by Grasshopper

Chapter 22

Five Years Ago

Angry metal screeching! Cries and commands! Sobbing! The smell of gasoline burning! Pain! Flying above the wreckage, soaring with the currents, Wes floated on the cool breeze and watched the scene below through black eyes, the eyes of the hawk.

He heard one of the paramedics call out, "I think we've lost him." Another voice yelled, "Get him out before the car blows."

It was so calm and peaceful up here, his wings stretched, catching the breeze, dipping and sailing above the treetops. He could just stay here; no worries, just the air, the clouds and......................

He felt intense pain in his chest as a shock almost bent him double. He tried to keep flying, but warm hands were pressing into him. "Again!" a voice cried.

Another gasping pain shot through him. He felt his body jump and fall back to the earth.

"Okay, we've got him."
"Blood pressure 190/98 and falling."
"Let's get him to the ER."

No more flying. No more silence. Loud sounds, people talking much too fast. Crying. The smell of blood and disinfectant. All he wanted was to fly.

Wes woke to the sound of beeping machines, the squeak of rubber soled shoes, and whispered voices. He just lay still, eyes closed, knowing he was in a hospital, knowing he almost died, knowing he needed Cole. A single tear tried to run down his face, but was stopped by gauze bandages. Lifting his right hand, he wiggled his fingers and they worked. Reaching up, he felt his face. There was bandage wrapped around his eyes and up. He tried to open his eyes, but something kept them shut. Just as he began to panic, a voice said cheerily," Hey, Sugar, you decide to wake up? I'm Nurse Annie and I've been waiting for you."

"I can't open my eyes," Wes choked out.

"DoctorTrent will be here in a few minutes, Sugar. He'll answer all your questions. Now let me get you some water. Wouldn't that taste good?"

The end result, as the doctor spoke, was that Wesley had miraculously escaped death. "I have to be truthful with you, son, you somehow escaped with your life. You had a special angel watching over you." An image of gold curls and bright blue eyes flashed in Wes' mind.

"You're right leg is broken in three places, your left knee is shattered and will have to be replaced. You have three broken ribs, a deep gash down your back, and all the fingers on your left hand are broken."

"My eyes, doctor?" His good hand went again to the bandages.

He felt the nurse put her hand comfortingly on his shoulder. Doctor Trent sighed, hating this part. "We're not sure quite what happened and a specialist is coming in from Boise, but as of now, there has been pupil fragmentation and your sight has been severely limited. There has been severe retina trauma."

"In English, doctor, please," Wes whispered.

"Until we can test your vision, we won't know for sure what your limitations are, but I can tell you that the iris and pupil of your eyes are black."

"Take the bandages off," Wes growled, his voice angry.

"But you don't understand, you have a head wound and we aren't sure what light will do to your vision."

"And you don't understand that my eyes are weird. Take this stuff off." He started tearing at the gauze.

Doctor Trent nodded to the nurse and Annie took gentle hold of Wes' hands. "Let me do it, Sugar." She unwound the strips of white until all that was left were patches over each eye and a long blood-encrusted, stitched gash above his left eyebrow running to the crown of his head. His hair had been shaved away to clear the area.

"Wes felt his face and said calmly, "Take these patches off too." he felt the cotton being removed, the fresh cool air touch his eyelids and he slowly opened his eyes.

Present Day

Wes had been living in the small room built onto the back of Annie Johnson's house ever since he had left the physical rehab place six months after the accident. They had become friends while she put him through his exercises and fussed at the cursing. Her husband had died the year before, leaving her with just her baby girl, and Annie wanted the company. Wes had told Annie his real name, but no one else.

"But I can't pay you anything, and until I can walk and use my hand, I can't work," Wes had argued.

"It's okay, Sugar, I'll let you owe me."

When the police couldn't find any identification on him or in the burned out wreck, they had asked his name so they could call relatives. Slowly, he had replied, "Billy Smith and I don't have any family." Wes would not have Cole come here to get him or take him home while he was broken.

