By the Dawn's Early Light
Disclaimer: See Chapter 1
Chapter 35-Epilogue-Part 3:
Arranging the trip had been an easy one. Don, Charlie and Alan packed one bag apiece and piled into Don's SUV Friday afternoon; Charlie didn't even bring his laptop along.
Amita had never met Tom and had elected to stay behind, not only to cover Charlie's classes but also to give him some time alone with his family. Charlie had told her about their visit to Bradford's and although she had already noticed a positive change in him, she felt that only more good could come from their road trip together. Larry was going to fly up on Sunday to attend the memorial service for Tom and fly back that evening. Robin also felt that it was a good idea for Don and his family to be alone, so she too decided to stay behind.
The drive to Castle Rock, WA had been an enlightening one for the Eppes men and as Dr. Bradford had suggested, they made good use of their time by sharing their feelings. They felt like they had been given a second chance and were determined not to let it slip through their fingers. By the time they pulled off the road at the Johnson Ridge Visitor Center, Don had learned all about Charlie's awards and he had finally shared some of his own experiences from his days in fugitive recovery and his life in New Mexico. They clamored out of the SUV and wandered to the edge of the ridge.
Mount St Helens was about three miles from the ridge but because of its size it looked much closer. A center band of clouds obscured the crater and new lava dome but the rest of the mountain stood out clearly against the clear blue sky and bright sunlight. Grasses, small shrubs and wildflowers dotted the mountainside giving them a sense of peace and tranquility. A warm breeze blew around them rustling the leaves of the trees that stood tall on the mountain and playfully forced the wildflowers to dance in its wake.
At the sound of approaching vehicles the three men turned around to view a long line of cars, led by two police cruisers. They watched in silence as car after car pulled into the parking lot.
"I didn't think Tom had any family." Don said quietly, eyeing the multitude of people getting out of the cars.
Charlie shrugged. "He didn't, but he made friends easily and he lived here for a long time."
The three men watched as the crowd gathered around the sheriff and then the group of people turned toward the overlook where the Eppes were standing and started walking toward them.
"Dr. Eppes?" The sheriff asked quietly, coming to a standstill in front of Charlie and extending his hand. "I'm Hank Fisher. I recognized you from a photograph I saw at Tom's place."
"Sheriff Fisher." Charlie said, shaking his hand. "This is my father, Alan Eppes and my brother Don."
"Nice to meet you." He shook their hands and then introduced his wife Emily and Kenny, his deputy.
Hank was carrying an urn in his other hand and offered it to Charlie. "We found Tom's will and he wanted you be the one to spread his ashes."
"Thank you," Charlie whispered, grasping the urn with both hands.
Another car pulled in and Larry joined them as they made their way to the edge of the ridge. It was a solemn group that stood there, heads bowed in silent prayers for the loss of a dear friend. Afterward, many of them stepped forward to speak of Tom's affable nature and of his many acts of generosity.
"Thomas Hill," Charlie said, turning around to face the crowd, "was my dear friend. We met at Princeton and I was surprised that he chose me as a friend," he smiled slightly at the memory," because most eighteen year olds don't want to be seen with a thirteen year old kid. When I asked him why, he would tease me and tell me that despite my big brain, he could see the person within and knew that I would be a true friend."His voice broke and he ducked his head for a minute. When Charlie looked up again there were tears in his eyes but he continued to speak. "Tom was my true friend and after graduation we stayed in touch and remained close in heart. Tom was an excellent scientist and I have no doubt that had he lived, he would have made many wondrous discoveries." He passed the urn to his brother and climbed over the protective railing. Don passed it back to him when his feet touched the ground again, and followed him over the rail.
Charlie took a deep breath and held the urn up for all to see. "Six years ago when Tom's parents were killed in a car accident, I stood by his side, in this very spot, as he spread their ashes over Mount St. Helens. Tom loved it here and I can think of no other place that he would want to be." He removed the lid and handed it to his brother then took a step closer to the edge of the ridge. "Go in peace my friend and join your family. " With that, he upended the urn and Tom's ashes floated away on the summer breeze.
The young man stood silently, his body swaying slightly from the stronger gusts of wind that buffeted the edge and watched the ashes disappear until he felt an arm drape around his shoulder. Charlie looked up to meet the concerned eyes of his brother. "Come on buddy, there's nothing more that we can do here."
"Good bye, Tom," he whispered, gazing one last time at the mountain and the valley below them. They backed away from the edge, retracing their steps and as they climbed back over the rail, Alan and Larry were there to meet them
"You okay, kiddo?" His father asked worriedly.
