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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Death · #2292713
Is death the end? A true story.
I Am Not Coming Home


It was the month of January in 1968; a cold stillness had crept in the night before and settled its harm upon the hollow of Cold Fork, Kentucky. In the midst of this cold, a young boy staggered his way through the ice and snow toward Kentucky Highway 692. No birds sang for him this dark morning, no clouds strolled through the sky, and no hope built itself a fire in his heart. He was alone. His only ally was the grit which dwelt inside him, propping him up as he stumbled forward.

         All was still as he walked along the road. The radio had said it was ten below zero this morning. He felt in his heart that he was in some kind of trouble. Fear constantly fought to get itself a foothold in his heart, and now and again, it succeeded.

          But he was going to do it. He was going to walk the thirty miles to Pikeville, Kentucky; he was going to visit his Mom. He knew he was ill-prepared, but he possessed nothing in this life to prepare with. Nothing but determination carried him along this road, and love pushed him forward. He was cold, his nose felt like an icicle. The little hair inside it seemed brittle with ice.

          There he was, with nothing but a denim pea jacket, a pair of brown penny loafers, two hand-me-down dress socks, a flannel shirt and some knee-holed bluejeans to keep him warm. He carried with him no food, no water; his own strength must be his sustenance.

         He paused as he approached the house where he used to live. For a few minutes, he stood on the footbridge thinking. As he stood there, a faded image of Bob the Dog galloping across it long ago tiptoed through his mind. He laughed and shook his head to dispel the memory.

         I am sure glad I brought along two boxes of matches, he thought. I will leave the road and go into the mountains a little way if I get too cold. I'll look inside hollow trees for dry leaves and twigs; I'll make myself a fire and get warm.

          The smoke will be hidden by the trees and the snow. Nobody will notice. If I have to take more then a day to get to Pikeville, I'll find myself some kind of shelter for sleeping, or I'll make my own shelter. I can make a lean-to, and I know how to build a crude hogan if need be. I wonder how long it will take me to get to Pikeville? I miss my Mom. I haven't seen her in over three months. Why do I have to fight like this to see my own mother?


He stepped off the footbridge, slipped on the ice-clad asphalt and continued his journey. Yonder, straight ahead about one hundred fifty yards and around a curve, was Taylor's country store. Reckon I ought to stop in there, see if I can get a couple of candy bars? Never mind, he answered himself. I don't have any money. He'd gotten less than a quarter of a mile from his home, and his toes seemed to be stiffening. He reckoned he was in for it, but he was going to see it through.

         Earlier, along sometime in the month of November, had been the last time he'd seen his Mom. She had been having a terrible pain in her stomach for a few weeks. He was worried so much in his heart.

         A constant drum of dread rattled inside his head during his waking hours and presented him with nightmares during his sleep. His last glimpse of her had been as she had descended a slope on Cold Fork Road on her way to the hospital. She had not came home that day, nor the next.

          I don't know, it might take me a couple of weeks to make this journey, but there's no turning back living in my heart. I think my feet are wet, maybe I'll turn around and go up the mountain to our onetime coal mine, build myself a fire and warm up just a little. And maybe I'll find something to eat up there.

         The boy cast his gaze behind him, and in a moment his footsteps and his empty stomach followed his eyes. Back across the footbridge and up the mountain he headed. Past the old homeplace, the overgrown garden and all the delights of his former life, he made his way.

         Of a sudden, he came within sight of the old, Roman Beauty apple tree, grunted with delight and crossed over the small, mountain creek to stand beneath it. Shuffling his feet around in circles, presently he uncovered a plump, Roman Beauty apple. Continuing the process, he soon had about eight apples in his pea jacket pockets. He was pleased.

         Turning, he walked back to the point of his former direction and set off up the mountain. Remind me to cut some twigs and buds from a spicebush shrub before I get to the mine, he said to himself. Some spicebush tea will set off the taste of these Roman Beauties. Taking his own hint, he pulled out his pocketknife and cut a pants pocketful of spicebush sprigs from a bush near the overgrown trail. Ummm, smells like Teaberry chewing gum, if only I had something to brew it in . . .


It wasn't too long of a time before the hill fronting the coal mine was before him. It was almost perpendicular, covered with slag and now topped off with ice and snow. Impassable. He walked by it toward one of the long abandoned mines which afforded easier access.

