I’d come south to get shed of bad memories. You might say I was running away, but the truth is I was putting some distance between what had been and what was now. Sometimes that’s what it takes to start the healing process.
I pulled my slightly used but new-to-me RV into the Savannas Recreation Area Campground at Ft. Pierce, Florida, looking to chill for a couple of weeks and decide which direction the wind would blow me next. I had no strings attached anymore, so I was free to go wherever the current took me. That was when I met Caleb Johansson.
When I checked into the campground, the nice lady in the office asked if I wanted to be around other campers or off by myself in a more secluded area. It was an easy answer. So, I backed into a campsite with a canal behind me and a mile of sawgrass rising from the glades that had bass hitting late afternoon bugs on the water’s surface and signs along the shoreline cautioning all not to feed the gators. But there were no other campers around, which suited me just fine.
My name is Jack Pritchett, and if it sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen my byline or read one of my commentaries in your local newspaper. My words of gibberish have been syndicated in the dying media of print journalism for ten years now, though to gauge just how relevant my prose is, you’d need to dig deep, back to page seven or eight. But it pays me a constant stipend, which allows me to indite other drivel, which my publisher wraps up in a bound volume once a year and markets as my contract stipulates. I write about history and how it relates to our present time. I’m a firm believer that if you wait long enough, history will repeat itself—which is not always a good thing.
That probably sounds all well and good, except that a writer never has a vacation. We are either scrawling our thoughts out on the keyboard or composing the next story in our mind, which leaves little left of ourselves to share with others, including our wives, partners, children, or companions. My wife of twenty-five years finally had enough of being a single, married woman and left me to have real vacations with her yoga instructor. My daughter also thought he was more fun than me and refused to have anything to do with the boring old man as well. They all decided to go on vacation together—and that didn’t end well. So, I found myself an over fifty mental recluse with no family and no real friends, and that started my journey into becoming a nomad, and I’m finding it suits me well. If I discover I don’t like my neighbors today, I can move tomorrow.
The campground is big, open, and empty and has these lovely park benches that face the waterway behind the campsites — a suitable venue for composing and writing without distraction. As soon as I laid eyes on the bench at my campsite, I resolved that was where I would work unless the heat or mosquitos drove me inside my camper. Little did I know how that bench would redirect my thoughts from myself to something much vaster, more boundless than I could imagine.
On my first full day on the glade, I ate a small breakfast of fruit and toast, grabbed my laptop wearing my usual attire of faded t-shirt, cargo shorts, and crocks, and went outside. It was a warming day with light trade winds blowing down the canal from the east off the Atlantic and the wide Indian River a couple of miles away, taking the edge off what would be stifling heat later in the day. Taking my chosen seat on the bench under the shade of the two palm trees behind me, I began to sort out my thoughts for the intended subject I had chosen, which at this later date, I can’t recall what it even was. With my mind composed in the serene setting, I was ready to tap out the first lines of the narrative when he sat down at the other end of the bench.
Slightly taken aback, having assumed the bench was on my campsite and not intended for the general public, I looked at the man intending to rebuke him for invading my space. But before the words could be formulated, I got a good look at my visitor. He wasn’t facing me, just looking into the tall sawgrass across the canal. A tall framed man with no extra meat on his bones, like he hadn’t had a decent meal in a while, and dark hair that no barber had touched recently, with a long scraggly beard. But it was his clothes that seemed out of place for a warm summer day in Florida. Made of wool, hand-stitched from all appearances, and resembling pictures I had seen of Civil War-era uniforms, the captain’s bars sown on his sleeve looked heavily worn, as if they’d been used and reused on many costumes. I figured him for an actor, but what a thespian was doing in costume out in this park confused me enough that I felt compelled to ask him, “Are you in the theatre?”
He turned to look at me with a shocked look on his lined face, but as he moved, his whole body shimmered like it was formed of water or gel. I blinked, thinking the sun had reflected off the water, causing me to see something odd. “You are the first person to speak to me since I came home, kind sir.” he said in a deep scratchy voice, “I thought everyone was just avoiding me.”
“I saw your costume and was wondering if you were an actor,” I asked him.
