Escape is never really escape for John Weldon.
Weldon awoke on an unfinished floor before a frigid hearth of one of the unfinished houses on the hill. The rain had turned to snow in the night, and Weldon shielded his eyes from the unforgiving glare. His joints ached where he wasn’t numb. Weldon sat up and lit a damp, cheap cigar as he tried to remember where he was.
For a few moments Weldon was back in the war, but his civilian clothes and the sodden paper bag that carried his underwear jolted him back to the present. He climbed out the space where a window would one day be and relieved himself in the glistening wonderland. With his bag tucked under his arm, Weldon shoved his icy fingers into his empty pockets and headed for the train station.
Weldon couldn’t go back home to Tenafly Road. It wasn’t his home anyway. Why did Katherine give him all that money? She was too naïve. He needed to be with someone different . . . no that wasn’t true. Weldon was thirsty for Katherine, but he had to jump in the McCullough well to get her. Weldon trotted now to the just arrived train wishing he had the courage to put himself under it. The station looked merry and festive in the newly fallen snow. Christmas would arrive here but not in Arizona.
Someone grabbed Weldon’s shoulder, turned him like a whirligig and punched him in the jaw, sending him to the ground. Weldon scuttled to his feet in shock.
“John Weldon, you bastard, what in God’s name are you doing here?” shouted Scott, grabbing Weldon’s collar. “Do you dare desert my daughter, you wretch? Is this the treatment Katie deserves?”
“This is no concern of yours, Mr. McCullough,” Weldon said, a sudden rage taking hold. “It’s between your daughter and me.”
“Not my concern? This marriage is the disaster I imagined. I’m sorry to have allowed it.”
“I would have done it with or without your damned blessing.”
The older man’s face turned purple, and his body shook. More violence was one smart comment away. “I will do everything in my power to see that my two grandchildren are protected from your corrupting influences!” Scott said, glaring at Weldon who stood blank faced. “Yes, Weldon, for the love of Christ, you’d have to be blind not to notice the signs that Katherine will have another child of yours!”
Weldon turned away from Scott without looking back, running, slipping and sliding in the melting snow as it soaked through his shoes. His lungs swelled and burned in the cold and exertion. The crazy idea of leaving without a trace melted away as Weldon ran up the hill to the only place, the only people he had ever warmed up to.
The flood of heat from the kitchen was more than Weldon bargained for as he stood in the open doorway. William, half-dressed after a bath, crawled over to greet him as Sarah struggled to her feet after him. “Close the door; the chill will be the death of the child.”
Weldon closed the door and reached for William too late. Sarah scooped him up and took him to the fire, where a knit blue sweater and cap awaited.
“Mrs. McCullough, I . . .”
“No, John, explain to your wife,” Sarah said with a severe look. “To think that this is Katie’s town, and you out gallivanting after her reputation is already sullied!”
“I-I haven’t done . . . I did nothing to bring on suspicion. I mean, I did nothing at all!”
Weldon raced the stairs to Katherine’s room. She sat waiting for him in bed beneath the new winter quilts Sarah had made. Katherine’s face was drawn and grey as it had been yesterday and maybe the day before. Weldon went awkwardly to her playing with his hair.
“Stop it!” Katherine ordered. “That habit of yours is so maddening! And you’re filthy. Stay off the bed—everything was changed this morning.”
Weldon stopped not far from the door, fingering his bag. “Kate, why didn’t you tell me about the baby?”
“It was to be a surprise. Last night, that’s why I sent you off.” Katherine’s voice trembled as she turned the ring on her finger, “I wanted to announce it to you and Father. So Mother and I made a nice meal.”
Weldon cringed knowing how hard Sarah was on Katherine in her kitchen.
“But you never came home.”
“Where is my money?”
“My money or a gift for Willy or something!”
Weldon threw the bag of winter underwear on the bed.
“This is it? You’re going to the desert, and this is what you buy? Where is the REST of MY MONEY?”
