Long a proponent of seeing beyond the evil of a man's heart to the good that resides within; love of either determines his outcome in life.
The diner Robert had chosen was a small one situated on the side of the highway just outside of town. The exterior of the building was covered in stucco and painted bright white. The large square windows trimmed in red were turned so that they appeared to be diamond-shaped. When Kevin stepped out of the car, he noticed the old metal bottle caps from soda bottles. He remembered when he was a boy and treasured the different colored caps he found in the Texaco station’s sand parking lot.
They walked inside the diner and sat at a table next to a diamond-shaped window. Kevin still felt uneasy in the man’s presence as he looked around at the different clientele there that afternoon. At the counter sat someone he assumed to be a truck driver chatting with an older woman who kept looking at her nails as if they were some sort of treasure to her. Through the serving window, he could see the cook swatting away at something that seemed to bother his face as he worked. On the far side of the diner, a family of five occupied a booth. He guessed they were tourists passing through town. At a table in the diner’s center were four old farmers probably talking about the weather and sipping at cups of coffee. When he returned his attention to Robert, he found the same level of compassion coming from the man that he had experienced earlier, which multiplied his uneasiness.
“It’s getting late in the day, and I’m famished.” Robert smiled with a casual sigh he hoped would help the young man feel at ease. “Will you eat a burger, too?”
“Sure. I guess so.” Kevin frowned as he tried to guess what angle Robert tried to work with his kindness.
“Don’t worry. I will cover it.” Robert smiled as if he understood what Kevin thought of him.
Kevin eased a little as he glanced around the diner again. “This is a neat little cafe.”
“This is the best diner in the county.” Robert boasted. “It has been here a long time. There is a lot of history contained within these walls. A little older woman named Anne Tidmore established it a long time ago, back before the power companies ran electric lines out to the rural areas. When she retired from running it, she sold it to a man who turned into an auto parts store. Her great-grandson bought that business and restored the café to its original design.”
“You sure know a lot about this place.” Kevin remained wary behind his amazement.
Robert smiled. “When I was a young man, a few years younger than you, I worked one of the crews that ran power out here. We ate at Miss Annie’s a lot.”
“There are not many people here,” Kevin observed.
“Not many people know that it has been turned back into a café, yet.” Robert conceded.
Kevin, suddenly embarrassed by the loud growl of his hungry stomach, quipped, “It certainly smells good.”
“It does smell delicious.” Robert agreed as he motioned to a server. “Hey, sweetheart, we are ready to order.”
“I know this might sound goofy,” Kevin paused with nervous apprehension, “but...why are you being so nice to me?”
Robert’s friendliness faded into a serious expression. “When I saw you at the site of the wreck earlier, I thought I saw something.”
Kevin felt uncertain whether he wanted to proceed. “Like what?”
It was Robert’s turn to tremble with uneasiness. “It was something that I didn’t expect.”
Kevin suddenly felt trapped. “Mr. Murchison...”
Robert looked deep into Kevin’s eyes. “You never forgot about him, did you?”
Kevin felt ashamed of his weakness. “That does not mean anything.”
“But you still think about Robbie?” It was more of a statement than a question. Robert seemed to be reaching for something within Kevin’s protective shell.
Kevin tried to hold on to his remorse. “Most of the time…I don’t want to forget him.”
Robert sat back in his chair and glanced out the window contemplating something. Kevin wondered if he should leave or respectfully wait for the attack. Robert turned back around to look upon the young man with the same unmistakable compassion, to which Kevin did not know how to react.
Robert smiled as fond memories worked their way into his eyes. “Do you remember the campouts that we all used to go on? You and Robbie were closer than brothers could ever be. You would both climb into the trees and chase each other through the branches like little squirrels.”
Kevin’s apprehension eased as he smiled at the memory himself. “We were quite small. It was easy to move through the branches.”
Robert took on a more serious tone of voice. “Do you remember the time that Robbie got lost?” He was desperate to reach out to the same Kevin he had known long before the accident.