A sudden breeze circled around them and Charlie's eyes skimmed over the wildflowers rippling in the gentle wind. "Yeah, I'm fine Dad," he said as sad smile played across his lips. "This is a beautiful place, isn't it?"
"Simply magnificent." Larry agreed, stepping up to the rail. "It's hard to believe that such a serene place was once the scene of an eruption so powerful that it blew out the side of the mountain. One would have thought that the amount of destruction that it wrought would have been absolute, but they would have been wrong," He glanced at his young friend. "Look around you Charles, life has returned to the mountain and once again the balance between life and death has been restored. " He moved closer to Charlie and placed his hand over the young man's heart. "Tom's physical being may be lost to us, but he will live forever in our hearts."
Alan patted his friend on the shoulder. "That's beautiful, Larry."
"I have my moments." The cosmologist admitted as he fell in step with his friends and headed for the parking lot. As the foursome approached their cars they were surprised to discover that a number of the townspeople, along with the sheriff and his deputy, had remained in the parking lot.
"What do you suppose that is all about?" Alan asked, nodding toward the group with his chin.
"Not a clue." Charlie muttered as Fisher led the crowd over to them.
"What's going on Sheriff?" Don asked as he came up to them.
"Faye Wright," he said pointing to a woman standing to his right, "is hosting a luncheon in Tom's honor and we were hoping that you would join us. You'll need to eat before you start back anyway and I can guarantee that you won't get a better meal anywhere else."
The woman that he had pointed to stepped forward to greet them. She had a careworn, friendly face and her gray-streaked hair was wrapped neatly in a bun. "I'd be honored if you and your family would join us Dr. Eppes."
"Please call me, Charlie." He said as he took her hand in his.
"Tommy was like a son to me," she said looking deep into his eyes, "and many, many times he spoke proudly of his "little brother, Charlie," so like it or not, I guess that makes us family too." She paused to wipe at her eyes and then to the young man's surprise, embraced him in a fierce hug. Charlie returned her hug and then patted her awkwardly on the shoulder, completely caught off guard by the intense show of affection.
"Lunch sounds good to me, how about you guys?" Alan asked, coming to his son's rescue. At their eager nods he addressed Faye. "I'm Alan, Charlie's father, and we would be delighted to attend the luncheon."
"That would be wonderful," she replied, suddenly concerned with her appearance as she patted her bun to see if any errant strands had gotten loose.
"Good," the sheriff agreed. ""We're all going to Faye's place, The Castle Café. You can't miss it, its right in the center of town, across from the big rock."
A short while later they found themselves standing in front of the small restaurant but it was the massive rock that currently held their attention.
"Wow," Larry said, craning his neck to view the rock. "Now that would be an impressive climb, wouldn't it Charles?"
Charlie rolled his eyes and reached for the door handle. "Hey, don't look at me. I'm still trying to get over my fear of rock climbing and I'm sooo not ready for that one."
Larry turned to Don. "How about you, Don?"
Don pulled his sunglasses down and peered over the tops. "Sorry, pal, "he said, pausing in the doorway, "I'm with Charlie on this one."
The elder Eppes glanced at the rock and then back at his friend scratching his chin thoughtfully as if he were considering a climb, then abruptly snorted. "Not in a million years." Alan raised his head suddenly as an enticing aroma wafted through the open doorway. "Now that is worth investigating." He mumbled and followed his sons into the restaurant.
"Oh, well," Larry sighed, eyeing the rock. Suddenly his stomach growled and he darted into the restaurant, totally forgetting about Castle Rock's namesake.
The small tables had been linked together to form one long table covered by a flowery tablecloth. Vases filled with fragrant honeysuckles dotted the length of the table and it was surrounded on all sides by a multitude of chairs.
Don and Charlie chose to sit directly across from Alan and Larry, making it easier for the four of them to carry on a conversation. Hank and his wife sat on Charlie's left and his deputy on Don's right. The brother's shared an amused look when Faye pulled out a chair and sat down next to Alan.
"Usually, I do everything myself but my daughters wanted me to take it easy today so they came over to help with the luncheon." She informed them. "They wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to work too hard today."
"That was very considerate of them," Alan said conversationally. "Do they live far away?"
She shook her head. "Not really. Gayle my oldest," she said, pointing to a woman carrying a large salad bowl to the table, "lives in Portland. Suddenly a younger woman appeared at her side and whispered something in her ear. "Yes, dear, now would be fine." She turned back to face Alan. "That was Amy, my youngest, and she lives in Seattle."
"What is that wondrous smell?" Alan asked, totally enthralled by the aroma. "What is that?"