“Not an actor. I was a soldier. This land was my family’s home, but it has changed so much over the years, and everyone I knew is gone. I’ve been searching for the woman I love, but she is nowhere to be found.”
“Did your family sell the property?” I asked, my interest piqued.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, the accentuated shimmering of his facial features making me slightly nauseous, “They would never have sold it. We owned all the land along the river for miles. They must have all died.”
“Died?” I said in wonder, “How long have you been gone?”
“A long time, I feel. Many years now. I stayed near the last battle for some time, then finally decided to return home, hoping to find the woman I loved. But she is gone, and my family is no longer here.”
“What war were you involved in? You look too old to have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
He stared at me. His deep dark eyes bore through me as if probing the depths of my innermost self. “I’ve not heard of those battles. I’m afraid speaking with you has tired me greatly. Perhaps we will speak again later.”
He stood up shakily as I threw my last query at him again. “What was the last battle you fought in?”
He took a couple of steps as I twisted my body on the bench to see him behind me, then he stopped and said, “Antietam,” and with that, he just disappeared.
I quickly stood up, looking to see which direction he had gone, but he was nowhere to be seen. The air around me felt suddenly cooler, but even with that, I broke out in a sweat as I remembered his last words, Antietam.
Not a name that’s forgettable for a history buff.
I walked out towards the center of the campground, thinking I’d catch a glimpse of the stranger, but to no avail. Frustrated and certain I had misheard him when he uttered that last word. I went back inside my RV and sat at the table, going over the conversation we’d had. Then I opened my laptop and transcribed it completely, afraid I would forget some part of it. But my mind kept returning to his final word—Antietam.
The Battle of Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862. One of the most decisive battles of the Civil War and the deadliest day ever in this country. Over 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing on the battlefield alongside Antietam Creek. Counting the wounded that would eventually die, a total of 7650 Americans would die from that one-day battle. Logistically it was an important battle since it halted General Robert E. Lee’s northward advance as he retreated across the Potomac into Virginia on September 18.
After pondering the conversation, I finally decided the man must have been a character actor getting into his part, although his seriousness made what he said so much more believable. But something about him rang true, and I couldn’t dispel the image of his face when I spoke to him. Grabbing my car keys, I headed for town to locate the public library and see what I could find on any Civil War involvement from this area.
With the Google lady directing me, it took seven minutes to get parked in front of the old building on Water Street. There were only a couple of cars in the parking lot as I entered the book repository. The young dark-haired woman wearing a name tag that read Gloria stood up from behind the desk as I approached it. “May I assist you, sir?” she said pleasantly.
“Why, yes, I hope you can. I’m visiting the area and doing some research on the Civil War years and wondered if you might have any information on local involvement in the war,” I inquired.
“We certainly do.” Gloria told me, “There were quite a few men that joined the Confederate ranks from around here and many farmers that sent cattle and supplies to the forces fighting the Union Army. Let me show you that section of books. Will you be interested in obtaining a library card while you are here?”
“No, I don’t believe so, at least not right now. I’m staying at the county park not too far from here, so I can come over quite easily. By the way, my name is Jack Pritchett,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Pritchett,” she said, with no apparent recognition of the name, which was just fine by me. She did have a very firm handshake, something I admired in a woman. I followed her as she headed for the back of the library and into a small room with two tables and accompanying chairs. The walls held a couple of hundred books, many of which looked quite old. “This is our local history section, Mr. Pritchett. Many of these have been donated by families from the area or willed to the library when the owners passed. You should be able to find what you’re looking for here.”
“Thank you, Gloria. You can just call me Jack if you like.”
With a grand smile, she replied, “Of course, Jack. Let me know if you need any assistance locating something,” as she left me to find my way through titles.
I started at one end, perusing each spine individually as I moved up and down the rows. Some were so old I could barely make out the writing without pulling the book out to read its cover. More than a few appeared to be books donated from families, and some that had made a trek through a book store or two. I pulled out a couple that talked about the history of the war from a Floridian’s perspective and sat down at one of the tables to thumb through them.