“Yes, sir,” Kevin widened his eyes, surprised that the attack he anticipated was not going to materialize. “We were eight or nine.”
Paul and Robert led the way into the small clearing in the forest. Their boys, Kevin, Robbie, and Mark, carried camping equipment from the trail to the campsite. Paul was hard-nosed at that time of Kevin’s life, demanding and sometimes harsh with his sons. Both younger boys had not reached nine and were always looking for mischief to enter. Mark, at eleven, had begun to assert himself as the leader of their gang.
Paul started to work, dividing responsibilities between the boys. “Hey, boys, let’s go ahead and set up the tents before it gets dark.”
Robert had always been kind and easy-going. “Let them play for a bit, Paul. They have been cooped up in the back of the wagon all afternoon.”
Paul tried to argue his point. “It will not take long if we all work together.”
Kevin and Robbie followed each other around, checking out the campsite. They could hardly contain their excitement. If it was not some kind of strange bug that caught their short attention spans, it was the discovery of a really cool looking rock. Mark worked with Paul to arrange camp gear.
“Hey!” Kevin shouted with excitement, “There is another trail over here!”
“Get over here and help me unfold the tent!” Paul scolded.
“Can I check out the trail, Dad?” Robbie was always ready for an adventurous activity.
Robert almost approved. “You cannot go by yourself, Robbie. We don’t know this park as well as the other one.”
“Do it now, Kevin!” Paul demanded severely.
“But...” Kevin countered with a sense of injustice.
Paul struggled to keep his anger in check. “Don’t backtalk me!”
Kevin lowered his eyes. “Yes sir.”
Paul looked at everyone, who stared back at him in stunned disbelief and silence. Apologies did not come easy for him, and he could only react to his angry outburst with silence. Little Kevin, defeated and deflated, walked over and helped his father unfold the tent with exaggerated sighs. Robert shook his head after he looked upon Paul with consternation.
There was only a moment of silence as the party opened their tents and set them up. Kevin did his best to help, but he was more in the way than anything else, and that exasperated Paul. Robert stepped up in front of the boys to draw Paul’s attention away from them.
Robert looked upon Paul with gentle understanding and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Paul...They are just children. Let them play. We could probably get these tents up faster without them in the way.”
Paul nodded reluctantly and let out a long sigh, feeling terrible for his treatment of the boys. Kevin walked up and grabbed his hand. He nudged the little boy on the shoulder, the only way he knew how to show that everything was all right.
“Daddy?” Kevin asked in a soft voice laced with much respect.
Paul managed a smile despite his feeling of guilt. “It’s okay, Kevin. I have been under a lot of stress lately. You can go to play.”
“Thank you.” Kevin turned to walk away but looked upon his father with great concern as he joined Robbie and Mark on their quest to explore the trail.
“Stay together.” Robert encouraged the boys. “Don’t wander off the trail until we all know these parts, boys. Don’t go off on your own, either.”
“Okay, Daddy.” Robbie replied cheerfully.
After the boys disappeared down the trail, the two men found it much easier to get the tents up in a semi-circle around the spot where there would be a campfire later. Robert set out two chairs and motioned for Paul to sit. He then seated himself. Paul sighed as he finally allowed himself to relax, although he tried not to appear tired and worn.
Robert never took his eyes off Paul. “You want to tell me what’s going on?” he began with gentle prying.
“I’m sorry, Robert.” Paul spoke slowly due to his damaged pride. “It’s getting to me.”
“Is Carla’s multiple sclerosis is acting up again?” Robert asked with concern.
Paul sighed as he rubbed his eyes. “She cannot regularly work anymore. Every effort that she tries makes the attacks just that much worse.”
Robert felt empathy for his friend. “That is a shame.”
“I don’t mean to take it out on the boys.” Paul spoke with sincerity. The instant he had snapped at Kevin, he regretted it.