         Walking up a gentle slope, he peered at the depression marking the cave in of the old mine, and walked on past it around the side of the mountain toward the other mine. This mine held a grip on his heart; it was both his friend and his enemy. He wasn't going to offer to shake hands or say hello.

         He stopped beside a fallen tree, from its underside he gathered some dry bark and wood dust, snapped off an armful of kindling wood and proceeded to the mine. Facing it at last, he could not gauge by its expression whether he was welcome. He cursed it one time before carrying his burden about twenty feet into its tunnel.

         Gathering his ingredients, he made a little tipi of kindling wood, stuffed its inner side with the dry bark and wood dust, and his hands shaking, lit himself a match.

         He wasn't scared to make a fire inside the mine because the air was damp, and it had not been worked for five years. The tipi swallowed the match and belched out a dull flame which burned readily after a few seconds.

         Outside he went, gathered about an hour's worth of larger wood and carried it to the fire. He fed the fire a few pieces of wood and sat down, took off his shoes and socks and began to warm up. As he warmed, held back thoughts pushed in on him, threatening to strangle him.


Willie boy had tried so hard this time, but what Willie boy lacked the knowledge of, was that there was no give inside my heart, no quarter given and none asked for.

          Willie boy, that's what I called him whenever I was trying to pretend it was not my dad who was trying to crush my spirit. Mom had been down at the Appalachian Regional Hospital in South Williamson, Kentucky for a few days, then they had transferred her to the Pikeville Methodist Hospital in Pikeville, Kentucky. This,
I thought, is the worst thing Willie boy has ever tried. It started innocently enough, but soon I realized the truth of the matter.

          My sister's husband Bailey Ball, drove up to my home that first Saturday after Mom had been moved to Pikeville, and some of us loaded up for the drive to the hospital. When it came time for me to get in the car, Dad opened up his door, stepped out and said, "Son, there's not enough room to take you; I need you to stay here and look after everything. We'll be home late this evening." I hid my tears from him and walked away.

         Fifteen more weeks passed in the same manner. What was wrong with those people? Didn't they realize I loved my Mom and missed her as much as they did? Didn't they understand that I knew my Mom had cancer; and I was worried as much as they were? My three younger sisters I could overlook, but Joan, Lea and Dad were adults, they could have stayed behind just one time so I could see my Mom.

          On the fourteenth week, I wanted to grab that Chevrolet by the bumper, jump on the trunk and bring it to a halt. I wanted to open up the door where Willie boy sat, pull him out by the scruff of the neck and say, "There's not enough room to take you this morning; I need you to stay here and watch over things; today I am going to visit my Mom." But I just stood there and watched them ride away.

         I felt empty; the pain in my heart sought to smother me. Why is the man I love most in this world killing my heart?


As he sat by the fire, from somewhere in the mine a loud splash echoed eerily along the tunnel and he flinched. A wariness rose up in his heart; and the memory of his introduction to the caved in mine next to this one shoved itself into his mind.

         They, him and his two brothers, had been in the far reaches of the mine taking turns using the pick to make an undercut in the seam of coal. Of a sudden when he swung the pick, it struck nothing. Emptiness gripped the point of the pick and almost wrenched it from his hands.

         Hesitation obstructed his hands briefly, then they obeyed his instructions and lifted themselves toward the emptiness. A cool stream of air touched his fingers and strummed the ragged edges of the hole in the seam of coal.

         Banjos played what sounded like slowed down Bach from somewhere in that hole, and he jerked his hand back. Then he hollered at his brother, "Hey Pedro, bring that hardhat and the carbide lamp; I have found something here."

         Pedro came running, gave him the hardhat and the carbide lamp, saw the hole and set about enlarging it with the pick. Harold, his other brother, took a turn, and soon the hole was large enough, since he was the smallest, for him to pass through.

          After setting the hardhat on his head, and twisting the knob to coax a brighter flame from the carbide lamp, Harold gave him a boost; and there he was, sitting on the edge of that hole.

          The space behind the hole was filled with gray-black shadows, and a large volume of water rested inside. The carbide lamp sputtered, spit and yawned as it cast dancing reflections of itself across the water.