"That's the main course," she said, her eyes lighting up. "My homemade ravioli and special sauce." Her expression suddenly changed and she sadly met Charlie's gaze. "It was Tommy's favorite meal and I thought it would be appropriate for today." Her eyes glistened with fresh tears. "It's my Wednesday night special, and just like clockwork, Tommy would come over for dinner. Sometimes he would eat it here, but most of the time he would take it back to his house because he was working on a new discovery or something like that."
"He raved about it actually," Charlie told her. "The last time I visited he ran into town and brought back two ravioli dinners." He smiled at her then glanced around the table. "Believe me you are in for a treat."
As if on cue, her daughters began serving the meal, and the sounds of conversations dissipated as everyone devoured the delicious meal. Homemade pies and cakes were brought out for desert and by the time they were finished, the Eppes and Larry were declaring that it had been the best meal that they had ever eaten.
They stayed for awhile, enjoying the companionship of Tom's friends, sharing stories of their lost companion and laughing at an occasional misadventure that he had experienced. Charlie gazed at their faces as the stories were told and was grateful that Tom had chosen to share his life with these kind, and caring people.
"I'm afraid that I must be going." Larry said, rising to his feet. "I should have just enough time to get back to Portland and catch my plane." He inclined his head to Faye. "My congratulations madam that was indeed a delicious meal." He pulled out his wallet and waited. "Now, if you would be so kind as to tell how much I owe you for said meal, I will pay you and be on my way."
Faye shook her head and pushed the bills that he offered away. "There is no charge for the meal but if you would like to leave a donation, there is a jar on the counter, by the register."
"Donation?" Charlie asked, turning toward the counter.
Faye nodded and rose from the table then led them over to the register. There was a large jar with an opening cut in the lid sitting next to a photograph of Tom and Charlie. They were standing arm in arm on at the crater of Mount St. Helens.
"That was taken on my last visit." Charlie said quietly.
Faye blushed. "The sheriff couldn't find a picture of Tom by himself, so I hope you don't mind that we borrowed this one from his cabin." She picked up the picture and held it toward him. "Hank said that he left everything to you, so I suppose this belongs to you too."
Charlie gently pushed the picture away, "No, you can keep it. I don't mind." He noticed a clipboard holding a paper containing a list of signatures on the other side of the jar and asked curiously."What is the donation for?"
The sheriff had followed them over and spoke up. "We would like to name one of the trails after Tom; he spent so much time up there that it only seems right." He waved his hand at the clipboard. "We're petitioning the Park service for permission to do this and in the meantime we're collecting money so that we can put up a plaque along the trail to honor his memory."
"I love that idea!" Charlie exclaimed excitedly, pulling out his wallet and stuffing some bills into the jar. He picked up the pen from the counter and signed his name to the petition then stepped aside to make room for the others to sign it.
"This will be our third petition." Faye said with a tone of frustration in her voice. "We still haven't heard anything from them about the first two we sent, but we're not going to give up."
"Hey, Charlie," Larry asked, turning to face his friend, "didn't you work up an analysis for the Park Service a few months ago?"
"I certainly did," Charlie answered with a grin, "and I worked directly with the head of the Park Service too."
"Now isn't that interesting." Larry said rather smugly as he turned to Faye. "My dear, would you happen to have an extra copy of that petition?"
"Of course," she answered, as she went behind the counter. She handed him a blank form and with a puzzled expression on her face asked why he wanted one.
"Because my dear, I have a feeling that the park service is about to be inundated with copies of your petition and personally delivered by Professor Charles Edward Eppes."
On the other side of the world a car passed through an old abandoned village that had fallen into ruin, but it didn't stop or slow down because there was nothing left for anyone to see. The little town had been deserted for many decades; wars, droughts and economic problems had driven the people to other cities in search of jobs and a better way of life.
The passenger in the car gazed thoughtfully out of the window oblivious to the dilapidated and decaying buildings they passed along the way. His thoughts were focused on another era, a time when the buildings stood tall and the streets were bustling with people, but that had been many, many years ago. In all of that time he had never returned to his childhood home, until now, and the only thing that brought him back at all was a promise that he had made to his dying mother.
The driver of the car cast a sideways glance toward the older man then coughed lightly before he spoke. "I'm sorry Papa. I know that it is not easy to accept the truth."
"I know not of such matters." Daniel Schiller replied, sighing heavily as he ran a trembling hand lovingly over a small box resting on his lap. "Perhaps it is true, but it does not change what I must do." He absently wiped at a stray tear as he recalled the story behind the small box that he held so tenderly in his hands.