Robert nodded slightly. “You need something other than those two boys to vent out your frustrations.”
“Maybe I should start wood splitting.” Paul offered weak humor.
Robert shrugged his shoulders. “I was thinking more along the lines of hiking or some other kind of physical activity.”
“Splitting wood is a very physical activity.” Paul quipped.
“And violent,” Robert raised an eyebrow. “A walk through a natural environment, enjoying God’s wonderful creation, would help you out in more ways than you think. My doc says that it has helped my heart tremendously.”
“I just had a check-up.” Paul dismissed the emphasis Robert placed on the last sentence. “My doctor said everything was okay.”
“For now,” Robert agreed partially, “but all that stress You’re under is going to eat your lunch one of these days.
Paul looked toward the trail, eager to change the subject. “You think the boys will be okay?”
“Let them be kids a little while longer,” Robert added casually. “I can still hear Robbie. You know how excited he gets over new discoveries.”
There was a brief awkward silence before Paul continued with a genuine interest. “How is the store?”
“Great!” Robert sat back with a smile of pride as immense as the state in which he lived. “Real great! I am even getting people over from Louisiana ever now and then.”
“How can you afford to keep your doors open with such low prices?” Paul asked.
“It’s the people that I care about.” Robert shrugged his shoulders as if money meant nothing to him. “Right now, I am clearing enough to keep the lights on and getting the shelves restocked. Most of these folks around here don’t have enough money to go to a doctor, much less buy groceries. By doing this for them, it’s my way of serving both God and my fellow man.”
Paul noticed that the boys were already returning. “You have not been off for a trip like this in a long time.”
“I have been meaning to.” Robert looked around for Robbie. “Where...”
“Hey, Daddy!” Kevin laughed exuberantly. “Did you know that armadillos jump straight up in the air real high? Mark fell down on his bottom because of it.”
Mark had his ego wounded, and he growled at Kevin. “I did not! I was just sitting down to rest for a minute!”
During the conversations, no one noticed Robert get up to look around for Robbie, who did not return with the other two boys.
Paul struggled to contain his glee. “Were you trying to chase the pitiful thing?”
Mark began to get excited, as well. “No, but Robbie was trying to catch it, though.”
“It was funny. Mark almost had the armadillo by the tail, and then it jumped, and he fell right on his...” Little Kevin could not stop laughing, even as he looked around for his best friend to back him up.
Mark doubled his fist in Kevin’s face and sneered. “Shut up, loser!”
“You shut up!” Kevin always overlooked the size difference between the two of them.
“BOYS!” Paul commanded with a sharp tone that alerted them to the danger of repercussions.
Robert’s concerned voice interrupted the brief silence. “Where is Robbie?” He asked both the youngsters with obvious worry.
It was late evening, and the trail through the forest was getting dark. Robert and Paul took the lead, with Kevin and Mark walking down the path behind looking for Robbie. The light was growing dim overhead, and the shadows in the forest undergrowth deepened into blackened doom.
“He was right behind me.” Mark tried to alleviate his feelings of guilt.
“Robbie!” Robert called as he worked hard to hide his desperation. “Where do you think he went? Robbie!”
Paul looked around the undergrowth for signs of any animal activity. “My guess is that he might have followed the armadillo down the path.”
Robert talked without taking his eyes off the surrounding forest. “It’s getting too dark.”
Paul took charge of the situation out of concern. “Don’t panic. He could not have gone far.” He appeared to be annoyed when he glanced down at his youngest son and saw a quivering lip with small hands rubbing at his eyes. “Stop crying, Kevin.”
Kevin sobbed aloud with genuine fear. “But Mark said there was bears and wolves in the forest and that Robbie and I was snack-sized.”
Paul suppressed an urge to laugh with a scold. “Stop teasing your little brother, Mark.”
Mark was quick to pick up his father’s hidden laughter and leaned in closer to Kevin. “But It’s true!” He teased.