He had no driver's license, no credit card, no cell phone; nothing that would identify him as Wesley Straihan. He just quietly blended into the background and helped Annie around the house as much as he could. The leg had mended with just a slight limp. The fingers of his left hand hurt on rainy days and he could only straighten them out halfway. The deep gash on his head had healed, his hair had grown back in and was now long again, but down the scar that ran from his left eyebrow to the crown of his head, from the hairline on up, Wes' hair was stone white. All in all, he could go home now. Go home to Cole and Lucas. Except for his eyes.

They remained black. The eye specialist had been baffled as to why the pupils and irises had combined to a deep black. Tests showed that Wes could see, but only in black and white and he suffered from severe headaches as if his eyes were trying to fix themselves.

At first, Wes had sketched on the edges of newspapers or napkins or paper Annie brought home from the hospital. "These are mighty fine pictures, Sugar," Annie would say as she looked over his shoulder.

One day, she handed him a new blank sketch pad, some number two pencils and a box of charcoals. "I want to see what you can really do, Sugar. Draw me some pretty pictures for my wall."

Wes began to draw, thinking how lucky he had been that it was his left hand he had smashed. If it had been his right hand, he'd never have drawn again.

He drew pictures of Annie washing the dishes, hanging out the wash, asleep in front of the TV. The pictures were all in coal black and pristine white, no color. He couldn't see color. He remembered the soft colors of the meadow by the cave, the vivid colors of the sandstone bluffs contrasting against the blue sky and mostly, Wes remembered the crystal blue of Cole's eyes, the tan of his skin and the coral pink of his lips. The continual Cole loop still played in his mind. He could hear Cole's laughter every time the wind blew and he could feel Cole's arms when the pain got to be too much.

"Tell me who that is you're always drawing, Sugar. He can't be that beautiful."

"Oh yes he can. That's Cole. He's..... he's my best friend," Wes sighed.

"Looks like he's a lot more than that, Child. Why aren't you where he is?"

And so, Wes told Annie the story, every word, leaving nothing out except the personal bits that were his and Cole's alone. When he was finished, Annie had tears flowing freely down her cheeks and hugged him tightly. "You've had a mighty tough go of it, haven't you, Child? Why don't you go home now? You're about as fixed as you're going to get."

Wes didn't have an answer; he only had this feeling. The feeling that something was getting ready to happen. It had carried him through the last year. "I think I will soon, Annie. I hope so."

Wes thought of Lucas every day, imagining what he must look like, how his laughter sounded, the kinds of questions he would ask, if he looked like Karl.

He drew pictures of what he thought Luc would look like and covered the walls of his small room with Cole and Lucas.

And sometimes, late at night when his leg was cramping and a headache tore at his eyes, he wondered if Cole still loved him.

It was in the summer of the fifth year that Wes came home from his job at the gas station to find Annie squealing with joy. "You're never going to believe what happened today, Sugar," she shouted, as she waved three twenty dollar bills in his face. "You sold a drawing."


"This car stopped and the lady asked if the young man lived here that had drawn the pictures that we gave the post office. She was driving through and stopped to mail a postcard, saw the drawings and wanted one. You made money today, Sugar."

Wes felt a grin crack across his solemn face. "Which one was it; do you know, Annie?"

"Yep, it was the sand hill cranes out around the waterhole. She told Mr. Cready at the post office that, if there were more, she'd like to see them. She was staying at the Bluffs Motel north of town. Some kind of magazine lady, I think."

The next morning, Annie left early for her shift at the hospital and drove out to the motel. Tapping on the door, she carried a folder of Wes' work under her left arm.

Wes was pumping gas into Mrs. Larabee's old Ford when the black Mercedes pulled into the station and a smartly dressed woman stepped out. "Wesley?" she called.

"Just a second, Ma'am," he answered. Finishing with Mrs. Larabee, he walked over and Claire Douglas introduced herself. "I'm part of the creative staff of Art For the World Magazine and we're always looking for fresh new talent. I'd like to see more of your work if I may, especially drawings of people. There's just something about your work. It's as if I can see past the drawing and into their hearts."

All the while Ms. Douglas was speaking, Wes kept his head down, nodding now and then. "What do you think? Will you show me more?"