I quickly discovered that although there had been just a few battles in Florida, there were quite a few regiments that had formed and were sent to fight in other states. As many as fifteen thousand soldiers were divided up into twelve infantry regiments and two made up of cavalry. It was the smallest state in the confederacy at the time and quite remote, so neither army tried too hard to hold the state. As with other states in the devastating war, thousands of men and boys joined the fracas and never returned home. Many families lost all their menfolk, leaving the women to work the land on their own or abandon it and relocate to the cities. It certainly changed the landscape of the state.
With the fresh input of knowledge, I replaced the books wanting more than anything to talk to the man some more but uncertain if I would ever lay eyes on him again. Gloria came out from behind her desk as I walked by, “Did you find what you were looking for, Jack?” she asked sweetly.
“Oh, I just got started, Gloria. You have a very nice selection of old books on Florida history. I’ll most likely need to return and research some more.”
“Well, you just come back anytime. It was nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too. Maybe I’ll see you again soon,” I told her.
Stopping at a Cuban bakery on my way back to the campground, I had a plate of ropa vieja for lunch. I’ll never get my fill of Cuban cooking and take advantage of it every chance I can. After eating, I sat nursing a cup of strong coffee and thought about what I would say to the gentleman if I saw him again. I hadn’t felt so intrigued by a story in a long time and chuckled to myself when I realized I hadn’t been consumed in self-pity since meeting him this morning. It was quite therapeutic to be engaged in something other than my issues.
The 10-mph speed limit in the campground gave me a chance to cruise slowly and look for any sign of the stranger, but he was nowhere to be seen. I figured it must have been a fluke encounter, so I decided it was time to get back to work on what I got paid for instead of chasing a chimera. Once again, I took my laptop out to the bench and proceeded to work on my column.
I was making good headway on my latest rant when out of the corner of my eye, he sat down on the end of the bench again. When I turned to look at him, he was looking straight at me, but the shimmering of his embodiment made me slightly dizzy, and a wave of nausea swept over me. Fighting the feeling, I spoke to him, “I’m glad you returned. I was hoping to speak to you again. I never caught your name.”
He nodded his head before replying, then said, “It’s still a surprise to me that you wish to speak with me, sir. I’ve tried to talk with many, and they just acted like I wasn’t even there. It does tire me a bit talking after so long, but it’s nice to be regarded. My name is Caleb Johansson. What do you go by?”
“I’m Jack Pritchett, Caleb. Nice to meet you. I wanted to find out more about you. Can you tell me about your family?”
“It’s my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Jack Pritchett. Not much to tell. My family settled this stretch of land along the river in 1821 when it was still part of Louisiana. The French had built a small settlement here, and when they left after the purchase, many settlers moved in and staked out all the parcels they could work. My grandparents brought all their kin and took to working ten sections and then later added to them. I was born here, as were most of my siblings. The land was fertile, and there was plenty of rain and warm temperatures to grow crops, so my family did well sending our crops north on ships until the war started. Then the Yankees stopped the ships from leaving, for the most part. Everything changed then. I was planning on marrying myself when the conflict began.”
I sat there, stunned and speechless, just staring at him. Finally, I found my voice, “Caleb, are you telling me you fought in the war between the states?”
“I joined the 2nd Florida Infantry Regiment in May of 1861 and went north to Virginia with Captain Edward Perry. After the battle of Williamsburg in May of ’62, he was elected Colonel, and we were sent on to fight at Seven Pines. We left dead men at Gaines Mill and Frasier’s Farm. But the colonel was a good leader and tried to fight smart. In August, he won promotion to Brigadier General and took us to Sharpsburg. That was my last battle.”
The realization hit me like a sack of bricks. I finally understood the shimmering of his body. “Caleb—you were shot at Antietam?”
“Not shot, Jack. A union soldier stuck me with a bayonet and left me in the dirt next to the creek. After the battle was over that night, I felt the need to stay near, so I crawled into the bushes on the north side of the creek. I watched all the dead being buried, but they never came for me, so I stayed put. I remained there for a long time. Years I believe. Until I felt the need to come home. When I did, everything had changed, and there was no one around that I knew from before. I wanted so much to see Sarah one more time.”