“N-o-o-o!” Kevin cried in terror as every shadow in the forest suddenly became a threat. “I don’t want my Robbie to get eaten by a bear!”
“Stop that right now, Kevin!” Paul barked harshly. “You are eight years old now...not two.”
“Yeah, you little baby.” Mark mocked. “The bears may eat you instead.”
Paul threw a threatening glare at Mark. “You’re not helping! Leave him alone!”
Kevin feared the worst. “Robbie is my only bestest friend.”
Robert halted their progress for a moment as he kneeled on the trail. “Come here, Kevin.” He spoke softly, understanding the boy’s fears. “You can ride on my shoulders and help me look for Robbie.”
Kevin felt some measure of relief and approached Robert eagerly. Paul scowled at Mark when he rolled his eyes at his little brother for getting preferential treatment. Robert reached down and secured Kevin upon his shoulders.
“There you go, Kevin.” Robert added with gentle reassurance. “Now we can search for Robbie better.”
“Wimp.” Mark whispered under his breath as he glared at Kevin.
Paul held a warning finger in Mark’s face. “Hush!”
Kevin exhibited new bravery with the confidence that a bear would not take on an adult. “Robbie!” he called from his high perch.
“Robbie.” Mark copycatted in singsong mockery.
Paul grabbed Mark by the shoulder hard. “You shut your mouth now before I shut it for you!”
Mark fell respectfully silent and rubbed his shoulder when Paul let go. Sullen, he turned to look ahead, focusing his attention on the task to soothe his wounded pride. He started looking around the forest for signs of the lost boy as the light from the evening faded from the trees' tops.
“Robbie!” Robert suppressed his panic as best he could, but everyone knew he was the one most worried.
“I don’t think we are going to find him.” Kevin whined with apprehension.
“Sure, we will.” Robert said to encourage them both. “He will be fine.” He could not help becoming gradually more desperate as the night was setting in, though.
Paul sensed the urgency, and Mark respected the seriousness of the situation. Kevin did his best to remain hopeful.
Robert, his voice strained with fear, continued to call out. “Robbie. Where are you, son?”
Paul suppressed his concern. “It is getting so dark I cannot see in front of me.”
“We are never going to find him, are we?” Kevin was whining again.
“It’s okay, Kevin.” Mark decided to act like a protective big brother. “I’m sure he is around here somewhere.”
“It’s Daddy, Robbie! Answer me, son!” Robert strained to listen for the slightest sound of a child’s whimper. “You don’t have to be afraid! I’m not mad at you.”
Paul was not willing to give in yet, but he realized they needed help. “We need to get the park rangers in to help.”
Robert did not want to leave. “Why not take the boys with you and go back to get help? I will keep looking for him.”
Kevin clutched tight to Robert. “I don’t want to go back. I want to help find my Robbie.”
“Mark and I can go back if you don’t mind Kevin staying with you.” Paul placed a comforting hand on Kevin. “He can be an extra set of eyes for you. Take my flashlight, Kevin.”
“Go on then.” Robert patted Kevin’s legs comfortingly. “We will keep looking until you get back with help.”
Paul and Mark struck back for camp while Robert and Kevin continued searching the trail and underbrush. A minute or so of searching passed. Kevin stopped riding on Robert’s shoulders when the tree branches reached lower into the path, but he kept a firm hold of the man’s hand. He did not want to get lost, too. The two of them approached a fork in the trail. Robert had a moment of indecision before starting down the one to the right. Kevin started to follow him but stopped when he thought he heard something in the opposite direction.
“Come on, Kevin.” Robert urged, pulling the child along with him.
Kevin was hesitant, unsure about what he should do. “I thought I heard something.”
“What is it?” Robert strained to listen. “I cannot hear as well as youngsters can.”
“I think it's Robbie.” Kevin nearly struck off to the left trail with excitement. “I think he’s crying!” His voice filled with both worry and hope.
“Are you sure?”
