Gathering Together

                  Second Chance

 

 

“Let me see Joe! Let me see!” Robert cried excitedly, hurrying to keep up with Joe’s longer strides.

Joe quickly pulled his new rifle away from his younger cousin’s eager hands, balancing it against his shoulder like he’d seen soldiers do in pictures. “You can look at it just fine without touching it,” he replied shortly, lifting his chin with an air of importance.

“Joe won’t let nobody touch his new gun,” Benny muttered sulkily as he scuffed his toe on the old dirt road.  

“And for good reason!” Joe argued. “You know how much money our Pa must have paid for this beauty?” He lifted his free hand to slide a finger down the side of the smooth, shiny barrel, feeling a thrill travel through his body.

“Seems like an awful nice hunting rifle for somebody who’s Pa doesn’t even have that much money,” Seth remarked sharply, glancing enviously at the birthday gift.

“You’re just jealous ‘cause your rifle isn’t as good as mine,” Joe smirked, shifting the gun on his shoulder.

“There isn’t anything wrong with my rifle!” Seth replied defensively.

Sure there isn’t,” Joe snickered, “if you don’t mind missing your target by about four feet!”

Seth’s lips pursed together tightly, and his eyes sparked, but he didn’t attempt a reply. Joe grinned to himself. Even though Seth was taller and older by a couple months, he was bigger and wittier, and they both knew which out of the two could win an argument.

Reaching the edge of Pa’s wood, Joe scanned the trees for a target, his eyes fastening on a large black bird that screeched obnoxiously from a low branch. Motioning for everyone to be quiet, he removed the new rifle from his shoulder and bent down on one knee. He felt every eye fastened on him as he pounded down the powder and shot, but he pretended not to notice. Licking the tip of his thumb and pressing it against the barrel opening, he positioned the butt at his shoulder and slowly pulled back the hammer. Aiming carefully at his hopping target, he waited for just the perfect moment before squeezing the trigger. There was the deafening bang beside his ear, the strong kick against his shoulder, the smoke stinging in his eyes, and then Robert and Benny’s exited shouts as the bird plummeted toward earth with a squawk. Seth said nothing as the two boys raced to retrieve the fallen prey.

“Bet you can’t beat that,” Joe challenged as he rose to his feet. He could see Seth’s expression tighten.

“I bet I can!” the older boy returned, holding his own gun in front of his chest.

“Prove it! See that squirrel over there?” Joe pointed toward a massive oak tree about forty yards off. “Hit him right between the eyes.”

“That’s farther than your target!” Seth complained. Then, quickly changing note, “It wouldn’t be fair for you—to beat you by so much.”

Joe grinned. “Alright then. Hit that nest right up there,” he said, directing his finger toward a high, woven cluster of sticks a couple trees distant.

Seth silently readied his gun, aimed, and fired. The nest blew to pieces, and Seth turned with a scornful smile as if to say ‘I told you so.’

Joe hated that look, but before he could make his next challenge, the two younger boys came running.

“What a shot!” Robert cried.

“I wonder if that nest belonged to your bird, Joe,” Benny speculated, holding the unfortunate victim up by its neck.

“Won’t you let me try a shot, Joe?” Robert pleaded. “I’ll be careful!”

No,” Joe replied irritably.

“Please? I’ll be awful careful! I’ll—”

“I said no,” Joe repeated firmly. “You aren’t big enough to handle a big gun like this.”

Robert scowled fiercely. “I am too! I can shoot a gun just as good as you or anybody else! You just think you’re better ‘cause you’re older!” Angrily spinning on his heels, he disappeared into the trees and undergrowth.

“You didn’t have to be so mean,” Seth frowned accusingly.

“Hey! I’m not going to let some little kid mess with my gun. It’s my gun,” Joe defended himself. Then turning to Benny, “Let me see my bird.”

Benny tossed it to him with a look of disgust. “I’m going home,” he muttered.

“Fine then,” Joe grunted, feeling irritated at the turn of events. “Let me have your gun,” he suddenly demanded, reaching for Seth’s rifle after tossing his prey aside.

Seth quickly pulled it from his reach. “I don’t see you being at all generous with your gun.”

“Let’s see who the better marksman is. I’ll shoot your gun, you’ll shoot mine, and whoever makes the best shot wins,” Joe offered, extending his rifle.

Seth paused before making the trade. “I’ll go first,” he directed. “I’ve got that bird right over there,” he said, nodding to a high treetop that held an unsuspecting singer. With a bang, the soloist fell from its perch. “Beat that!” he challenged.