In utter amazement, I asked, “Sarah was the woman you were going to marry?”
He nodded, and the uncomfortable tremulous quivering once again almost made me retch, “Yes, Jack. Sarah Whitsley was her name. I did so much want to see her again. I think I have to go now, Jack. I’m sure enough getting tired.”
A thought pierced my foggy brain, and I told him anxiously, “Please come back later, Caleb. I’ll see if I can find Sarah’s family. Maybe I can discover where she went.”
“That would be good, Jack. I’ll come back and see you when I can,” and with that—he just faded away.
The awareness that I had been conversing with the spirit of a Civil War Confederate soldier was overwhelming. Like everyone else, I had heard of people being contacted by ethereal beings, but I’d never given any thought as to whether I believed such things since nothing supernatural had ever occurred to me before. I quickly stood up and shook my head to convince myself I hadn’t been dreaming in sleep. But I was clearly awake and now felt the strong desire to establish Caleb’s authenticity. I needed to return to the library.
I hurriedly added to the notes of the first conversation, afraid I would forget some important bit of information. Then I made my way back to the library, just barely staying within the posted speed limits. Gloria looked up as I rushed into the library, and a glowing smile lit her face, “My Jack, I didn’t expect to see you back so soon. What’s wrong? You’re as white as a sheet. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d seen a ghost or something.”
“Gloria, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, or maybe you would?” I said, thinking about her comment. “I need to do some more research. How late do you stay open?”
“Don’t worry, Jack. I’ll be here for a couple more hours and can stay later if you need more time. You know your way back to the Florida room—go on ahead. I’ll let you know if I need to shut the place up.”
“Thanks, Gloria. I’ll try not to keep you late.”
Once back in the Florida history room, I pulled the book on Civil War involvement from the shelf. In minutes I had found a chapter on the 2nd Infantry Regiment, and while quickly scanning the pages and checking my notes, I was able to establish that Caleb’s version of involvement was spot on. Even his memory of Edward Perry’s promotions was correct down to the dates.
I returned to the shelves and searched desperately for some volume that might give me local landowners’ names for that time period and had almost given up when I came upon a small ledger of handwritten notes pertaining to shipments of cotton and corn aboard a vessel named Carolina Cloud. It was dated January 1860 – December 1861, and although the writing was at times scribbled, I could make out the tonnage and volume of the shipments and the consigner.
In July of 1860, Samuel Johansson had consigned 420 bushels of corn for shipment to Charleston, South Carolina, to be sold at market price upon delivery. The shipment was delivered dockside by one, Caleb Johansson, and signed for in his name.
Bingo! I’d established the provenance of Caleb and his family name. Now I needed to find the name Sarah Whitsley, which would help point me in the right direction for finding her family. But try as I might, pouring through every book that might have names, I couldn’t find any name that resembled Whitsley. I even tried it with other spellings to no avail. I was still searching volumes when Gloria came through the door.
“If you’re not quite finished, I can wait a little longer to close up, Jack,” she said.
I looked at her, just shaking my head, frustrated that my search hadn’t turned up a thread on Caleb’s sweetheart. “I can’t find what I’m looking for, Gloria. I’m chasing down blind alleys and hitting dead ends.”
“Tell me what you’re looking for, Jack. Maybe I can help you?”
“Gloria, if you knew the whole story, you’d think I had gone loco and throw me out of the door. What I’m searching for is a name. The name of a person that was here in this area back in 1860 or ’61. Try as I might, I can’t turn up anything on the person or name.”
“What is the name you’re looking for, Jack?” she asked sincerely.
“I’m looking for a Sarah Whitsley, or Whitley. Something like that. I can’t find anything even remotely close to that spelling.”
Gloria looked at me with the most serious of expressions and then said, “Are you for real, Jack? What is your interest in that name? You aren’t some weirdo stalker or something, are you?”
Aghast, I replied, “For god’s sake, Gloria. I’m a nationally syndicated columnist. I write about history and how it pertains to the present day. Really boring stuff. Why do you ask such a question?”
Looking deeply into my eyes, she replied, “Before I tell you, do you mind if I verify your identity?”
“Not at all. Go right ahead,” I replied.