         He could see now the orchestra that was playing Bach. An uncountable number of water beads clung to the limestone ceiling of what he had decided was the caved in mine, each in its turn letting go to fall into the water below.

          Some of the larger droplets separated into many smaller ones as they struck the surface. Rolling and skittering, they produced a loud sound somewhat like the sizzle of bacon frying in a hot skillet, with a little southern twang on the tail end of the sound. Each drop that fell added to Bach's performance in different chords, having fallen from different angles. Accompanied by a steady descent of different sized water droplets and sometimes the thump of a small stone letting go, Bach and his banjo played on.

          Plunk, ping, twang, kerplunk.

         He did not want to go in there. The unknown crept upon him at that moment; the two of them wrestled with all their skills, neither one of them able to pin the other. At the last, the cheater that it was snuck up on him and shouted that dreadful word in his mind. Chicken.

          He slid down into the water. It was cold, up to his neck; at times he felt as if he might be floating. Pedro laughed. "You look like a crap eating turtle carrying a carbide lamp, Jamie."

         After a few minutes inside that hole, I began to think about what might be in that water with me; and I, at the risk of losing face, came back out.


He fed the last bit of wood into the fire. His feet were dry, and his belly was full. He put on his shoes and socks, stood up, waited for the fire to burn out, and started down the mountain.

         As he approached the barely noticeable remains of the log cabin of the original settler of this mountain, his gaze struck upon an object protruding from the ice in the small creek to his right. A moment later he was worrying a Vienna sausage can from the thin ice.

          Might be, I can use this can for brewing some spicebush tea. He gave a last twist on the can and the ice released it. Using ice splinters and a stick of spicebush, he scoured it until it was clean, put it in his pocket and continued down the mountain.

         Directly, he fetched up on the footbridge which spanned Turkey Creek, crossed it and leaning against a sharp wind, began walking along Kentucky Highway 692. From time to time, the ice overlaying the creek sent forth loud, reverberating pops.

         The trees on the mountainsides moaned sulkily in their discomfort, and a wind from hell assaulted him, kissed his lips, froze the mist of his breath on his eyebrows . . .

          He tried to pull his face within the shell of his pea jacket, unsuccessfully. A few more steps, and there was Uncle Tone Runyon's home. He passed it by, and there just ahead of him was Taylor's country store. He urged himself forward.

         Mister Taylor's Impala sat there shivering on the bridge, and Mister Taylor was fighting the snow and ice from it with a broom. A blue-gray smoke choked its way from the Impala's tailpipe, along with gasoline laced beads of water which seemed to be caressing the wooden planks of the bridge.

         "Good morning, Mister Taylor. How are you today?"

         "Oh, I'm fine. Yourself?"

         "I'm okay. See you later."

         Head down, he walked on past Taylor's. The wind sang a constant bass of malevolence against his face as he proceeded. He bowed his head further and walked on. The wind barked and howled at him as he shouldered himself a path through it.

         His mind wanted to give up, but his heart could not. He kept seeing his Mom's face. Her smile pushed him through the wind and held him upright against it. Her face was everywhere his eyes looked, always calling him forward.

         He was almost to Paul Maynard's when he heard the car . . . Chug, chug, rattle. The car came abreast of him and stopped; it was Mister Taylor's old Impala. Mister Taylor rolled down the window, "Get in here boy. On a morning like this, you're liable to freeze to death."

         "Yes sir, Mister Taylor."

         He went over to the passenger side of the car and climbed in. "Thank you, Mister Taylor."

         "Where are you headed to, son? You don't even have a coat."

         "I am going over to Pikeville to see my Mom, Mister Taylor."

         "Son, you are one lucky boy today. It just so happens, Pikeville is where I am going. I'll carry you along with me; and I'll bring you back home. What do you say to that?"

         "I sure do thank you, Mister Taylor. My hind end is about frozen off." The both of them laughed. They traveled the thirty miles in almost silence, with a word or two here and there; each of them were buried in their own thoughts.


Mister Taylor pulled the car up in front of the courthouse. "Son, I'll let you out here. Meet me here at three o'clock and I'll carry you home.

         "Yes sir, Mister Taylor. Thank you, Mister Taylor."