“The end of that fallen branch.” Joe nodded confidently toward a piece of fallen tree. Aiming meticulously, he fired. The shot was futile, and Seth let out a laugh.

“Who’s the better shot—?”

A terrifying shriek interrupted him, and both pairs of eyes grew large with terror.

“Robert!” Seth screamed, taking off at a mad run.

Joe did his best to follow, a sick feeling growing in the pit of his stomach.

Leaping over Joe’s intended target and pushing past a growth of vines, they nearly stumbled over Robert’s pitiful form.

“Robert!” Seth cried again, falling beside his little brother.

A large bullet wound in the boy’s belly oozed blood, soaking his shirt. He gasped for breath, his exhales coming out as painful groans.

“I’ve got to go get Pa,” Seth said frantically, leaping to his feet. As he turned to leave, he sent Joe a forceful kick in his side. “Don’t leave him, you hear me?” he yelled, fleeing back through the trees.

Joe felt hot tears burning his eyes as he watched Seth disappear, but it wasn’t because of the throbbing pain in his ribs. Turning back to his younger cousin, he felt like a knife had been twisted into his heart. He wanted to get sick.

“Hold on Robert, please,” he whimpered, stuffing his fist over the wound. “You’ve got to hold on,” he rambled desperately, trying to hold back the sobs. “Your pa will be here soon. He’ll get you to a doctor. You’ll be alright. Hold on, Robert. You’ll be alright. Please be alright. Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Suddenly, Robert’s wheezing began to fade, and desperately grabbing hold of his shirt, Joe began to shake him. “Don’t do this Robert!” he yelled frantically. The ghostly pale, almost bluish color of Robert’s face terrified him.

Then the breathing stopped.

“Robert! Robert!” he shrieked, shaking the boy violently.

It was no use.

Joe’s breath caught in his throat, and he could barely breathe. What had he done?

He quickly glanced behind him, wondering if he heard footsteps. He was sweating, and his breath came in panicky gasps.

Scrambling to his feet, he began to run like a blind dog, tripping over the underbrush, bumping into trees. He heard himself sobbing, and when he looked down at his hands, they were covered in blood.

He had to get far, far away from here—fast.

 

21 years later

What did he think he was doing?

Joe had second thoughts as he continued down the dusty country road that led him past familiar fields, pastures, and woods. Ever since the stock market crash last October, he’d been without work, and after several futile job attempts, he had finally decided it was high time for him to come home. But it had been over twenty years since he had run away, and he hadn’t had any contact with his family since. Surely by now they had forgotten him—or wished they had.

His heart ached with old feelings of guilt and remorse, his stomach turning with shame. Did he really expect them to receive him back after what he had done? They had every right to hate him, every right to turn him away.

He tried to make his feet stop and turn back in the opposite direction, but they seemed to have a mind of their own as they continued to carry him forward. Yes, he had to do this, and he wasn’t going to let his fear get in the way this time. He couldn’t make that mistake again.

Shielding his eyes form the sinking sun, he recognized the old, familiar farmhouse about a half mile down the road, and a surprising lump clogged his throat. He hadn’t realized how homesick he was, even now as a grown man, but it suddenly choked him.

His step quickened. How were Ma and Pa? Were they well? Did Ma have wrinkles at the corners of her eyes? Was Pa’s hair grayed? How were Benny and Melinda? They were probably both married by now with kids of their own. Did they both live close by? And what about Aunt Louisa, and Uncle Jim, and Seth, and all the rest of his cousins? 

Thousands of questions flew through his mind as he drew closer and closer to his childhood home, and he felt the lost time with remorse. He didn’t even know his family, he realized.

But as he came within a quarter mile of the old farmhouse, Joe discovered that it was deserted. Deep disappointment weighed down his spirits, and tears of despair gathered in his eyes. Was it too late? Maybe Ma and Pa had experienced hard times and had moved back East. He’d heard that times were tough here in Iowa long before the stock market ever crashed. Had he come so far for nothing?

As he approached the house, its worn appearance brought back a floodgate of memories, and he released a shaky sigh. Climbing the old porch steps, he brushed a hand along the weathered rails, remembering when he had helped Pa paint them for Ma’s birthday. A faint smile tugged at his lips at the recollection, and he reached to try the door handle.

Locked.