“Just wait here, Jack. Let me get my phone.”
Gloria rushed out of the room but quickly returned, punching in some text on her phone, “Just letting you know I texted my grandmother letting her know I was still at the library, and if she didn’t hear from me in five minutes, she was to call the police. Now, your last name is Pritchett?”
“Yes, Pritchett, Jack Pritchett. I write a syndicated newspaper column.”
“Really, Jack? No one reads the newspaper anymore. Let’s see. Okay, here’s your picture on Wikipedia. You’re fifty-one years old, recently divorced, and, OH MY GOD, Jack! Your ex-wife and daughter were killed in a boating accident while vacationing with her new boyfriend. Is that true?”
I hung my head and wiped the moisture that was leaking from my closed eyes, and just nodded. I should have realized that all that information would be easily accessed on the internet. “It’s true, Gloria,” I stammered. “I lost all my family that day. What else would you like to know about me?”
“I’m so sorry, Jack. I was just afraid you might be some crazy weird guy. You see, my great-grandmother’s maiden name was Whitsley. No one would ever know that, so you freaked me out when you mentioned it.”
“Really, Gloria?” I said excitedly, “Was she from this area?”
“Yes, she was, Jack. Her family owned a general store here in town for many years. My grandmother used to talk about her family a lot. She has a whole bunch of family books and journals about them that she wants to donate to the library after she passes.”
Suddenly energized, my mind racing, “Do you know if you had a relative named Sarah?”
Shaking her head, she replied, “That I don’t know. But my grandmother might. Would you like to talk to her? She loves to talk about her past, but no one is interested.”
“I’d love to if she wouldn’t mind a few questions.”
“Okay, Jack. Let me close up this place, and you can follow me home now that I know you’re not some whacko. Why don’t you wait out front? I only live two blocks away.”
I went out of the library and waited, wondering where Gloria had parked her car since the parking lot was empty. My question was answered as the door opened, and she came out, pushing a vintage VESPA scooter with a helmet fixed to her head. “Just follow me, Jack. I won’t lose you,” she said as she fired up the old motorbike.
True to her word, she drove slowly and waved her hand for me to pull into the empty driveway as she remotely opened the garage door and maneuvered the scooter inside, and parked it. I got out and followed her to the front door and inside the home’s foyer. “The living room is through there,” she said, pointing down a short hallway, “why don’t you go in there while I get my grandmother.”
I did as she directed and waited in the room, just standing, vacantly looking at the knick-knacks that cluttered up every flat spot in the room. I heard wheels squeaking behind me and turned to see Gloria pushing a wheelchair with an elderly woman in a housecoat, looking seriously at me. “Jack, this is my mam, Cynthia. Grammy, this nice man would like to ask you a few questions about the family history.”
I thought I saw a spark, possibly a touch of joy, that lit up her old, tired eyes. Then she squinted as if she was looking into the depths of my soul, as only an elderly person can. “What do you want to know about my family, young man? You sure you’re not just trying to get close to my granddaughter? You look way too old for her, you know?”
I had to laugh at her savvy and told her, “I just met your granddaughter today, ma’am. I’m doing some research on Civil War families from this area, and I came across the name Whitsley. I couldn’t find anything at the library on the name until I mentioned it to her, and she told me you had relatives by that name. I assure you; my intentions are honorable.”
As I finished speaking, she was chuckling light-heartedly, letting me know she had been pulling my leg. “I’m just joshing you, Jack. I don’t get a chance to rib someone very often anymore. This old girl has to use every opportunity available. Why don’t you sit yourself down and let’s chat?”
I moved over and sat on the overstuffed sofa as Gloria took a seat at the other end. Cynthia was facing me across a low coffee table covered in the usual accouterment of magazines and books you would expect. She nodded at me, indicating she was ready to hear what information I was searching for, so I started, “Cynthia, I came across the name of a man who went to war in 1861 and never made it home,” I lied. “His name was Caleb Johansson, and his family, as best I can tell, owned a fair amount of land around here. He joined up with the 2nd Florida Infantry Regiment and went north, and the next year he was killed on the battlefield at Antietam. When he left, he was in love with and planning on marrying a woman named Sarah Whitsley. I’ve been trying to find any information on her but have come up with nothing. I’d truly appreciate it if you could help me in any way.”