Robert turned to follow Kevin down the other trail, encouraging the child onward. He did not like where they were going, and they could have taken either route at that point. Kevin pulled the man down the trail at a brisk pace as the boy forgot the fear of bears and the dark over his friend's welfare. He did not know that the path ended at a ravine. Robbie’s crying became more audible as they moved closer to him.
“Robbie?” Robert hoped that his son was not hurt.
Kevin cried with an excited voice. “Robbie, where are you?”
They stumbled into a dead end where the forest closed in around the trail and halted further progress. The lost boy was somewhere ahead of them, enclosed by the dark and forbidding forest. His crying had led them remarkably close. Robert and Kevin both played their flashlights into the dense undergrowth where they thought Robbie might be.
“Follow the light to us, Robbie!” Robert said with desperate hope. “It’s Daddy!”
For a while, the only sounds they could hear were the desperate sobs of the little boy as he tried to find his way to them. Then a few twigs snapped as Robbie began to emerge from the forest.
“Daddy!” Robbie stumbled out of the brush crying as he reached for his father.
Robert scooped up Robbie in his arms and held him protectively. He looked the little boy over for any cuts or bleeding, then kneeled so that Kevin could join them in the embrace.
Robert calmed his son by kissing and hugging him close. “It’s okay, Robbie. It is all over. You’re safe now.” He smiled as he ruffled Kevin’s hair. “You found him, Kevin. No one else could have heard his crying down in this ravine.”
Robbie wiped his eyes dry as he tried to gain composure. “I could not see anything around me. I was scared.”
Robert sighed with relief. “Well you’re safe with me again. Let us get back to camp so the others will not be worried.”
Robbie offered a grateful hug to his best friend. “Thank you, Kevin.” He said after an amicable kiss. “You’re my best friend.”
“You’re the bestest friend I have in the whole world.” Kevin smiled with a sheepishly giggle as he returned the affection.
Robbie countered with, “You’re the best bestest friend in the whole universe.”
Robert laughed heartily. “Come on, boys. We need to get back before the raccoons eat our supper.”
The three of them started back up the trail heading for camp. Robert was in the middle, and one boy was on each side, holding his hands. The boys used their flashlights to chase away any woolly boogers from the forest dark.
Kevin and Robert wrapped up their meal. The younger man relished the hamburger but still felt wary of Mr. Murchison’s intentions. The man was holding on to something that he struggled over. Robert appeared ready to break down at times over the sentimental memories. He seemed able to maintain his composure, though. Kevin was troubled over the man’s lack of anger toward him.
“You were quite the little hero that night.” Robert complimented.
Kevin chuckled at another old memory. “I can still remember the look of jealousy on Mark’s face.”
“You saved Robbie’s life that night.” Robert wanted to reveal his true intentions to Kevin. “He could have died from exposure.”
Kevin refused to let go of his guilt. “But then I took it eight years later.”
“Yes, you did,” Robert nodded with solemn agreement. “Come on. I will take you back to Paul.”
The two men finished off their drinks. Kevin felt a little ashamed as Robert motioned for him not to pull out his wallet. The older man paid the tab, and the two of them walked out of the café together. He was too near an emotional breakdown as he and Kevin entered the car. He gripped the steering wheel to maintain control over himself. Kevin was unsure what he should do as he struggled with his demons to keep them at bay.
“Robbie meant a lot to me.” The older man’s painful emotions inflected his voice.
Kevin shifted with unease as he placed his seatbelt over his lap. “He was important to many people.”
Robert turned to Kevin. “That is probably why Mark is having such a challenging time with you being back at home.”
Kevin gazed at the man with a puzzled look. “How did you know?”
Robert forced a tight smile to his lips. “Paul and I may not be spending as much time together as we did in the old days, but we still talk to each other. Good friends will never let their friendships end.”
Kevin paused, searching for deep insight before pressing on. “So…are you going to answer my first question?” He glanced into the backseat and noticed a mound of file folders and documents scattered across it.