         He stood in front of the courthouse, not sure of his next move. This was his first time in Pikeville; he was scared. He had been so confident this morning, but he did not even know where the hospital was.

         It was not in his heart at that moment to ask for help; it had been ingrained upon him. Surely, I can find the hospital. I'll walk back and forth on each block of Pikeville till I find it. It was not that easy, he was to find out.

         After three hours of walking, his feet balked on him. He looked for a clean place on the sidewalk, pulled out a Roman Beauty and sat down to eat it. He had not taken this part of his journey into consideration.

         Tears fell down his face and mixed with the juice of the apple as he sat there. I don't think I can find it before three o'clock; I'll come back in a few days. Around and around his head spun, around and around . . .

         The wall he had built inside himself turned to dust, and he stumbled and cried his way to the courthouse. Despair walked with him and held his hand, bent its shoulder to take a seat in Mister Taylor's Impala, rode with him on the long journey home, and slept beside him that night. When he woke up the next morning, its grip had tightened.


His Mom was gone; like a spring wind rustling the new-born leaves of an apple tree, her love had stirred the life in his heart and then it was gone.

          I love you, Mom. You are my heart.

          He felt in his heart that he was not Jamie anymore. They had made him kiss her. It had not felt good in his heart. He had not wanted to make such a memory.

          He had wanted his last glimpse of her to be the one where he had seen the living smile upon her face, her pretty blue eyes and the emotion spreading itself across her face when she looked at him.

          The turmoil living in his heart had done battle with him as he had stood there undecided. The two of them had fought back and forth, one on top, then the other.

          In the end turmoil had gotten the better of him; he had leaned over the coffin and kissed her. But, it had not been her. She had been in God's memory when his lips had touched her cheek. Now, he sat here thinking, recalling the events which had rendered him into what he was at the present moment.


During the fifteenth week of my oppression, Willie boy informed me that on the coming Saturday I was to accompany the family to Pikeville. Doubt reared it's head in my heart and raised its eyebrows as I listened to his words, but on Saturday there I was, in the back seat of Bailey's Chevrolet.

         As I sat there I could see the wrongness which Willie boy had forced upon me the previous fourteen weeks; if my eyes were not deceiving me, there had always been room in the car for me to visit my Mom. The only reason I was allowed in the car this time was because my Mom needed blood. I was to be tested for compatibility. Nevertheless, I was on the way to see Mom. My heart cried.

         A couple of hours later we reached Pikeville, found a parking place and headed for the hospital. I was so nervous, my heart jumped with excitement. I was allowed to go inside her room alone.

         When I entered the room, Mom's face lit up as she spoke. "My boy has come to see me." I approached her bed. It was not in my heart to explain why I had not come sooner.

         It is hard to recall the words we exchanged; and I can not do it. But eventually, I asked the question. "Mom, when are you coming home?"

         She just looked at me, her tenderness ran out of her eyes and down her cheekbones as she spoke. "Jamie." She reached her hand toward me. "I love you, Jamie."

         "Feel my hands, honey. Put your fingers around my wrists. I am so thin. I can't bear anymore, Jamie. I am not coming home, son."

         All the love in my heart reached out for her at that moment, and a part of me was lost forever in the tangled brambles which reside on the path to nowhere.

         The briers of hell stitched themselves across my lips and sought to forbid my next word. Why didn't you tell me a lie, Mom? Why did I have to know at this particular time?

          "You are my heart, Mom."

         I stuttered on my next word, "Mom-m-m?"

         "You must be a good boy, honey. You will watch over your sisters, and take care of them?"

         "I will protect them, Mom. Mom, I love you." Death is not the end, Mom. My heart will always carry you till you wake up.


A few months later, I was sitting in what we referred to as the living room, losing my reality in the words of Mister Louis L'Amour. No warning issued itself; at that moment I was a homesteader intent upon protecting my family and property.

          Of a sudden, the front door burst open, and my sister, Patricia entered the room. Behind her, long strings of foul words lingered in the air before entering the room and taking up temporary residence in my ears. All the fear I had accumulated in the past six months bore down upon me, as I watched him enter the room behind her.

          I don't want to die. He pressed closer to her, crowding her existence. "I'll slap your damn head off," Willie boy told her. She stepped away, he followed.