She had begun lightly nodding her head as I spoke, and once I was done talking, she sat there a minute as if collecting her thoughts. Then she began, “Jack, my ancestors that settled down here in Florida came from Pennsylvania sometime around 1840, as best my family has been able to tell. They came from a merchant background and had the contacts to establish shipping of merchandise from the northern states to maintain their store’s stocks. The war curtailed the business due to the blockading by union ships, but they survived thanks to the daring of several ship captains that cunningly slipped through the blockade lines to deliver supplies to the store. One of the reasons they survived when many other merchants didn’t was they refused to accept Confederate States dollars for goods. They extended credit and welcomed gold, of course, as well as bartered goods, but they were smart in not taking money that would become worthless even before the war was over.
“My great grandfather Frederick Whitsley had five children, three of whom died as infants. It was tough raising children in those days, you understand, due to lack of medicine and poorly trained physicians. There were more veterinarians than doctors because farmers would pay with gold to keep a draft horse alive since they were so hard to replace, but children were easy to spawn, so if they got sick and died, it was easy to make another one. Two of his children lived to be young adults and were both alive when the horrible war started in 1861: his oldest son, William, and a young daughter just sixteen years of age, Sarah.
“William didn’t fight in the war but helped run the business with his father. Sarah was well-schooled up north and returned to Florida in 1860 and though young, took a job as a schoolteacher. Our family knew little about her relationship with the Johansson boy until my mother came across a letter Sarah wrote but never sent. It was found in an envelope ready to be mailed inside of one of her school books. You see, Sarah took sick, probably from tuberculosis contracted from one of her students, and died before the war was over.
“We never knew that the young man himself was killed, and it’s unlikely that he ever found out Sarah had died since the letter she wrote on her deathbed was addressed to him. If you give me a minute, I’ll go find that letter. You might like to read it.”
“Yes, I would—I’d appreciate it,” I replied.
Gloria stood up and pushed her grandmother down the hallway into another room. They weren’t gone long, and when they returned, Cynthia was holding onto an envelope, yellowed with age. Taking her time, she carefully opened the flap and extracted a folded piece of thin paper, and slowly opened it up. She scanned the page, then looked at me, “Do you have any idea when the Johansson boy was killed?”
“Yes, I know the exact day,” I told her, “He died at Antietam, which was just a one-day battle. It was on September 17, 1862. Why do you ask?”
Looking up at me, I thought I caught sight of a hint of wetness in her eyes, “Because Sarah Whitsley died on September 16, 1862, the day before the Johansson boy.”
I was stunned by the meaning of it and astounded that the two lovers had died almost a thousand miles apart within hours of each other. I looked at her, speechless. She reached out with the open page, “You may read her final words to him if you’d like.”
I gently took the page from her and looked at the delicate handwriting. Then I began to read,
My dear Caleb,
I hope this finds you well. We hear so little about the battles you are fighting until weeks after they are over. I do so miss you, my love. I lay awake at night, wondering and praying that you are safe. We hear there is little food and that the union armies have stripped the land bare, so nothing is left for our boys. I only wish you had not chosen to join the forces since now we all fear it was in vain.
Please know that I love you with all my heart and soul, and it is with the heaviest of hearts that I have to tell you now that we will never be together again in this life. I have the sickness in my chest that has taken so many of us. Right now, I fight and struggle for every breath and feel my strength slowly slipping away. My life is at an end, and I long to hold you, and so wish we could have had a long life together. But it was not to be.
Don’t shed a tear, my dear friend and lover, for soon enough, we will be together in the afterlife. Look for me there. I will sing out your name, as I did when we were last alone on the river bank. I will long for your touch, for your strong arms to hold me. Be safe, my dearest, until we meet again.
My love to you forever,
I finished reading it and wiped my own tears away. Looking up, I saw Cynthia slowly weeping. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, then spoke, “It has been the biggest mystery for me since my mother found the letter as to what happened to that boy. We did some research and found out that his family lost almost all their land by speculating on Confederate dollars. They, along with so many other southerners, were certain that their hard-fighting men would prevail against the northerners. The banks ended up with the land, and the Johansson family disappeared. Where to, I never could find out.