A week ago Daniel had known nothing of his brother's life but had always hoped that he had managed to have a happy and rewarding one. Alas, his hopes had been dashed when a representative from the same Scientific Institute that had taken his little brother away had suddenly appeared on his doorstep carrying the small box. Daniel had listened in horror as the man related the circumstances that had led to Ludwig's death. The police had sent his ashes to Princeton University where his brother had spent most of his life, but they had decided not to keep them so they forwarded them to the Institute where he had grown up. The Administrator there had been appalled to learn of Ludwig's deeds and refused to keep a murderer's ashes on the grounds of the Institute so he had initiated a search for Ludwig's remaining relatives, which of course, had led them to his door.
Daniel pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket then blew his nose as his thoughts returned to the present. "It could still be a lie," he thought defiantly as he watched the countryside pass by him in silence. The old man wanted so much for it to be a lie, but then his shoulders drooped as he accepted the ugly truth once again. The day following the man's visit, his son had gone into town to check out his story. Through the wonders of the internet, Daniel's son had found an article written about Ludwig in the Los Angeles Times and to his dismay had discovered that it was the truth. The old man shook his head sadly, even though he knew that it was true, Daniel just couldn't imagine his brother as a murderer.
"We will speak no more of this." Daniel said quietly, bringing their discussion to a close as he once again turned his gaze toward the surrounding countryside.
Fifty year old Erik Schiller smiled sadly at his father and with a heavy heart turned his gaze back to the road before him. He was relieved that his Dad was finally going to be able to close an emotional wound that had haunted him all of his life, but he was also saddened because that meant that his father would have to accept the terrible truth that was associated with it.
They passed an old deserted farm house, its walls barely standing. The barn, which had stood to the right of the house, had completely collapsed, and the weeds had almost erased all evidence that it had ever existed. Time hadn't erased the old man's memory though and a vision from the past suddenly played out before him. Two boys were laughing and playing a game of kick ball in front of the barn. The game had ended in a playful wrestling match which had left the younger boy giggling helplessly while the older boy tickled him relentlesly. The sound of the boy's laughter echoed through Daniel's mind and he smiled at the memory;Ludwig's laughter had always had a contagious effect on him,and he recalled that soon after he too, had fallen to the ground in a fit of laughter.
A half a mile past the farm Erik veered to the right and turned onto a barely discernable dirt road then brought the car to a stop just a few feet below an old cemetery that was located on a small hillside overlooking the old farmstead.
The passenger door opened and the elderly man slowly climbed out of the vehicle then turned and bent over to pick up the small box and a bouquet of wildflowers that his grandaughter had picked for him that morning.
Erik turned off the engine and hurried to his father's side; placing a hand under his elbow to steady him until he was sure that he wasn't going to fall. "Papa, why don't you let me do this for you?" he suggested worriedly. Erik thought that his father looked even paler than he normally did, and although he had tried to talk him out of it, he had still insisted on coming to the old cemetery today.
"No. no," his father hastily insisted. "This is something that I must do myself."
"Very well, Papa." Erik sighed. "At least let me carry the shovel for you."
The old man agreed and together they wove their way between the rows of graves and weather-worn headstones. Even though it had been many years since he had set foot in the old cemetery, and his eyes had grown dim with age, he still knew exactly where to find the grave that he was seeking. Daniel Schiller, now seventy-seven years old cradled the small box close to his chest as his son helped him kneel down next to the grave of his mother.
"Where do you want me to dig, Papa?"
"There," Daniel said, pointing to a spot in the middle of the grave. When Erik was finished he held out his hand for the box but his father just shook his head.
"I need to be alone Erik. I will call you when I am ready."
"Ok Papa, I will go and wait in the car."
"Erik, the new headstones have been ordered, yes?" Daniel squinted up at his son as he waited for him to answer.
His son knelt down and squeezed his shoulder. "Do not worry Papa. I have arranged everything just as you asked."
Daniel patted his hand softly. "You are a good son."
"Yes, Papa." Erik replied sadly and rose to his feet. "I will be close by, Papa."
Daniel watched him leave then picked up the little box and pressed it against his heart. "All these long years, brother… I have looked for you, and now you have come home. I failed you Ludwig, and I have regretted it all of my life. I should have found a way to stop Papa from sending you away but I was just sixteen and afraid of him." He had to pause to catch his breath; his heart was growing weaker now and he didn't have long to live. "I chased after the car but I was not fast enough to catch it." He hung his head, ashamed of his failure. "I almost caught it at the turn in the road but the driver saw me and made the car go faster." He pulled a handerchief from his pocket and wiped at his eyes. "Papa beat me when I returned home but I did not care anymore. I hated him for allowing those people to take you away so after Mama died I ran away."