“I lost the money,” Weldon answered defiantly, sorry all the same as he watched Katherine take it in.
“You lost my money—for Christmas? For heaven’s sake, where were you?”
“I needed time to myself,” Weldon mumbled.
“I know when you lie!” Katherine cried. “Just go. It hurts to have you here anymore.”
“But Katherine, I love you,” Weldon said, stepping closer.
“I don’t believe you.” Katherine clutched the bed sheet in her hands. “If you loved me you wouldn’t leave me here for months without a word. You wouldn’t humiliate me like you did last night. Were you drinking?” Katherine asked almost hopefully.
Weldon shook his head no.
“Well then I can’t imagine what you’re up to.” Katherine waited for a response “Am I not enough for you?”
“Katherine, you’re everything to me. It’s madness for you to think I could want anything more after the weeks we’ve had! I was alone last night. I promise you that,” Weldon said. “I was thinking.”
“About what? Not about me or Willy—you didn’t even get him a gift.”
“I always think about you!” Weldon lied again. “I was just miserable about having to leave soon.”
Katherine fell back on to her pillows and turned from him in tears.
The clatter of silverware against the table and William’s strong lunged prose filled the house as Weldon reentered the kitchen. Sarah refused to acknowledge her son-in-law, as she tried to convince Willy to eat some gruel—an invention of Scott’s designed to improve the child’s immunity. “Come, young man, eat for Grammy.”
Weldon slipped into the chair across from Sarah, who bristled at his presence. He listened to the clock and the baby, hoping Sarah would say something.
“John Weldon, I’m exceptionally disappointed in you.”
Weldon looked forward to taking something later—when this was over.
“I care for you almost like a son,” Sarah said, “but if you hurt my Katie I will always come down on her side.”
William howled. Weldon took up the spoon, pat the child’s head and offered more of the cereal to his son who reluctantly complied. John gave him a big smile. “Now you try, Willy,” Weldon said, giving the toddler his spoon. This was new to the boy who had not yet been allowed such a task.
“Mr. Weldon, you must realize that I’m your one ally in this house, but how am I to defend your actions last night? You must understand how hard it is for Scott—and me—to see our daughter plan something special only to be humiliated by your absence.”
“Oh, Mrs. McCullough, I thought when I met Katherine all my bad habits and behaviors would fall away, but every time I have some success they come back even stronger. I despair at ever changing. I’m getting worse!”
“Habits can be changed with the help of God. It’s much harder to change someone’s heart after you’ve broken it,” Sarah counseled, watching William follow every movement John made. The boy pulled the tipsy spoon to his mouth and ate. “You know we live in a modern time. Couldn’t you write more or send a telegram?”
Weldon stared blankly.
“Poor boy, is it that you don’t know how?”
Weldon flushed and replied, “Of course I can write! N-no, it’s just finding good words.”
“John, maybe you married too young. Most boys need a little time to be out and go wild, but . . .”
“No, that’s not what I want at all! I was alone last night; I wasn’t drinking, I . . .”
“It makes no difference what you were up to. It makes no difference if I think you married too young. You are married now and two children will soon depend upon you.” Sarah watched Weldon wipe his son’s face and kiss it. “Weldon, you make a good father. Did you want a family?”
“More than anything.”
“Listen to me then. You’re doing a poor job keeping one. Maybe you were never taught the right ways, but that’s no excuse. There are people here to help you, and you’re smart enough to remember what caused you to suffer as a child. You don’t want your wife and children to suffer in the same way.”
“Mrs. McCullough, if Katherine knew everything about me . . .”
“John Weldon, if you ever want security in marriage you must be honest. You can’t pretend. Have you an interest in other women?”
“No. Katherine’s perfect.”
Mrs. McCullough rested her hands on her hips. “No one is perfect. But Katherine is devoted to you and has faith in you. That’s a special thing, but if you don’t trust her, she will begin to distrust you.”