         He was right up against her, shouting obscene words as I rose to my feet shivering like an agitated fawn. She's only fourteen years old, one and one half years younger than me, what could she have done to produce this anger? What could any of us have done?

          Anger, fear and determination spread themselves through my mind as I stepped forward. I will stop this, Mom. I crossed the room till I was right up against them, stepped in between them with my chest up against his. "Willie boy, before you hit my sister, you must defeat me. You will not hit my sister as long as I am alive."

         When I was nine years old Willie boy hit me in the face so hard I was knocked unconscious, simply because I had asked for the comic page from his newspaper, this time he hit me harder . . .

          But I was not nine years old anymore. I was stronger than this evil standing before me.

          I could feel death crowding its face next to mine. Whether it was tonight, tomorrow or sometime next week, death had, in that one ugly look, mapped the contours of my face and listed me for future extermination.

         My hands trembled and fought to rise up and strike down this enemy, but my heart loved this man. Instead, I stood there looking down into his eyes.

          Then I allowed my tears to fall, proud and unashamed. "I'll leave now, Dad. I will live in the mountains, but my eyes will remain here." I walked off down the dirt road.

         I did not look back. I had already seen what was behind me. Lonnie James Varney's home was nearby; and I walked on past it a short distance. Crossing Cold Fork Creek, I began to climb up the mountain. I stopped within sight of the dirt road below.

         Underneath a solemn red oak tree we sat for a while, my tears and I. Neither of us could escape the pain, it lay like an angry anvil across our backs, purring in its contentment. No words came from our mouths as we sat there, two solitary figures weeping.


A gaunt caricature of a man presented itself to my eyes as I glanced toward Cold Fork Road. He seemed in a hurry, but did not appear to be so to the unobservant eye. Purposefully, he seemed to glide without stumbling over the surface of the road.

         Onward he came, looking to the right and to the left as each foot strode forward. Although I knew of it, the moonshine he carried in his gut at this moment seemed not to impair his ability to proceed along the road. What does he want now? I don't have any more gifts I am willing to give him. I am empty. I think I will just sit right here and watch these acorns fall.

         Willie boy kept coming; I dodged a falling acorn from time to time as I sat there. He walked past Lonnie James Varney's house, looked up the mountain, and there we were, our eyes digging holes into each others.

          For a long moment I wanted to run down that mountain, tackle him, and . . . Restraint grabbed my feet and held me back. For a second I tried to kick free.

         He crossed the creek and started up the mountain toward me. I rustled around in the fallen oak leaves till I found a heavy, oak limb that looked suitable, wound up real tight and let it loose. The limb flew down the mountain, cutting open the air as it went; it struck him on his left shoulder. He cursed, and I laughed.

         "That's far enough, Willie boy. This is my mountain; you're trespassing. Turn yourself around and skedaddle."

         He just stood there. I threw a rock.

         "Are you allergic to making use of your ears, Mister? Get on off my mountain or I'll turn my dogs loose on you."

         "Come on down here, son. I have something to say to you."

         "Ain't a thing wrong with my hearing, speak your words and get the hell off my mountain."

         "Come on home, son. I'm sorry."

         Willie boy resumed his ascent of the mountain. As I stood there a part of my heart began to speak.

          They tell me the mountains of Arkansas are looking for a person like yourself. If I were you, I'd head in that general direction. I am not an expert on the aspects of your situation, but the moon shines brighter out yonder. Another part of my heart joined the discussion . . .

          Just like yourself, I don't have much of an education, but . . . Huh, what's that? Your SAT revealed you were working at the twelfth grade level when you were in the sixth grade? Never mind that. That ain't the question before us. You promised you'd take care of our younger sisters and protect them. What about that? Ain't no Holloway ever shined their moon on an obligation. You running?

         "Doggonit, I plan to stay here. You two shut your yapping."

         I threw down the rock I held in my hand and allowed Willie boy to continue his approach. Weariness slumped my shoulders as I waited, and wariness pulled them back upright. At the last, there he was, and we stood there as silence held us imprisoned in its gnarled hands. A standoff between two mules . . .


Directly, Willie boy spoke. "Did I ever tell you about your grandpa?"

         "A word or two here and there."