Taking a step back, he ran a hand through his hair. He cast a quick glance through the window before retreating off the porch, hoping to find another way inside. Aha! Above the porch, an upstairs window was propped open, and he could see curtains fluttering in the breeze. He’d just have to get in from there.

Tossing the bag that contained all of his few personal belongings up onto the porch roof, Joe managed to hoist himself up. Once on top, he paused a moment to catch his breath, gazing at the outlying landscape. He remembered having sat up here many times before as a young boy. He had liked to wait here for Pa to come home from the fields. Ma never liked it because she was afraid he would fall, but he had always tried to be careful.

Joe smiled to himself, turning to the open window. Throwing his belongings onto the floor inside, he crawled through the opening, finding the feat a lot more difficult than it had been as a small boy. He found himself in Melinda’s room. It was bare except for an old cedar chest positioned along the east wall and a colorful homemade rug sprawled in the center of the floor. The walls were still covered with the old, flowered wall paper, and everything seemed surprisingly clean.

Entering the hallway, Joe found each of the bedroom doors unlocked. The other rooms weren’t nearly as clean as the first, and a couple still contained a few old sticks of furniture, but each brought back a memory of its own. He finally made his way downstairs, wandering into the kitchen. He paused before the chipped sink, recalling how often Ma had stood there, dish towel in hand. He missed her.

Entering into the old sitting room, he discovered an abandoned sofa. It looked as though in contained several mice nests, and dust coated it, but it was a place to rest. Easing down onto the lumpy cushions, Joe let out a weary sigh.

This wasn’t exactly what he had expected to return to, and he felt deflated. Maybe he was never supposed to be reunited with his family and discover if he had ever been forgiven. Perhaps it was God’s punishment for him to carry around this heavy burden the rest of his life. Joe felt his courage being sapped.

He contemplated going down the road to see if Uncle Jim and Aunt Louisa still lived on their old farm, but the thought of facing them made his stomach church with fright. That was something he was sure he would never be able to do. He had killed their son! To suddenly show up on their doorstep would only remind them of their pain—and what he had done.

The sun sank, the house grew dark, and memories lived to haunt. It was a long time before Joe finally managed to fall asleep, and in the moonlight, a tear glistened on his cheek.

 

Joe’s eyes blinked open, and he squinted in the bright sunlight that streamed through the large window. It took him a moment to remember where he was. How long had he slept?

Bump!

His head rose sharply. What was that? It sounded like the front door closing. He grew uneasy as the floor outside the sitting room’s west wall began to creak. Before he had time to fully shake himself awake, the figure of a young girl appeared in the doorway. As her eyes fastened on him, she let out a startled, ear-piercing shriek and dove back behind the corner. Joe’s own heart beat furiously from his surprise, and he awkwardly sat up, unsure of what to do. It wasn’t long before a thin, childish face peeked around the corner, eyes large.

“What are you doing here, Mister?” The voice was sharp and accusing, but a small tremor gave away the child’s alarm.

“I...I didn’t realize…” Joe stammered, feeling foolish and sheepish. “I needed a place to spend the night.”

“Did you steal anything?” she asked bluntly.

Joe couldn’t help the amused smile that tickled his lips. There wasn’t much here to steal.

“No,” he replied. “I didn’t.”

“Well,” the girl decided hesitantly, a little braver as she stepped out from her hiding place. “I won’t run you off our property then, not yet at least.”

Joe contained a chuckle. “Do…do you own this place?”

“My daddy does,” the girl replied. Then before he could ask anymore questions, blurted, “What’s your name?” Not allowing him any time to answer, she continued, “I’m Becky Gillman, and my house is right—”

“Gillman?” Joe felt his heart jump at the sound of Uncle Jim’s name.

“Yes,” she replied impatiently. “That’s my daddy’s name.”

“Oh,” he nodded, trying to hide the eagerness he felt. Seth! It had to be! She looked just like him.

“Are you hungry Mister?”

Joe was suddenly reminded that he hadn’t eaten since noon yesterday. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he admitted.

“Mamma will have lunch ready in about an hour. You might as well come and join us. It doesn’t look like you could have much to eat in there.” She glanced skeptically at the burlap sack lying on the floor.

“Well, I don’t know—” Joe began to object, his heart beginning to pound.

“Mamma won’t mind,” she interrupted him. “And I can’t let you starve, can I?” With that, she turned to leave the room, beckoning him to follow. He did, but his feet felt like lead.

As they headed out onto the dirt road, the girl began to talk to him as though she’d known him for quite a while. He didn’t really mind her chatter, just as long as she did all the talking.