Robert slowly nodded as he looked out the front window and waved to the server exiting the diner. “You and Robbie were so close growing up…so much like brothers.” He wiped away a vagrant tear. “Although I lost my son in that wreck, I always felt…” The words escaped him briefly, and he had to look to Kevin to continue. “When I saw you at the site of the wreck, I knew.”
“Knew what?” Kevin braced himself as he expected an angry outburst directed at him to unleash finally.
“It’s time to bring closure to Robbie’s life.” Robert conceded with finality but no anger.
Kevin shook his head with confusion as his unwarranted defenses deflated. “I don’t understand.”
Robert smiled peacefully. “It’s an olive branch, Kevin.”
Kevin continued to shake his head with nervous apprehension. “I’m sorry…I still don’t follow you.”
Robert’s smile faded into deep expressiveness. “The friendship you and Robbie had was unique beyond comprehension. You boys should have been brothers. He used to mimic everything you did. You would mimic him, too. The two of you were quite a pair.” He laughed softly. “If you got sick at school, Robbie would be right behind you in the nurse’s office…complaining of the same bellyache. If he hated one of the rides at the county fair, you would not ride it, either.” His serious attitude returned. “I used to be angry…so much that it made me sick. Robbie was our life…our pride and joy…ripped away from us just when his mother and I were getting used to his teenage years. My anger directed at you at first.”
Kevin felt the sting of Robert’s words as the expectation of an angry barrage returned. “Because it was my car that he died in…a wreck that was my fault.”
“See?” Robert trembled as if he was revealing the most crucial thing in the world. “That is exactly what I’m getting at!” He gently pulled Kevin’s attention into what he was trying to explain. “You haven’t forgiven yourself for what happened.”
“Mr. Murchison,” Kevin felt more uncertainty about where the conversation was going, “I don’t need forgiveness.”
Robert probed deep into Kevin’s soul. “Yes, you do.”
Kevin tried to maintain a tenacious hold on his guilt. “I killed my best friend.”
Robert sat back in his seat and glanced out the window, contemplating a different tactic. Kevin wondered if he should leave at that moment, but the man turned to look at him again.
“Do you still consider him your best friend?” Robert asked simply.
“Yes.” Kevin had realized that no one else, not even Lassiter, had been able to take Robbie’s place away from his heart.
“Robbie has been waiting for you to forgive yourself.” Robert exhibited a more earnest attitude than he had previously.
Kevin could not believe he heard right. “What?”
“Robbie’s spirit is still around us. His soul is wandering because he knows how you are hurting.” Robert spoke as if he believed what he was saying but seemed a little crazed. “He will not be able to move on until you have forgiven yourself.”
Kevin shook his head, vehemently stating, “I should have died in that accident instead of Robbie.”
“That is why I am ready to forgive you.” Robert pleaded for Kevin to understand. “I know that you still have a heart buried under that tough shell. If Robbie were still alive, the two of you would still be best friends.” He stressed to drive his point home. He did not want Kevin to give up. “Robbie is still alive in you…his goodness of character…his mannerisms…his values. If you let these people run you out of town…” He stressed the loss he would feel with a desperate gesture. “You will take away the remnant of my son from me and leave me with nothing but pain.”
Kevin felt the full weight of Robert’s words sinking in. “I had no idea.”
Robert relaxed somewhat when he sensed he hit home with what he had been trying to say. “I’m not worried about what anyone else thinks…I just want my son to be at peace.”
Kevin looked at Robert for a few moments in silence. Something was wrong with Mr. Murchison, but he could not put his finger on it. The man smiled and patted him on the shoulder with the same affection he had experienced when he was eight, then started the car to drive away.
Continue to read Kevin's Homecoming - Chapters 18 and 19
- Kevin's Homecoming - Chapters 18 and 19
After having escaped prison, Pablo Sanchez determines to locate Kevin and exact his revenge. However, his first stop is a return home to Houston to take care of some business. Raul had ratted him out to the authorities. Now it was time for retributio