The Day Everything Changed
John William ran frantically down the long curved road to his house. In the spring of 1918; World War One was in its final stages. German Fokkers and British Camels circled the clouds above like mosquitoes. He covered his head as bullets buzzed around him.
An airplane engulfed in flames spiraled out of the sky and disappeared behind the trees. Bang! A loud crash shook the ground. Dark smoke wafted into the air near his house. “Oh no…,” he gasped, sprinting so fast his lungs throbbed through his chest.
He turned down the driveway to find his worst fears were true. Fire and smoke bellowed out the windows of his house. Airplane pieces and splintered wood protruded from the top where the roof once was. The intense heat scorched his face. Boom! An explosion shattered the house and propelled John William backwards. Fragments flew everywhere.
He curled up in a ball screaming from the pain of his wrenched and torn heart. His parents were home hiding from the chaos. Nothing could have survived the explosion. He felt empty; the two people he loved most in the world were gone.
The shouting of German solders making their approach silenced him. He stumbled to his feet and ran into the forest on the edge of his house. Through the trees John William saw two German pilots surveying the area. The airplane that crashed into his house was a German Fokker. One walked to the edge of the thick fern and hovered over John William. The pilot stared into the forest. “Hallo!” he shouted. John William bit his lip, praying the cough building in his throat would stay where is was.
“Lass uns gehen!” The other pilot shouted and waved his arm signaling for them to leave. They appeared to be searching for signs of life; but except for John William, no one remained.
John William lay flat on his back with his eyes fixed on the sky. Tears rolled down his face. He had no idea what to do. He was eleven years old and suddenly left with no home and no parents. A car rolled up the driveway. John William squirmed over to the fern and peered through the leaves.
His uncle stepped out of the car and stood with his hand over his mouth. “John! Katherine! John William!” His voice trembled as he walked around the shattered house. John William hunkered behind the fern watching his uncle fall apart.
He was overwhelmed and heart broken; but he had a decision to make. He could go with his uncle, or somehow make his own way. He could not bring himself to go to him. Something in his gut told him to make his own way. He prepared to turn and run. Snap! A twig broke under the pressure of his knee.
“Who’s there?” His uncle walked over to the fern. He looked down and saw John William’s reddish brown curls poking through. “John William? What are you doing?”
“Hi, Uncle, I was just….” John William stood up and gazed at his feet.
His uncle wiped tears and ash from his face. “It doesn’t matter. Thank god you’re alive!” He carefully pulled John William out of the leaves. “Are you okay?”
“I wasn’t home.” John William’s eyes welled up again. “I should have been home.” He buried his face into his uncle’s chest.
“It’s going to be okay, young man. You’ll stay with me.” He gave John William a firm hug and led him to the car. As they pulled away from the house his heart sank. Life as he knew it was over. He wondered if he would ever feel again.
Nearly a year came and went. John William was an empty shell merely going through the motions of life. His uncle tried every day to pull him out of it. “I got you something today.” He pushed a brown leather pack with a padded shoulder strap across the dinner table. John William barely looked up from his plate. His uncle cleared his throat. “Happy Birthday, young man; twelve — that’s a big age.”
“Thanks….” John William muttered while pushing steamed carrots and potatoes around with his fork. “I’m sorry; I suppose I’m not feeling well. I think I need to lie down; may I be excused?”
“Of course....” His uncle leaned back in his chair with a defeated look on his face. John William peeled himself off the seat and dragged his feet to his room. He plopped down on his bed and stared at the ceiling just as he did every other night; not wanting to think because thinking always resulted in heartache. He grew tired of crying all the time.
His bedroom door squeaked open. “Can I come in?” asked his uncle, poking his head inside. John William nodded. His uncle sat next to him and looked around. Pictures of old ruins and maps lined the walls. A set of dirty old digging tools covered his dresser. “I love what you have done with your room.” He smirked and rubbed the tension out of his neck. John William replied with a half smile.
“John William, I don’t pretend to know what you are feeling. I miss your parents, too… very much. It is awful that his has happened. There are days when I still can’t believe it.” He paused and let out a deep sigh. “I know for certain that your dad, my brother would want you to carry on with life. He would want you to do your best and live with purpose because that is precisely what he did; and he did it for you. It would break his heart to see you wasting away.”
A tear slid down John William’s cheek and his deep blue eyes were red and puffy, yet again. His uncle placed the pack he bought him for his birthday on the bed next to him. “Good night, John William.” He stood up and his shoes clacked as he walked out of the room.
John William stared at the pack for a while before finally deciding to open it. Inside were beautiful new tools for digging and drawing maps. The handles had his initials, J.W.D engraved on them. At the very bottom was an old compass with a note attached….
I know there is nothing I can do to bring your parents back; but I feel it is my responsibility to bring your smile back. Today is your birthday; please don’t waste another minute of your life feeling empty. Get out there and live, explore, do what you love. It is time to embark on a new adventure. I hope these tools help. I attached the letter to this compass because it was your fathers. I found it at the house after the accident. Use it well and keep your parents in your heart. Happy Birthday, young man.
John William opened the compass. It still had ash on it; aside from that it was in fine working condition. He sunk his head into the pillow thinking about his uncle’s words. A restless energy surged through his body; something he had not felt in a long time.
He tossed and turned all night making a tangled mess of his blankets. When the first ray from the sun poked through his curtains he leaped out of bed and threw on his clothes. He stuffed his tools and compass in his pack and draped it over his shoulders. His bedroom door swung open and out he flew like a tornado blowing through the house.
“Well this certainly is a welcome change.” His uncle paced around the kitchen tossing eggs in a skillet.
“No time to eat, Uncle!” He ran over and squeezed his uncle around the waist.
“Why? Where are you going?”
“I thought I might do some exploring.” John William grinned.
“That’s a splendid idea. Make sure you’re home for dinner,” said his uncle in a stern tone. John William gave him an acknowledging nod and stuffed a piece of toast in his mouth while racing out the front door.