“I keep my dolls upstairs in the flowered wallpaper room. I always play there when Mamma let’s me come down here. I was going to play with my dolls today, but since I ran across you, they can wait a while…”

Joe recognized Uncle Jim and Aunt Louisa’s house as they approached it. It looked much the same as he had remembered it. He kept his face down as they passed by, relieved when it was behind him. Not far in the distance, another house rose up out of the plowed farm ground. As they drew closer, he could see a couple girls playing in the front yard.

“That’s my house,” Becky stated. “And those are my little sisters. The little one’s Sarah, and the bigger one’s Bethany. Bethany can be awful shy sometimes, but she’s pretty nice as sisters go—”

“Becky!”

A petite, dark-haired woman suddenly ran from the house, her knee-length skirt swishing as she hurried toward them. Obviously flustered, she cast Joe a wary glance.

“Becky, what do you think you’re doing, bringing a strange man home like this?” she hissed, pulling the girl aside.

“I found him in the old farmhouse, Mamma,” Becky replied with unconcern.

Joe could see the woman’s eyebrows shoot up, and he felt his cheeks warm with embarrassment as she turned alarmed eyes back toward him.

“He didn’t steal anything, Mamma. He just needed a place to sleep. He’s really very nice. I brought him home for lunch since he doesn’t have much to eat, I don’t think.”

“Well,” the woman stammered, cheeks flushed. “I…I suppose we can make room for an extra mouth.” Then, with an exasperated look, leaned over to the girl’s ear and whispered, “I’ll speak with you inside, young lady.”

Becky obediently trudged into the house, and the woman straightened herself, nervously brushing a loose strand of hair back behind her ear. “I…I’m Mary Gillman,” she said with a stammer, extending her tiny hand. “And you are..?”

“Neil Ingram, ma’am,” Joe replied, using the name he had gone by for so many years. He shook her outstretched hand, feeling as though he owed some sort of an apology, but he didn’t know what to say.

“Well, come on inside,” Mary invited before he had the chance to speak, leading him through the front door. Her tone was friendlier. “I’m afraid I’m not used to many visitors, but make yourself at home.” She pointed into a cozy little sitting room off to the left. “My husband will be home shortly, and dinner’s almost ready.” Then, casting him a quick, hospitable smile, she pattered down the hall.

Seating himself on an overstuffed sofa, Joe picked up a discarded magazine, flipping through it distractedly. Every noise raised his head, and his leg bounced restlessly. Finally giving up the attempt to read, Joe rose to stand before a small wall mirror. A shiver of embarrassment zipped down his spine as he realized his disheveled appearance. He now recalled that it had been over a week since he’d last had a bath and the same amount of time since he’d bothered a change of clothes. Unruly locks of hair stuck out from his head or lay matted against his scalp, while a face full of whiskers added to his rough appearance. His clothes were soiled and wrinkled, and grime caked itself beneath his fingernails.

Quickly grabbing his bag of belongings, Joe hurried to find a bathroom, making his best attempt at a quick clean up job and donning his spare set of clothes.

He hurried back to the sitting room just in time to run into a man coming through the front door. As the man’s face turned toward him, Joe immediately recognized him as his cousin Seth. He was all grown up now, but he still had that fiery glint in his eye, the same black, curly hair, and the same handsome jaw line. Joe’s heart froze, but he fought to maintain a stoic expression. Seth scanned him up and down with suspicious eyes before marching quickly down the hall.

“Mary!” he called, his tone commanding.

Joe forced himself to return to the couch, his hands rubbing together nervously. He could hear Seth’s muffled discourse with his wife, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. A few minutes, and Becky ran to fetch him for lunch.

“You look a lot better, Mister!” she blurted with evident surprise.

Joe chuckled nervously, feeling timid as he followed her down the hall.

Entering into a moderately-sized kitchen, he stood awkwardly by the doorway until Seth’s wife directed him to a chair at the end of the table. As he seated himself, the two younger girls stared at him with evident curiosity. Seth sat across from him, scrutinizing. Joe tried not to squirm.

Does he recognize me? he wondered.

After a short blessing, Seth began to pepper him with questions.

“So where are you from?” he began.

“Peoria, Illinois, Sir,” Joe replied, finding it strange to address his cousin in such a formal manner.

“What brings you over this way?”

“Ever since the stock market crashed, I’ve been without work. I was hoping to find a job.”

“Well, I’m afraid you won’t have much luck around here,” Seth stated. “Times are tough. Nobody has the extra money to pay for farm hands.”