Daniel put the small box in the hole that his son had dug and then pulled a handful of envelopes from his pocket. They were tied together with a faded green ribbon and had turned yellow with age. His hand trembled as he gently placed them on top of the box.
"Mama wrote to you but the letters were always returned to her, unopened. As she lay dying, I promised her that I would find you and bring you home and now I have kept my promise." He swallowed hard and had to clear his throat before he was able to speak again. "People say that you have done some very terrrible things, Ludwig, but the boy that I knew would never have done them. Perhaps the man that you were forced to become did those things, but I did not know you then."He gazed sadly at the little box and had to blow his nose before he could continue.
"I have done very well, little brother, and soon there will be a new stone of granite standing in place of this old one and it will bear Mama's name and yours too, Ludwig. Next to you will be another, marking my own resting place, for I will join you both very soon."
Daniel rose up on his knees and with his hands shoveled the loose dirt back into the hole, then patted it down gently. He placed the wildflowers over the spot and with tears falling down his cheeks, he whispered. "Ludwig is home Mama…Ludwig has come home."
Alan, Don and Charlie spent the night in Tommy's cabin sorting through his things and separating them into piles. Charlie was donating most of his friend's things to the "Goodwill Center" in Castle Rock but was taking all of his scientific equipment, his laptop and all of his research back to LA with him.
They left the key to the cabin with the Sheriff the next morning before they started out for Los Angeles. Hank shook their hands and assured them that Tom's things would be given to the Goodwill Center.
The Eppes men were more relaxed on the return trip, filling the hours with teasing banter and laughter. The boys teased their father relentlessly when he let it slip that he had exchanged e-mail addresses with Faye even though he insisted that it was just so that they coould exhange recipe ideas. Alan didn't mind though; the sound of his son's laughter filled his heart with overwhelming joy. It was as if a heavy burden had been lifted from their shoulders and now they could put the events of the past few weeks behind them.
Charlie gazed eagerly out of the passenger window as they pulled into the driveway of the Craftsman. He couldn't wait to see Amita and he had nearly driven Don and his Dad crazy with his impatient sighs. As he opened the car door it became apparent that he wasn't the only impatient Eppes in the family when the front door was flung open.
"They're here, they're here!" Amita cried loudly as she ran to greet her husband. She collided with him with such force that he was pushed back against the car, but he didn't notice. Charlie embraced her and pressed his lips against hers for a good, long kiss.
Alan looked at Don and chuckled. "They'll have to come up for air sometime. Right?"
Larry appeared on the porch, wearing an apron and carrying a bottle of barbecue sauce. "Amita, what did you…?" He stopped talking and smiled instead at the arrival of his friends. "Hey, you made it," he called out delightedly, "and just in time too."
"What do you mean?" Alan asked. "Just in time for what?"
"Dinner, of course." Larry said. "I've got the grill all fired up and ready to go. All we have to do is slap on the steaks."
Alan rubbed his hands together eagerly. "That sounds good to me. " He turned to his oldest son. "How about it, Donnie? Ready for some rib-eye?"
"I don't know, Dad. " Don looked down at the phone in his hand and muttered. "I've been trying to get in touch with Robin, but she isn't answering her cell."
"That's because she wanted to surprise you." A melodious voice spoke from behind him.
Don whirled around and pulled her into his arms. "I missed you."
"I missed you too." She said, sealing her words with a kiss.
"How about it, Donnie? " Alan called from the other side of the SUV. "Are you two going to stay for dinner?"
"Are we?" He asked softly as he kissed her once again.
"If we don't," she replied laughingly, "we won't get any of the pineapple upside down cake that I've spent all afternoon preparing."
"We can't have that now, can we?" Don said teasingly, and then with an arm wrapped around her waist they walked around the car to join the others.
They were all looking at him, waiting for his answer. His heart swelled with love as his gaze drifted over each of them and he realized how lucky they were to be together, at this time and at this moment.
Larry, who had become more like a dear eccentric uncle than just a friend stood by the door grinning at him;his Dad was smiling at him too, a hopeful expression on his face. Amita smiled warmly, and he realized that she truly had become the sister that he had never had. Don locked eyes with his brother and saw his own feelings reflected there;Schiller's assault had sent them both reeling into hell, but instead of giving up they had pulled together and fought back, and during the process they had forged an even stronger bond.
Tomorrow he would be back at work, taking on criminals and terrorists that plotted against the good people of the world and Charlie, his brother, friend and partner would stand by his side and together they would make a difference. But today…today, he was content to share in this moment.
"It looks like we're staying for dinner." Don announced with a broad smile, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
A/N: Thanks to all of you again, and in the immortal words of Red Skeleton:
Good night, and May God bless"