“You’re right,” Weldon admitted, “but I’ve apologized so many times. I almost wish Kate would do something wrong just once!”
Sarah laughed and pat his face. “Now go clean up and start fresh. You’re a good boy, but you must behave like one.”
Impulsively Weldon pulled Sarah into a bear hug and gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Mrs. McCullough, if God exists he works through you! Thank you.”
Weldon picked up William and left the room still dirty, but with a clean clarity of purpose. He knocked on the bedroom door and barreled in. “Kate, please let me speak with you.”
Disobeying orders, he sat on the new bedding with Willy. Katherine pulled herself up wearily. William clung to his father.
“Katherine, I should have come home last night. There’s no defense,” Weldon said. “But I’ll make it up to you. I’ll come get you before the baby arrives.”
“It breaks my heart,” Katherine began, “but I misjudged you. Somehow the man I married left and joined the army never to return. I’d be afraid to go with you anywhere. I’m tired of being forgotten,” she cried, but choked it back. “I’m worn out and now I have another baby to worry about.”
“Katherine! Please don’t say anymore! Let me talk now. I’m a mess. I know that, but I try not to be. I don’t care for myself anymore. I only want to be good for you. Your mother says nobody’s perfect. But she can’t convince me you’re not. Without you I would have given up long ago. You’re my only hope. You had faith in me once. I want to win that back. Please just give me one more chance to prove myself.”
“I forgive you,” Katherine said with no confidence. “I just don’t understand how yesterday you were so clean and fit. I lose my footing somehow when you’re around.”
Dear Katherine and William,
I never said that to anyone before. I hate myself. Do you still love me? How can you? I am afraid of you. If I lose you I will die. You are the only person to ever make me feel I exist, but I have lied to you and must tell you the truth even if it drives you from me. I cannot bear to deceive you any longer. I was given morphine by the surgeons. I cannot stop taking it even when there is no pain. I cannot explain to you why I continue with it. It no longer helps me, and I have tried to stop so many times, but it is stronger than me. I thought my love for you would make it go away, but it has not. I am ashamed of my weakness. If only you can still love me. I have wanted to ask for your help, but I am too cowardly. Your faith in me breaks my heart. I do not want to disappoint you. I will stop this for you and William . . .
Galveston, Texas . . .Decided not to send a letter until I had more to tell you, little girl. I miss you. There was a small storm when we started out and made for much seasickness. No the sickness is in me. When I come to get you you’ll be much delighted by the waters of the south. If you come. If I come back. During the long dull days we watch porpoises dash through the waves and fly fish. The evenings are the prettiest when the water glows with what looks like underwater fireflies. I don’t care about fireflies. I want to. I want to feel something just out of reach. I never catch a thing. Stay below in the dark. Baltimore, Galveston, San Francisco—no place compares to Englewood, New Jersey and I would give the duds off my back and the tobacco in my pocket—the only things I own!—to be back trying to win you over. My sweet beautiful girl I will not let another Christmas pass with us apart and I will make you proud.
Enclosed is a gift I picked up for you in a little shop I hope you like it. Also a little something for Willy.
Your loving husband,
Weldon hesitated. He considered signing the letter, but in a burst he shoved it in his old haversack. He wrapped the lavender brooche with a tiny lady on horseback in paper. Thievery had come back to him easily in San Francisco—a piece of jewelry slipped into a pocket was simply done. He tied the package closed and carefully uncorked the small medicinal vial of liquid beside him. The pills were gone, and the liquid was nicer. He had “found” a new syringe. The newer ones were better, smaller and discrete. He gave himself a dose and drifted along to Arizona.
**Featured Image Winter Landscape by Ludwig Munthe
PART ONE HERE
PART TWO HERE
PART THREE HERE
PART FOUR HERE
PART FIVE HERE
PART SIX HERE
PART SEVEN HERE
PART EIGHT HERE
PART NINE HERE
PART TEN HERE
PART ELEVEN HERE