Joe almost felt relieved. “Oh,” was all he said.

“Do you have any place to go?” Mary asked with true concern.

“No,” he admitted. Then quieter, “But that’s the way it’s always been.”

“You could stay with us!” Becky piped in. “Couldn’t he Daddy,” she confirmed, turning toward Seth. “He could work for you, and we could feed him and let him stay in the lean to—or the old farmhouse.” She leaned back in her chair with a pleased grin.

Joe noticed the twinkle in Seth’s brown eyes.

“Well,” Seth contemplated, rubbing his chin. “I suppose…”

“You don’t have to do that Sir,” Joe interrupted. Then, turning to the young girl with a smile, “I thank you for your kind offer, but just like your Pa said— times are tough. I wouldn’t want to be a burden.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t be anything of the sort,” Mary chipped in with motherly care. “You would be a good help to Seth, and I’m sure we could spare having one more mouth at our table. We can’t just turn you out without a place to go.”

Cries of agreement sprang from the three girls.

Seth let out a short sigh, signaling the end of careful consideration. “Well,” he said, turning back to Joe. “I suppose it’s five against one. What do you say?”

Joe was speechless. This was the last thing he’d expected to happen. Then realizing that everyone was eagerly awaiting his reply, he slowly nodded his head.         

“Thank you Sir.”

 

Joe pulled and squeezed at the same time, feeling the familiar art coming back to him as warm, white liquid squirted into the metal milk pail beside his feet. He had always helped Pa milk their family’s couple cows in the early mornings and before supper, and doing it again turned back time’s clock.

“Do you know who lived in that old farmhouse?” Joe asked casually, turning to glance at Seth who was busy mucking out the cow’s stall.

“My Aunt,” Seth replied. “But she moved back East to live with her younger sister a couple years ago.”

Joe’s heart sank with disappointment, and then a sudden fear took his breath away. What about Pa? Where was he?

“She lived there all alone?” he asked, striving to keep the urgency from his voice.

“For the last three years she lived there, yes.” Seth paused, his tone lowering solemnly. “Her husband…my Uncle Richard…died of a stroke five years back.”

Joe’s throat constricted, and he numbly turned his attention back to the task before him. His jaw clenched, while self-loathing burned in his chest. Why had he waited so long to come back? Now, he would never see Pa again, and possibly never Ma. He would never know if Pa had managed to find forgiveness for him before he died. The loss pierced Joe to the deepest realms of his heart.

“Did…did they have any children?” Joe forced out the question, hoping Seth hadn’t heard the quiver in his voice.

“They had three,” was the flat reply. There was a heavy pause. “They deserved to have better children. They were real good folks, you know,” Seth said, his voice slow and dripping with regret. “The only one that really turned out good—my younger cousin, Benny—was pulled into the war by the 1918 draft. My aunt received a letter just a month after his departure that he had been killed.” 

Joe swallowed hard, fighting desperately against the tears that threatened to break loose from his eyes. He now prayed that Seth would think better of telling him anymore, but he braced himself for the next stab of pain as his cousin’s lips parted.

“Their daughter, Melinda, ran off with some strange man when she was seventeen,” Seth continued, shaking his head with a scowl. “Nobody’s heard from her since.”

Joe was stunned. Melinda? Sweet, innocent Melinda? He could hardly believe it.

“Then their oldest—Joe…” Seth spoke the name as though it were full of brine. “He ran off after killing my brother in a shooting accident over twenty years ago. Nobody’s ever heard from him either.”

Seth’s ending words sucked the last drop of emotional strength from Joe’s waning supply, leaving him parched and weakened. He knew then and there that they despised him. He was glad when Seth didn’t speak again, and he finished his job in stunned silence. Preparing to leave, he was stopped by his cousin’s call.

“After you clean up, head on down to my parents’ house. We’ll meet you there. My mamma’s cooking us dinner.”

“Thank you,” Joe replied, struggling to speak. “But I think I’ll just rest this evening.”

“You sure? You don’t want to miss Mamma’s sweet rolls.” He shook his head, patting his belly.

“Thanks, but I’m really not that hungry.”

“Are you unwell?” Seth frowned.

“Just tired.”

Seth shook his head, and Joe took his leave, barely containing the energy to move one foot in front of the other. Dropping the milk off by the house, he retreated to the old lean to that just that day had become his abode. Collapsing onto the small cot that had been moved into it, Joe buried his face in his hands and wept.