Wes raised his face and she gasped, "Oh dear, I'm so sorry." She lifted one hand and touched his cheek, "Are you blind, Wesley?" her voice full of emotion. She took in the white streak in his hair.

"No," he shook his head, "I can see you, just in black and white. I've lost my colors."

Claire could see that Wesley didn't want to talk about what had happened, so she went on, "I love your work. If you have others like the ones Mrs. Johnson showed me this morning, I'm very interested in using them in the magazine's Bitterroot edition. We're featuring young faces in the art world from this area."

"Ah, it was Annie," Wes murmured.

When Claire drove away the next day, she took six of Wes' drawings with her; jet black and sterile white drawings of Annie playing the piano, the cave on the bluffs, Cole riding Whistler, a red tailed hawk in flight, Mercy sitting on the front steps of the old place and one of Cole and a young boy sitting on a split rail fence. Only in the one of Cole and Lucas, had he attempted any color. There, in the single feathers sticking out of the sweatbands of their cowboy hats, Wes had daubed a touch of red and in the third post from the right was hidden a capital 'C'.

As the weather began to turn, and the smell of fall leaves burning filled the air, Wes became more and more restless. It was time to go. Something told him to wait until the time was right. He'd know. All he wanted was Cole and Lucas and it was almost time. He gave the check Ms. Douglas had handed him for the drawings to Annie. "It's not half enough for what all you've done for me."

"You leaving me soon, Sugar?"

"I think so. I feel change coming."

December was a cold month there in the Bitterroot Valley. The snow sky looked bruised and the sound of geese honking in their Vs on their way south filled the air. "Christmas is almost here, Child," Annie said, tugging at the heavy sweater she wore around the old house to keep out the chill.

"Yes," Wesley sighed, "It's almost Christmas Eve."

Cole woke up. There was no noise, but he sat straight up in his bed and stared into the darkness of the hallway. His clock read 11:37. His bed faced the open door of Luc's room and the soft light glowed above the painting of the hawk's eyes above his bed. He couldn't see Luc, but he could feel him staring back; not at Cole but at the painting. "Luc," he called softly, "Want to come over here?"

He immediately heard the pattering of small bare feet as if Luc had just been waiting for him to call out. Pulling back the warm covers, his son climbed into the bed and cuddled up to Cole. "You okay there, little guy?"

Luc just snuggled closer and Cole could feel the tremors as they raced through the boy. Turning on the bedside lamp, Cole sat up and held Luc out away from him a few inches. "You feeling sick?" He put the back of his hand to Luc's forehead, but the child wasn't hot. Lifting Luc's chin gently with his hand, Cole he peered into his eyes. Gasping, he grabbed hold of Luc and hugged him tightly to his chest, rising from the bed quickly.

Running into the bathroom, he flicked on the light and sat Luc on the edge of the counter. "Look up here at me, Luc," Cole said, his heart catching in his throat. As the little boy raised his face to his daddy, there were no questions in his eyes. The bright crystal blue eyes he had had from the day he was born were gone. In their place, Lucas now had Wesley's eyes, eyes a glowing silver; the color of the mists on a storm-tossed sea.

"Are you okay, Luc? Did you feel this happening?"

Luc nodded his head up and down vigorously. He pulled his daddy's head down to his lips, like he always did when he pretended to tell a secret, but this time, he whispered, "Wes coming home, Daddy."

Wesley was dreaming. The hut at the cottonwood pond was burning. He struggled in his sleep, thrashing as the flames rose and the trees began to catch. He could hear Whistler whinnying, afraid of the smoke, and he could hear the sounds of music playing, sounds of fiddles and mandolins plunking out a mournful bluegrass song. As the fire reached the edge of the pond, he realized that there was no water in the pond; it was filled with diesel fuel.

"Get away from the edge! Get away from the edge!" he heard Cole screaming.

Just as the fire licked the first drop of fuel, Wes woke with a start and looked at the glowing digital clock by his cot. 11:37. It was twenty-three minutes until Christmas. He felt a burning in his head, and raising his hand to his eyes, he felt heat. Jumping up from the cot, he ran to the bathroom and stared in the mirror. The black had faded from his eyes. As he watched, they shaded from gray to the silver Cole had always loved. He spun around in a circle and saw the baby blue of the shower curtain, the pale yellow of the rug, the blue and white stripes of the towels hanging on the brass rods. He could see all the colors. His eyes were free. He could go home.

