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An epic tale where the past and the present collide:
1846: Two young boys are playing on Lover’s Leap in Hannibal, Missouri. One boy causes the other to fall to his death. The remaining boy, tormented with guilt, puts pencil to paper and begins to recount their lives and the tragedy.
Present day: Gavin Carter, a retired police detective with a troubled past, inherits an old office building. He and his wife begin work on the old building. By chance, he discovers the journal of the boy, which has been hidden away for the past 150 years. As he reads, he becomes obsessed with the mystery surrounding the dead boy, as well as that of the author of the journal. Will Gavin be able to solve the mystery that is consuming all of his waking thoughts, or will it further destroy his already precarious emotional state?
“True atonement can neither be advertised nor celebrated. Its sin is a private nature to be considered between you and God only.”
Hannibal Missouri, 1895:
The large passenger train rumbled through the rural countryside, its heavy steel wheels creating a comforting and hypnotic sound as it negotiated each section of track with rhythmic repetition. Sitting alone on the stiff and musty bench seat, the old man clutched his leather-bound notebook and stared out the window. His thoughts drifted from tangent to tangent, but always retraced back to his single purpose. He was a tormented man, one who carried his secret shame deep within, hidden from a world that would never understand.
He closed his eyes briefly and remembered the moment. He could see his friend’s smiling face as the afternoon sun bathed them in the warmth of a summer day. Standing at the edge of the cliff, his friend’s skinny eleven-year-old frame peered over the drop-off. In his mind, he watched his hand reach out and touch him.
Even after forty-nine years, the vision seemed clear and distinct: its sight, sound, and emotion still fresh as the day the memory was created.
Opening his eyes, he looked down at the notebook and rubbed his hand affectionately over the worn cover. In a moment of inspiration, he reached into his coat pocket and retrieved a fountain pen. He opened the notebook and began to inscribe words on the inside. When the last word was written, he closed his pen and stared in satisfaction at the three simple sentences scrawled across the inner cover. With a nod of approval, he closed the book, stored his pen, and wiped away a single tear that rolled off his cheek.
From behind, a door slid open and the thunderous rush of air sounded as the outside world invaded the quiet inside the train’s cabin. His eyes shifted and he abruptly stiffened in his seat. Straightening out his wrinkled suit jacket, he ran his fingers through his freshly cropped gray hair. Rubbing his index finger and thumb across his upper lip, the exposed skin felt strange and unsettling after wearing his bushy mustache for so long. Hearing footsteps approach, he fidgeted with his tie for a moment, then returned his hands to his notebook.
“We’ll be at the station shortly, sir,” the well-dressed and portly trainman announced, now standing beside him.
He glanced up and nodded slightly, then returned his stare out the window.
“Will you be needing anything else, sir?” the middle-aged man asked politely.
With a courteous shake of his head, he declined the offer, then reconsidered.
“Absolution,” the old man said, forgetting himself momentarily.
The trainman looked on, confused. He struggled for a reply but no words were found. Sensing the need to resolve the unpleasant silence, the old man smiled cordially and responded, “That’ll be all.”
“Very well, sir,” the trainman replied.
As he stepped through the door on the opposite end of the car, he glanced back at the old man and noticed his saddened expression. With a simple nod of his head, he understood the cryptic exchange and left him to his quiet remorse.
~~~~~ ~~~~~ * ~~~~~ ~~~~~
The ride through town was noisy… noisier than he remembered. Seated inside the horse-drawn carriage with a canopy shielding his identity, the old man pretended to read the local paper. As passersby called to him in casual greeting, he lifted the paper to his eyes and pretended not to notice.
Rolling through the familiar town, he noticed it had changed dramatically since his last visit, many years before. Residences that were homes to friends were now just storefronts and small businesses. The center green he’d played at in his youth had grown dramatically and the city as a whole took on a more modern feel. As he pulled up in front of the boarding house at the opposite end of town, he gazed back at the street he just traveled. The city that was once his had grown up without him and he now felt a sense of grief that he no longer belonged.
He paid the driver and pulled his large travel bag from the coach. As the carriage hurried back toward town, he lugged the burdensome load up the steps and waited at the front door for the proprietor to answer. After several knocks, an elderly woman opened the door.
“Welcome, you must be Mr. Smith,” she said.
“Yes, I am,” he responded with obvious discomfort.
She eyed him from head to toe and tried to place his face.
“Do I know you? Have you been here before?” she asked, now growing suspicious.
“Hmm, you sure look familiar. Are you sure I don’t know you?”
“Ma’am, I can’t be sure of what you know. I can only be sure of what I know… and I’m sure I do not know you.”
She stared intently into his eyes. She knew she had seen him somewhere before, but her memory failed her. She shrugged her shoulders in resignation and led the older man into her home.
Pointing up a flight of stairs, she said, “The room is at the top of the stairs on the right and is two dollars a night… in advance,” she added in demanding tone. “Will you be staying long?”
“Just the night,” the older man replied.
Disappointment crossed her face. She considered raising the price for an overnight stay, but then reconsidered.
Nodding firmly, she finally said, “Dinner’s at seven and breakfast’s at six.”