Why had he ever come back here? His heart devastated, he now wished he had never left Peoria. It would have been better to leave things alone instead of unearthing such heartbreak. He would have liked to remember his family the way he had left them: Pa, alive and well; Ma, young and cheery; Melinda, sweet and innocent; Benny, boyish and carefree. Would things have been different if he hadn’t run off that day? Would his family all still be together?

He would never know, and it was no use thinking of what might have been. What was done was done, and it could never be taken back.

He had discovered the dreaded truth: he was hated. Seth’s tone had been enough to evidence that. There was no reason for him to stay here any longer. He had found his answer…regrettably.

He glanced down at his sack that leaned against the cot, still packed. He would leave in the wee morning before the sun’s peeking rays would ever have the chance to give away his retreating silhouette.

As he lay down to attempt sleep, he found this night little different from the last, only, his dreams loomed darker.

 

Joe approached the looming shadow of his boyhood home, lifting weary eyes up toward the black sky scattered with silver dust. God seemed more distant than He had ever been before.

 Dropping his gaze back down to look upon the home he had once loved, he offered it a silent goodbye before plunging ahead to leave it all behind forever.

 

The sound of a truck rumbling up from behind startled Joe, and he whirled around to see a familiar Ford making its way toward him. His heart beat with dread. He hadn’t thought of the possibility that Seth would come looking for him. He didn’t stop to wait but quickened his pace, keeping his face pointed straight ahead even when the truck pulled up beside him. He heard the truck stop, driver door open, a foot crunch on dirt. Fear pulsed through his body.

“Joe.”

Joe stopped dead in his tracks, turning slowly at the low, gruff, but distantly-familiar voice. No one had called him by his first name for years. His breath caught in his throat as he turned to face his uncle.

Uncle Jim was much older now, his hair thinned and grayed, while creases lined his sun-weathered face. His expression was like an unreadable tombstone, and Joe was speechless with shock and dread.

When heavy, uncomfortable silence had reigned for over a minute, Joe forced himself to speak. “How did you know it was me?” he asked nervously.

“Seth told me he had a work hand last night at dinner. When he described you, I knew it couldn’t be anyone else.”

Joe lowered his gaze to the dirt, unable to endure the intensity of his uncle’s gaze. Why had he come after him? Did he plan to get back? He could feel Uncle Jim’s eyes boring into him, sweat forming on his skin. Uncle Jim’s feet scuffed the dirt as he began to approach, and Joe prepared himself for his coming judgment.

And then suddenly, he was being embraced. Before he knew what was happening, his head was leaned onto his uncle’s shoulder, and he thought he felt warm tears drip onto his neck. His heart began to thud. Could it be?

“I’m so sorry,” he heard himself say, and then he was sobbing.

His uncle held him like a child. Joe’s heart was hurting, but this time, it wasn’t from heartbreak. They stood there for a long time, clinging to each other, but when Uncle Jim finally held Joe out away from him, his voice shook.

“Good to see you boy.”

Joe was trembling, and he couldn’t speak. Could this be a lovely dream?

He felt like a sleepwalker as he was led to the waiting pickup and motioned inside. Uncle Jim slid into the driver’s seat, and then Joe found himself headed back to the place he had fled from just hours before. No words were spoken between them, but the silence felt right. They drove right past the old farmhouse and Uncle Jim’s place, turning off the road when they reached Seth’s driveway. Joe could see his cousin sitting on the porch, his back hunched over and his hands folded. He swallowed.

Seth rose to his feet as the pickup pulled up beside the house, ever so slowly making his way toward them. Joe got out of the pickup and waited, seeing the struggle on his cousin’s face. Seth was almost in front of him now, his expression rigid. Suddenly, Seth let out a loud sob, encasing him in his arms. Joe buried his face in his cousin’s shoulder, weeping tears mixed with joy and pain. He felt Uncle Jim’s hand rest on his back and bring them both to him in one large embrace.

Tears streamed down Joe’s cheeks as he pulled away to look at his uncle and cousin. He felt prostrated by their kindness. He began to speak, wishing to say something that could make up for everything, but Seth stopped him.

“Welcome home, Joe.” His tone was genuine.

Joe wept unashamedly, overwhelmed by the goodness shown to him. He was getting the second chance he didn’t deserve, hadn’t truly thought he’d ever receive. 

“I’m home,” Joe whispered. “I’m finally home.”

And as he spoke, he felt his heavy burden being lifted from his shoulders.