Luc didn't speak again. As much as Sarah and Albert coaxed him, the boy just smiled that lop-sided grin and shook his head. A few days after Christmas, Cole had stopped standing by the front window peering down the road. At first, he rode out on Angel, hoping Luc was right. That somehow the child knew. He rode to the highest bluff and stared out across the land just waiting. Then, he stood guard at the front window. Now, four days later, he was as restless as a big cat and twice as cranky. Asking Luc for the millionth time, "Did you mean what you said? Do you know?" Luc would nod his head rapidly and form the word 'Wes' silently with his lips.

Sarah got the mail from the mail box and sat down in her favorite chair to look at a new magazine she'd ordered. "Come sit with Grandma," she smiled and patted her chair. Luc climbed up and they began to 'discuss' the pictures.

As Sarah turned the pages of her latest copy of Art For the World, she saw the title, Gentle Hand of the Bitterroot, and began to read aloud. "Every once in a long while, we come upon a fresh new artist who seems to see through different eyes. We think you'll understand what we mean when you look at the next few pages." She flipped the page and let out a loud shriek.

"Cole, come here! These are Wesley's."

Cole grabbed the magazine and saw his face drawn with such love and care. Turning the page, he saw Mercy and the cave and then he saw the last one. There he was with Luc sitting on the old split-rail fence at the Harrelson's back pasture. "This is Wes. Where is he? What does it say?" He skimmed the words quickly, but the only information he could find was that the artist was named Billy Smith and he lived deep in the Bitterroot.

Luc took the magazine from Cole's hands and sat down on the floor. Holding the page open to the drawing of he and Cole on the fence, Luc traced the faces. Sarah, Albert and Cole watched as the boy touched the red feathers, one by one, looked up at his hat hanging on the peg and then ran his finger over the page until he found the 'C' hiding in the post. He turned sparkling eyes up toward the grownups and said clearly, "Wes drawed me."

"Oh my God!" Albert laughed, "Luc talked."

Wesley hugged Annie goodbye. "I'll come see you soon," he promised.

"Please take my car. It's freezing out here," she said again. "That's a long walk for you, Child."

Wes smiled, "I need to walk. I can hitch. I'll make it just fine. If I got here, I can get home. I'll sure miss you, my sweet Annie." One last hug, and as he pulled the straps tight on his backpack, Wes Straihan headed south. The tug was getting stronger and he was going home to Cole.

Cole couldn't sleep. He was leaving at first light in the morning. The call he'd made to the magazine had given him the name of the small town in Idaho where they had come across "Billy Smith." Cole had wanted to leave right away, but Albert convinced him to wait til morning. The roads were treacherous and Cole sure didn't want to have wreck, not now. "They will have plowed in the morning."

"Wes," he breathed, "I'm coming to get you. I don't care why you stayed away. You're coming home now."

As the weak pre-dawn light struggled through the windows, Cole jumped up and pulled on his clothes. In the kitchen, filling his backpack with bottles of water, the sandwiches his mom had made last night and a bag of Oreos, he poured steaming hot coffee into the thermos and went to say goodbye to Luc.

Luc was sitting on the floor in his room, struggling with the laces on his snow boots. He had dressed himself in his long thermal underwear, jeans, it looked like at least three sweatshirts and his bulky royal blue parka. The laces were tangled and he was pulling madly. "Whoa, son, what's going on?"

"Going," he spluttered.

"Oh, no you're not. It's too cold out there, little guy. You wait here with Grandma and Grandpa and I'll..............................."

"GOING!" Luc said loudly as he stood, tangled laces and all. "Wes!!"

Cole felt it. The air seemed to stand still. "Okay, maybe you're right."

There was so much going on that he couldn't understand, but maybe Luc did need to go with him.