“Thank you ma’am. I’ll only be requiring the dinner.”
He pulled two worn coins from his pocket and placed them in her hand. Looking down, she rubbed them affectionately, then said, “They ain’t worthless, are they?”
“Only the government that mints them,” the old man joked.
With a cordial smile, she replied, “See you at seven.”
~~~~~ ~~~~~ * ~~~~~ ~~~~~
The old man laid his travel bag on the bed and unsnapped the clasps. He flipped open one half and rested it carefully beside the other half. Reaching in, he pulled out a large roll of material. As he unrolled it, a glass mason jar appeared. He laid it on the bed, then pulled out another large bundle. He carefully unrolled it to reveal another mason jar. Two more times he repeated the action and now had four quart-sized jars resting on the end of the bed.
Pulling a paper-bound package from his suitcase, he untied the string that held it together. He unwrapped the paper and spread six more notebooks loosely across the bed. He sat on the edge of the bed and lifted one of them. Leafing through, he stopped at a hand-drawn sketch he made many years before. He smiled at the detail of the firefly, then set it down. One by one, he scanned through the other six leather-bound books.
Reaching into his suit pocket, he pulled out the seventh book, the one he had held on the train. He took a moment to read several passages. Smiling as he went, his spirits lifted briefly as the contents distracted him from his guilt. As he continued to read, he stood and paced the floor by the open window, thoroughly enjoying the light breezes that drifted in.
Standing now directly in front of the window, he closed his eyes and let the warm, nurturing winds whisk past his face. Their comforting touch reminded him of the happy times he had sitting on Lover’s Leap as a boy, watching the riverboats cruise the Mississippi. At times, the only sound that could be heard was that of the wind and the horns from passing boats that steamed far away. As a young boy, he spent hours on that peaceful cliff and considered it one of his favorite memories.
Suddenly, the old man’s expression changed. Gone was the happy smile and contented feeling. In its place was sadness. Opening his eyes, he stared out across the valley of Hannibal and spotted Lover’s Leap far in the distance. The same cliff that brought him so much joy also represented his life’s greatest tragedy.
The old man felt tears well in his eyes. He tried to hold back his emotions, but the flood of buried memories ravaged his conscience, forcing him to face his guilt unabated. Slowly at first, he wept softly. As the pain flowed deep in his soul, he sobbed inconsolably. Tears poured from his hands and dripped onto the floor. He pulled a cloth from his pocket and dabbed his eyes. In minutes, the cloth was drenched in tears. Weak and trembling, his legs began to buckle. He moved to the bed and lay on his side. In minutes, his old, tired body gave out and he fell into a restless sleep.
~~~~~ ~~~~~ * ~~~~~ ~~~~~
The light outside the open window turned to dusk and the room began to darken. The old man’s eye popped open and he sat up in a panic. Pulling out his pocket watch, he checked the time.
“My God, seven-thirty,” he said to himself in worried tone.
He reached into his luggage, pulled out a cloth sack, and laid it on the bed. As quickly as he could, he folded the leather-bound notebooks and stuffed them into the mason jars, two in each jar. In minutes, he had all but one notebook stowed inside the glass containers and sealed with covers. His last notebook, the seventh, he folded and placed it inside the last remaining jar. He then reached into his suitcase, pulled out a small engraved plaque, and added it to the contents. With the last jar now tightly sealed, he stood and carefully placed them all into the cloth sack.
Checking his pocket watch once more, he said aloud, “It’s time.”
Carefully, he lifted the sack and rested it over his shoulder. He looked out the window once more and stared intently. Far off in the distance, he could just make out the wrought iron fencing that surrounded a grave yard on a distant hill. Instantly his mind flashed back to his youth and the mixed memories he held of that location. As his mind flooded with both happy and sad thoughts, he felt his emotional state slipping from his grasp once more. With determined resolve, he shook off the distracting thoughts and focused on his task. He made one last look around the room, nodded in approval, and headed out the door. He hurried down the stairs and his hard leather soles sounded loudly with each step he took. As he rushed from the last step, he heard a voice from behind.
“Dinner’s served at seven. You’re late,” the elderly woman growled.
With a quick shake of his head, the old man replied, “No thank you, ma’am. Maybe later.”
“This ain’t a tavern. Dinner is served at seven. If you miss it, you don’t get none,” she responded. She stared at the bedraggled old man before her. In a moment of sympathy, she added, “I’ll leave your plate on the stove.”
“I’m indebted to you, madam,” the old man replied, now smiling at her change of disposition.
“Can’t guarantee the quality,” she said, flatly.
“Life is like that,” the old man said, thoughtfully.
“Are you off to the show?” she asked.
“Fireworks. You off to see them, ain’t ya?” she asked, inquisitively.
The old man thought about her question. Immediately, he blurted, “Yes, yes, I’m off to see them now.”
“Should be a good showing this year. Good luck,” she said, approvingly.
She smiled slightly, then turned away. He was about to thank her, but she turned a corner and disappeared into the kitchen. He smiled at the strange woman’s behavior, then headed out the front door.