         "Reckon it ain't too late?"

         "There's always time."

         "You favor him, son. Your brother got Dad's middle name, but I saved James for you. You and he have that auburn hair and those blues eyes. I love you, son. Reason I ain't ever played none of those ball games with you, I just don't know how, son.You understand, don't you?"

         "Yeah, I understand. I love you, Dad."

         "Let's go home, son.

         Trouble seems to cling to me like crap on a brand-new walking stick. It crept up on my mind with its cruel feet and cursed.

         Then it spoke, "Wanna fight, a-hole?" It was a hard trouble in my heart . . . I wrestled with it for a moment, but trouble was bigger and stronger than I was. Finally, I snarled and told it, You will have to defeat me every day for the rest of your life, because I don't have it in me to be bested by you.

         Off in the distance, I thought I heard a red-tailed hawk screaming, then I realized it was the voice of trouble, telling me it was willing. Dad reached up, put his arm around my shoulder and we started down to Cold Fork Road.

         The next morning, I went through the usual preparations for school. I had just started the tenth grade a few months ago. I washed up, put on some clean clothes, secreted a large helping of cornbread in my pocket and opened the back door.

          During the daytime hours, I lived in the mountains. When it was time for my sisters to come home from school, I also went home. I am certain they knew, but none of the three passed on the information to Willie boy.

         I snuck on out the door, and started up the mountain quickly, leaning my steps in the direction of Ken Varney's. When I began to breathe in the essence of the white pine trees up ahead, I slacked off my speed.

         From some nearby thicket the mew of a catbird sounded. Catbirds can sing the songs of other birds better than they can.Their syrinx, which in humans is called a larynx, allows them to sing two songs at the same time. I paused to listen a moment as it sang.

          Hunger gnawed at my stomach off and on as I partook of the catbird's simultaneous cover of a robin and a mockingbird. I pulled the cornbread from my pocket and took a bite. Damn, it was good! I wish I had some peanut butter.

         I paused till the catbird had finished it's lovely song, took myself another bite of that cornbread, then began to climb on up the mountain.

         A slow rain began to fall and I got in a hurry. Trot, trot. The earth beneath my feet was now bestrewn with white pine needles. I made my way over their softness swiftly, and headed for a large pine that was just ahead. The pine's branches hugged the ground, creating a good place for a boy to call home. I gently moved a large branch aside and wiggled underneath the tree.

         A thick mat of fallen pine needles covered the ground beneath the tree; and I had added fresh needles from a broken limb I had found for the smell. I had a blanket, and a plastic sheet to repel heavy rain.

          I stretched out on the pine needles, ate half of my cornbread and reached for a western novel written by Louis L'Amour, of which I had several. I read a while, thought a while and directly my stomach cursed. Twice. I got to my knees and headed out to find something to eat.

         My heart was hungry, having not eaten in the past fifteen years, it was eager for its next meal. Still, it looked after me. Searching, always searching . . .

         How about a salad today? I know you don't have anything except salt for flavor, but let's have ourselves a salad. My heart kept talking.

          There's the chicory you pinched to the ground and covered with bark to keep off the sunlight, the stalks and leaves ought to be crispy white and tender by now. Along the way there, maybe we will gather a few morel mushrooms and some wild onions.

          I'm hungry. We can wash all this in cold water from the spring. It will go well with your cornbread. Maybe we'll find some raspberries in a meadow.

          I and my heart were in agreement. We set out on the hunt for our lunch. Only one of us would be successful.

         The days passed. The mountains and I were close companions. I wandered the mountains for hours each day, till twilight came calling. And the nights . . . The nights beget uneasiness.

         Five months went by, then another. During this period of time, I began to notice that Dad did not drink beer or whiskey anymore. Much of his time was spent beside Mom's grave. My heart and I became confident of my sisters' safety. Several more months went by and I decided to leave my home forever. But what to do?

         My brother Pedro was in Vietnam, the killing there was hell. I decided to enlist in the United States Navy.

         Again trouble followed me. I walked to Williamson, West Virginia to the recruiter's office, the only person in the office was a Marine recruiter. He drove me home, my dad signed the guardianship paper, since I was still 17 years old, and I was a U. S. Marine. That's another story . . .

5,531 words.

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