandfather died. She told me she had never forgotten you and always meant to see you again one day. These are the things she left for
you if you should ever come back.” With those words he turned to leave, his black trench coat fluttering in the wind.
“Where is she buried?” Jeremiah called out after him, his face beginning to contort as he desperately tried to hold back the tears.
“In the old church’s graveyard,” Anthony replied, seeming anxious to depart. “Is it true what they say? That you killed a man?” he asked, and after a few moments of uncomfortable silence started back down the gravel road.
Jeremiah stood there and watched him for a solid minute, his weary mind again beginning to fog with bleak clouds of old memories. Almost angrily he put them aside and looked at the briefcase he held before him. On the front, scrawled into the battered leather a single word could be made out, and in his mind he heard her childhood voice calling out to him.
Solemnly his anger instantly fell away, and with a tear in his eye he began to hobble down the road towards the old white church. In the distance the rhythmic clang of the church bell echoed through the bustling city of New Faith, beckoning all who could hear towards the white steeple. After some time the crumbling brick and rotting beams of the building came into view.
The church in his childhood had been the gem of the town, a beautiful building with a crisp green lawn and glittering stain glass windows. In recent times, however, it seemed to have fallen to the wayside, and stood now in a state of forgotten disrepair. To its right a vast graveyard stretched down a sloping hill, shaded from the dull sun by the yellow leaves of a giant oak. A handful of cars were parked outside the church, some of them so ancient they could be
considered collectors’ items. Seeing them here he vaguely recalled it was Sunday. The fools of the world would be attending their churches, where they would be promised happiness and prosperity. They were all clueless; life was nothing more than a meaningless pit of torment. If there was a God, then he was cruel and merciless. Jeremiah’s faith had long since died with his father, and now it seemed that vengeance was being wrought upon him for it. Samantha was dead. His Samantha was dead.
Desperately he wandered the graves, searching for the final resting place of the only person he had ever truly loved. His heart ached as nearly every grave he stumbled upon bore the name of someone he once knew. Through the cracked church windows the pastor’s fiery sermon could be heard across the valley.
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil which he toils under the sun?”
Jeremiah grimaced as he heard the words; he found irony in the fact that he and the preacher seemed to agree. Life was worthless. Presently his eyes landed upon a patch of fresh dirt under the broad sweeping branches of the old oak tree. In front of the dirt a simple white tombstone rested, a stark contrast to the elaborate graves which surrounded it. Almost timidly Jeremiah approached the grave, fearing what he might see.
Samantha Ashton Grange Born June 5, 1919
Died September 17, 2012
May she always live in our Hearts
Jeremiah fell to his knees as his body began to shake uncontrollably. His old limbs seemed to fail him, forcing him down into the soft dirt. Clumsily he wrestled with the brass clasp on the old leather briefcase, the memory of Samantha’s soft voice coursing through his head.
His breathing had increased and he was panting by the time the latch finally opened, revealing the long awaited contents of the case. The last things that Samantha had intended him to see before she had died, one final message from beyond the grave. Inside, a crinkled yellow piece of paper sat atop a small book. Two items. That was all. He reached down and slowly withdrew them both. The book was a Bible and an old one at that, the simple design of a cross etched onto the front cover. Carefully, he opened it to the front page, only to find it dedicated to Samantha Ashton on the occasion of her baptism. Had she really bought into this stuff? He quietly set it to the side and reached down for the note. A single sentence was written, inscribed in her elegant handwriting the he still recognized to this day.
“Do you love me, Jeremiah?”
Kneeling under the shade of the great oak tree tears began to fall uncontrollably from his eyes. “Yes…” he whispered, struggling to form the word. “Yes, Samantha, yes I do love you!” As he sat there weeping, all the failures and struggles of his life invaded his heart and mind. Why had all this happened to him? Did God hate him? Jeremiah could not blame him if he did. He was a failure, a coward… a murderer. Life had long since been his torture chamber.
Weary and broken he stared yet again at the yellow sheet of paper, Samantha’s last question would be forever unanswered and he despised himself because of it. He flipped it over in his hand, unable to stare at the beautiful words any longer, only to find yet another sentence written on the back. His heart skipped a beat as he continued to read.
“Then love God for he is the one who made me, and though you may not believe it, he loves you in return.”
Trembling Jeremiah rose to his feet, his weight supported by the old wooden cane. His weary eyes wandered to the white cross atop the ancient steeple. “You never really give up do you?” He thought, groaning as he reached down and lifted Samantha’s Bible from where it sat in the dirt. Through the broken windows of the church you could still hear the powerful voice of the preacher echoing across the valley.
“Let us conclude today’s message with John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. Amen…”
Silently, his face contorted with emotion Jeremiah hobbled up towards the white church building, Samantha’s final words on his mind.