Hurrying along the busy thoroughfare, he worked his way through the shadows, avoiding contact with strangers. Crossing side streets, he cut through people’s yards and took advantage of shortcuts he learned in his youth. Within a half hour, he had ascended the elevated terrain he spotted from the boarding house and now stood at the entrance of the graveyard. He looked around him and listened carefully for signs of humanity.
All was quiet.
He sneaked over to a small stone building that housed the caretaker of the property. He listened once more for human activity.
Once again, all was quiet.
“Good, empty,” he said to himself, relieved, then added, “Enjoy the show.”
Walking around to the back of the building, he retrieved a shovel and pickax that rested against a wall. As the shovel clanked against the pickax, he stopped in his tracks and looked around.
All was still clear.
With little time left, he hurried toward the center of the graveyard. Eyeing each headstone carefully, he temporarily became confused by the markers that had grown in number. He scanned the area around him and regained his senses. A few yards away, he found the headstone he was looking for.
~~~~~ ~~~~~ * ~~~~~ ~~~~~
Colorful fireworks lit up the warm evening sky as brilliant showers of reds, greens, and purples rained down and illuminated the river banks and nearby forests below. With each burst of light, the tall stranger swung the rusty pickax into hardened soil. Working quickly under the guise of night, he sweated through his heavy cotton shirt and pants, the sweat running down his sleeves and onto the handle, making his grip and his task more difficult to accomplish.
With each clump of earth he tore from the ground, he nervously scanned the area to ensure the secrecy of his clandestine activity. Satisfied with his reclusion, he wiped his brow and continued with his work.
The fireworks fell silent and the stranger swapped his pickax for a shovel. Carefully, he deepened and widened the hole. Moments later, he felt a solid mass that rested at the bottom, two feet down. At the end of shovel point, he strained his eyes in the darkness as he peered down into the hole. Unable to see, he knelt down and felt the bottom. As his hand rubbed across the solid object, he reeled back in reflex at the unknown. Regaining his composure, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a long wooden match. Placing his fingernail on the edge of the tip, he scraped hard and ignited the mini torch.
The stranger stared into the hole for only a moment, then reached behind him for the cloth sack filled with jars. With only scant light now flickering from the nearly spent match, he could just make out the burlap-style sack that lay on the ground a few feet away. With the tiny flame so close to his skin, he released the match to the bottom of the hole and sucked on the ends of his painful finger tips, attempting to relieve the pain while reflecting on his troubled past.
Forcing himself past a moment of sadness, he reached over and pulled the bag close. With great care, he lifted out the mason jars one by one and set them aside the edge of the ditch. Again, he lit a match and now stuck the wooden end into the dirt.
As the flame lit up the depths inside the hole, he reached in once more and felt around the hardened surface at the bottom. Finding an edge, he pulled hard, lifted out a large flat stone, and laid it on its side.
The old man stared at the exposed dirt for a moment, then reached for his shovel. He placed its point carefully into the soil and slowly began to remove small amounts. Nervous tension built within him with each small shovelful he extracted.
Suddenly, he felt a solid object. He lit another match and stuck its end in the ground. The bottom of the hole lit up and now, forty-nine years of dread were realized as he stared at a single bone that shined brightly by the glow of the flame.
His mind raced and his stomach churned at the morbid sight. He wanted to vomit, but swallowed hard until the feeling passed.
Focusing now on the mason jars, he grabbed one and reverently lowered it to the bottom of the hole. As the glass contacted bone, it sounded out and he released his grip. He grabbed the next two and placed them with the first. Staring at the last jar, he could just make out the leather-bound book from the train and engraved plaque. With his hand, he dug a small hole away from the other three jars and set the fourth down into it. As the light from the match began to fade, he stared solemnly into the hole and considered the gifts left behind. He wiped away a single tear, then swept dirt around the jars, now completely covering them. Carefully, delicately, he lowered the large flat stone onto the hidden jars and twisted it in place.
Now standing, he shoveled the remaining dirt into the hole, then placed a small swatch of sod back over the top, hoping time and erosion would conceal his secret.
As the stranger stood in the quiet darkness, he nervously scanned the area for any signs of humanity. Satisfied he was alone, he bowed his head and spoke under his breath.
“So spartan an offer of atonement,” he mumbled quietly while shaking his head, then added, “My anguish is but small recompense for such injustice. Take comfort, my friend, that I walk in the shadows of Purgatory.”
With his shoulders hunched and soiled hands lightly folded, the stranger felt the intense pain of guilt and remorse as he stood quietly and prayed. Once again, his eyes welled with tears and he began to weep.
Moments later, footsteps approached just beyond the iron fencing on the far side of the graveyard. The old man leaped from the ground and waited. As the footsteps neared, he heard the distinct sound of whistling. Through the darkness, the old man located the sound and followed the silhouette of a man.
Several minutes later, the caretaker stepped up onto the porch of his rented stone building and lit his pipe. He puffed for a short while, then entered his home. As a lantern was lit inside, the old man stood quickly, gathered his things, then hurried toward the iron fencing. Passing through the front gate, he stopped and laid the borrowed tools at the entrance. With one last look back, he nodded in the darkness. His business was now complete.