“I’m not sure what forces conspired to bring you to the library today and to connect with Gloria, but it must have been powerful entities, is all I can figure. No matter, I thank you.”
I stood up to go, then stopped, “If it’s not too much to ask, do you perhaps have a printer that could make a copy of the letter?”
Cynthia turned to Gloria, who was already nodding her head. “Of course, we do. I’ll go run off a copy.”
She took the letter and was back in a couple of minutes, minutes that were silent between the older woman and me. It seemed as if now lost in our thoughts; we had said all that was necessary. When Gloria returned with the printed copy, I thanked Cynthia for seeing me, and Gloria walked me to the door. “Well, Jack, that was really something. I don’t think I have seen mam so happy in years.”
“Gloria, I don’t think you have any idea just how thrilled I am to get this information. It means a lot. Perhaps I’ll see you at the library sometime.”
“I hope so, too, Jack. Despite what my grandmother might think, I don’t think you are too old for me at all. Just saying,” she added with a wink.
“Good,” I said smiling, “I don’t think you are too young for me either. How about dinner sometime?”
“I’d love it,” she said. “Anytime you want.”
To say I was on cloud nine, driving back to my RV, would be an understatement. Though it was almost dark when I got to the campground, I drove through slowly, looking for Caleb, but I did not see him. I went in and made a sandwich for dinner and drank a cold beer, but it took me hours to drift off into sleep as I replayed the events of the day over and over in my mind.
At first light, I was outside on the bench with coffee and the letter in hand. It was a cloudless morning as the sun rose over the glades. Birds were leaving their night roosts and going in search of a meal, and the bass were hitting on every bug and fly that came near the surface of the water. Suddenly, I felt the air cool around me as Caleb sat down on the bench.
Looking at me, he said, “You look happy today, Jack. Did you find my family?”
“No, Caleb, I didn’t find them, but I found something I think will be more important to you,” I told him, holding up the copy of the letter. “I found, with a little help, a letter that Sarah wrote to you that was never mailed. I’m sorry to tell you that Sarah died from a sickness we call tuberculosis, which you may have called consumption. Caleb, Sarah died the day before you did at Antietam.”
His countenance took a hit with the news, but I continued, “Would you like me to read her last letter to you?”
Enveloped in grief, he nodded his shimmering head as I held the letter up and read it to him. There were no tears when I was done, but I felt his sadness lifted now that he had heard Sarah proclaim her love for him.
“Caleb, she’s waiting for you. It’s time for you to leave this world behind. Go find her. It’s what was meant to be—you just didn’t know it.”
The words had no sooner left my tongue when from out of the glades, I heard a beautiful voice singing. Caleb heard it, too, as he stood and, shading his eyes with his hand, peered into the tall sawgrass.
I was standing now, too, as the sweet voice sang louder, calling his name. “Caleb. She’s come for you. Sarah is singing your name—go to her. She’s been waiting a long time for you to cut your earthly bonds. Now you both can be together.”
Caleb looked at me with the first smile I’d seen him wear and started walking towards the water. In a flash, he was gone, but a second later, I saw a deep blue glow on the eastern sky, and then the singing faded.
I sat there on the bench for several hours until the heat drove me inside my RV. Then I took up my laptop and wrote down everything as I remembered it. It had been much more than just a history lesson for me. I’d learned that although I’d lost my family, they were at least together—it’s always the ones that are left behind that do the grieving.
After I was done, I got into my car and headed for the library. As Caleb’s pain had been lifted, so had the pain from my personal loss as well. I had grieved long enough. It was time I did what my family would want me to do, and that was to start over. I’d take Gloria to dinner, and well, after that, who knows. There was a lot of life still to be lived.
As I drove away, I glanced back at the empty bench overlooking the glades. One never knows just where or when a life lesson will be learned. You just have to be ready for it when it comes.
Look for this story and others in Behind the Mask- An Anthology of Short Stories, available here.
For information on my books, go here.