Sarah and Albert stood at the back door watching the truck pull out onto the state road. Albert could hear Sarah whispering a little prayer softly and he added one of his own: "Please keep them all safe and watch over them. They, all three, deserve to be truly happy." Taking his wife's hand, Albert remembered the day long ago when he had taken the children to school that first morning and they had met Wesley Straihan. He knew then somehow that Wesley would be part of their lives, but he'd never thought it would be such a huge part and that there would have been so much heartbreak. He just prayed that this might be the beginning of their happy ending.

Wes had caught a ride with a truck driver from Portland on his way to St. Louis and gotten warm for a couple of hours. "I hate to leave you in this Godforsaken mess," the trucker said as he dropped Wes off at a truckstop, "But I'm turning east here."

"It's cool. Thanks for the ride," Wes said, pulling the edges of his wool watch cap further down on his ears. He walked to the edge of the highway and read the mileage signs: Sheridan 214 miles. Still a long way to go. He trudged into the dark night. The temperature had fallen to 5 below and within ten minutes, he couldn't feel his feet. Struggling with his backpack, Wes kept an image of Cole right behind his eyes. It couldn't end like this. Not after everything they'd been through. His steps faltered, but the image of Cole's beautiful crystal blue eyes shown out and he kept moving south, always south.

Cole had the radio on, the channel they'd been listening to fading as they traveled fast. "Luc, see if you can find another station."

Luc leaned forward, his seatbelt squishing his middle. He twisted the knob and a country station blared out an ad for Goody's Headache Powder, some country singer saying how she took one every time she got a headache and it goldurn sure did work.

"Well, for all you bronco busters and bull riders out there, here's an oldie goldie, but one of my all time favorite singers and songs. Give a listen to Old Willie singin' Angel Flyin' Too Close To the Ground."

Luc sat up. He looked up at Cole, his eyes shimmering with that silver light,

"Song." was all he said.

"Yes, that's my song for Wes." Cole had stopped asking Luc how he knew things.

"I patched up your broken wings..........
....... leave me if you need to,
I will still remember.........."

Cole felt a little finger reach up and touch the tears that were running down his cheeks. "It's okay, Kiddo, daddy's just happy cause we're going to find Wes." Luc patted him on the leg and laid his head against Cole's side.

Driving straight through, stopping at truck stops for food, neither Cole nor Luc had slept. The boy's head was beginning to nod, when suddenly, he sat up straight and pointed, "Wes! Daddy, Wes!!" Cole saw a solitary figure, half hidden by the snow that was falling steadily, trudging slowly along the edge of the road. If Luc hadn't said anything, Cole would have driven right on by. No one behind him, Cole eased on the brakes, pulled onto the shoulder and stared at the shape half hidden by the snow.

"Wes, Daddy! Wes!" Luc cried. "Daddy!!" he popped his seatbelt as he tried to open the door.

"Stay put, Luc. I mean it," Cole said firmly, his heart pounding so loudly he couldn't even hear his own words. He slid from the truck, hitting the ice packed road. Walking quickly toward the man, he saw that his head was down against the wind and ice and he was carrying only a backpack. This couldn't be Wesley.

"Wes?" he called. The figure stopped. "Wesley, is that you? It's me, Cole."

Cole watched as the man lifted his head and those oh so familiar eyes glowed out from under the black watch cap. It was....................

"Oh My God!!!! Wesley, come here, Darlin'. You're frozen solid. What in the fuck are you doin' out here in the middle of nowhere, freezing' your ass off? I oughta.........................."

Wes held out his arms and there was nothing left to yell about. Cole ran to him, pulling him close, closer. "Oh my God, it IS you. Luc said..... Jesus, we were coming for you."

Wes leaned in and kissed those beautiful lips he'd been dreaming about. Cole's lips. Cole. "I've missed you more than you'll ever know," he breathed into Cole's mouth.

They felt a sharp tug on both their jackets. "Daddy! Wes! Luc!" a little voice laughed. Wes looked down and looked into his own eyes. It was as if he was looking at himself eighteen years ago. "Lucas!" he sighed. Scooping Luc up in his strong arms, holding tightly to Cole and letting them both hug on with all their might, Wesley Straihan was finally home.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead