Will Graves lay fatigued in the wheelbarrow. His legs limply hanging from the sides as he listened to the pattering rain meld with his father whistling his old worn out tune. Will had lost any track of time long ago. The family had left Home behind as soon as his father had seen the extent of Will’s injury. His splinted leg no longer hurt so sharply, unless the wheelbarrow struck a hole, or he was jostled too much. Despite his weariness from the pain, Will could see the strain in his father’s determined expression and the worry in his mother’s eyes. He felt his own unease rising within himself the moment they passed beyond the farthest reaches of the only land he had ever known.
After hours of trudging through forest, Will welcomed the smooth paved surface of a road. He was surprised how wide and flat the surface was. He had only ever known narrow rutted dirt paths used by their cattle and work horses. Even so, his father’s whistle became more strained and broken despite his visibly eased effort in pushing his teenaged son.
Suddenly, his mother gasped. The wheelbarrow stopped moving. Will looked up to see his mother clutching his father’s arm. Father steadied her with a firm grip, his whistle faltered and only the light sound of rain persisted. Will followed their gaze along the road ahead. He could see two bright lights shining in the distance.
His unease grew alongside his excitement at the prospect of what approached, nearing so unhurriedly. Will thought his mother was nearing a state of panic as a car slowed and stopped next to the family. The window rolled down to reveal a concerned face of a young man inspecting Will and his parents. He cheerily greeted them in what appeared to be some form of sign language. He continued motioning emphatically with them. After a few moments, his eyes widened, and he cleared his throat. He began to speak aloud -clearly.
“Um… You guys okay? What…” His puzzled expression glanced down the roadway ahead of him, then returned to the weary family.
“Where’d you come from?...” He muttered to himself with a sense of confusion. He shook his head, then noticed the splint on Will’s leg, dumbfounded.
Father stepped forward, sternly greeting the driver, “Sir, we do not intend to intrude upon your day. But could I ask you to contact emergency medical services for my son, Will. He has broken his leg, and his injury is beyond my own ability to care for it.”
Shocked, the driver gathered himself, “Oh, never mind all that! Let’s get you into the back seat, and I’ll drive you guys into town myself!”
Will sat quietly in the back seat with his legs stretched across the space, resting on his mother’s lap. With wonder, he peered at the immaculately maintained interior of the vehicle. Mother fretted with the dirty splint, attempting to appear calm.
The man noticed her anxiety and said, “Don’t worry about the dirt, ma’am. I was coming back from the beach myself. The dealership will just clean it out after I return the car anyway. I like driving these things every once in a while, but after a day, my legs miss my trusty steed of a bike.”
He chuckled, noted Father’s grim expression, and returned his eyes to the road ahead. He cleared his throat and quieted down, settling into the drive. Soon, though, his curiosity overwhelmed the silence, and he began again.
“My name is Donald, by the way.” He looked back at Will in the rear-view mirror. “How old are you, young man? Ten? Eleven?”
Father answered quickly, sparing a glance back toward Will, “He’s sixteen. Pleased to meet you Donald. I’m Jake Graves. My wife’s name is Mel, or Amelia, and this is Will. He broke his leg tending to one of our horses. Again, I thank you for giving us a ride to town…” He paused and almost winced as he went on, “I can pay you for your troubles, I assure you.” He said with a note of finality. He began to dig in a pocket of his overalls, pulling out a tightly bound roll of green papers wrapped in a drybag.
Curiously, Donald continued, “Pay me? With what?...” His brow furrowed, and he glanced at Jake. “Where did you guys say you were from?...” Then quickly, “No matter! There’s no need to pay me. You guys needed a lift to a hospital. Period. I’m just glad you didn’t have to push Will all those miles into town in your rusty cart!”
Somewhat confounded, Jake attempted to insist. But Donald did not let Jake speak again as he continued to describe his day at the beach, oblivious of Will’s wide-eyed wonder in the back seat.
Will found himself pleasantly surprised by the friendly nature of Donald. He was not at all how his parents had described people of the outside world. Not that they had ever really described people outside Home. Will had always figured the world would look like a series of homesteads, like his own, stretching on in every direction. Will was also very confused by the discussion of money, as there had never been a need for money at Home. Where had Father gotten all that money?
Will was interrupted from his thoughts by the sensation of the car slowing down. He had never experienced anything like this car. He traveled so very quickly, though he felt no sense of the wind blowing past him. He felt a disconnect from the familiar sounds of the outdoors. Despite the trees whizzing past his window, Will had no feeling of motion at all, unless the car turned or slowed down rapidly.
Soon, the car approached the outskirts of civilization.
“This is the town of Brendham… Not sure if you guys know that or not.” Donald muttered awkwardly. The Graves’ did not hear this last remark.
All the family’s eyes were affixed in wonder to their new surroundings.
Will was in awe of everything at once. The different structures of homes, many much larger than his own, were in such clean condition. The homes were well spaced from each other, separated by elaborately maintained gardens. By looking closely, he immediately recognized the familiar shape of a large poultry pen alongside a larger utility building. He eagerly picked out similar setups in every neighborhood he passed. He was fascinated to see the occasional car pass by from the opposite direction. These cars remained on what appeared to be main roads, as cheerily decorated neighborhood entrances blocked vehicle access. Will excitedly watched these entrances abuzz with people walking, and riding bicycles, as they continued about their daily lives. He gathered a distinct sense of calm purpose and deliberate order in everything he saw.
Jake was in shock. What is going on here? This can’t really be happening. He looked over and looked at Amelia who wore the same look of surprise.
Donald began, “So, we’re about to arrive at the hospital. I’ll help get Will out of the car, if you want to run in and gather some helping hands.”
Jake shook his head, suddenly recalling the purpose of their fateful visit to the outside world.
Donald and Amelia carefully assisted Will from the car as Jake ran into the hospital’s lobby. Will’s pain worsened with the movement from the car, despite being overwhelmed by the expansive space of the hospital. This was the largest building he had ever seen. As he settled into a wheelchair, a tall, middle-aged man, with a greying mustache, ran out to greet the family.
“Welcome, Will! I’m Dean Purcell. I’ll be your care giver today! Looks like you busted yourself up pretty badly by the looks of your leg. Let’s get you inside. We have a room ready for you.”
Donald managed to grab Jake by the arm and wish them well in their recovery.
“I have to get the car back to the dealership before it gets too late, but I’ll be back hopefully before you guys are gone. I’m excited to get to know you all more and see Will getting better! But don’t let me stop you. Take care!”
Donald hopped back into the car and drove off as unhurriedly as he had met them.
With the wheelchair at the ready, Dean nodded to Jake and ushered the family directly to a care room.
“How about we get this dressing off?” Leaving Will in the wheelchair, he carefully unraveled the damp, dirty cloth to reveal Will’s deformed, swollen shin. Will felt lightheaded at the sight of it.
“At least the bones didn’t poke through the skin anywhere.” He said as much to himself as to the family. “We’ll have to have a radiological exam to see the extent of your injury and see if you need surgery or not.”
He looked up to see Will’s pale, wincing face, then to Amelia and Jake’s concern.
“Oh my goodness, I am getting ahead of myself. This must be so painful! Let me think. We’ve got many options for pain relief for youngsters like yourself. Let’s start with putting this leg up on the bed here to help keep swelling down. I’ll go get an ice pack and some medicine for you. I’ll be right back.”
He patted Will on the shoulder and flashed a good-natured smile as he stepped out the door, closing it behind him.
Amelia fell into Jake’s arms and began crying instantly as the pent-up stress and anxiety poured out of her.
“What’s going on here, Jake? What happened to this place? Things aren’t what we thought…”
Jake clutched her against his chest and stroked her hair.
“There, there. Mel, I’m asking myself the same questions. I don’t understand it. Everything was falling apart at the seams…” He shook his head and held her sobbing head as she calmed down.
Will sat in complete confusion listening to the conversation of his parents play out before his eyes. He sensed far reaching implications riddled amongst their words. Their discussion reached beyond his realm of understanding, his mind was struggling to completely grasp this world.
Jake’s eyes finally rested on his son and softened.
“Mel… Will.” He said. She turned from his embrace to face her son, who sat, bewildered before her.
“I’m… sorry…” She said and excused herself from the room, ashamed and confused.
Jake took a step to stop her, but quickly thought better of it.
He stood squarely in front of Will and averted his eyes. Will watched his Father’s firm stance weaken, his resolve shaken by the world around him. Will saw his Father’s vulnerability for the first time. This monumental man, who had worked so tirelessly, given years of his life to the development of the Graves’ family Home, stood defeated. Suddenly, Will realized he would never recapture the security of their quiet, secluded Home again. Will’s heart dropped, a great loss swept over him, and the two remained in silence, unable to find the right words.
Amid their silence, the door unlatched and swung open to show Dean pushing a small tray table with assorted items on top.
“It seems we can find no record of you guys on the computer…” He said, opening some packages with his back to them. “Curious. The system has never had this issue before. I have the I.T. guys doing their best to find your files- shot records, medical history, allergies. That sort of thing. No need to worry. It wouldn’t even matter if you were from another continent. You know, the integrated system universally shares files around the world…”
Dean turned around with a pill cup in one hand and a cup of water in the other. He observed Will sullenly staring at the open door and Jake slouching in the corner and blinked.
“Oh? Where’s Amelia?” He said curiously.
“She went to find a restroom. Or… Maybe a phone to call her family…” Jake said with a faint realization in his eyes.
“Ah, I see. You guys made quite a trip from… out by the coast, was it? Did your car break down or something?” He said casually, acknowledging their messy wardrobe.
Jake sat slouched on the counter, staring blankly at the floor, his diminutive presence gone. Will dazedly looked up to meet Dean’s concerned look.
Dean started, “Well… I have some pain medications for you. Here you go.”
He proffered them to Will’s grimy hands, who halfheartedly chewed the pills and bitterly swallowed them with the water. He handed the cup back to Dean.
Dean’s brow furrowed, confused at Will’s manner of taking the pills.
“You don’t have to chew those, for future reference. You just swallow them whole…” He sat on the stool and rolled around to regard Will’s face.
“Where did you guys come from?”
Will blankly responded, “We came from Home.”
“Home?” Dean considered Will’s matter of fact answer. “Where is that?”
With reference to what? It’s just Home. Will thought. Why does it matter where my Home is?
Dean, calmly, “Do you have an address? What address do your parents get their Soil sent to?”
Silent to this point, Jake perked up at this last statement. “Soil? What does that even mean?”
Will looked curiously at Dean, who raised his eyebrows. Dean’s mind adding up the story, he stood and approached Jake directly.
“Where are you from? How could you possibly not know what Dawson’s Oil is?”
Jake’s own eyes grew large and he burst out laughing.
“Is that what this is all about? Dawson’s Oil did all this?! The Oil stuff was just some hair brained health craze! Governments, economies… SOCIETY was falling apart! I took my family and got the hell out of town! We’ve been living up in the coastal mountain range miles from the nearest hiking trails…” He shook his head in derision. “Dawson’s Oil! You have got to be kidding me!” He continued laughing at the preposterous idea.
Dean, dryly, “I assure you, Jake. This is no joke.”
He stepped forward. “So… you are not taking Soil… Sorry- Dawson’s oil- right now? Has Will even received his childhood immunizations? How long have you been gone?”
“We took off when he was three months old. He’s never been vaccinated, not any more than what he might have had when he was born.”
Will gasped in shock. His life suddenly seemed like such a strangely distant experience, as if happening to somebody else. He felt he had aged ten years in a day.
Dean paused, seeing the distress thrown upon the young man. His gaze returned to Jake.
“Okay. I’ve already spoken with the staff here, and we have several options for housing for as long as you guys need. So, there is no need to worry. Further, there is nothing for you to be ashamed of in all this. You are always going to be your own toughest judge. In that, don’t forget to allow yourself some forgiveness as well. You made your decision based on what you thought was best. For your family. With the best intentions and to the best of your ability. I see nothing but honor and respect with your life’s choices. Out of your struggle, I see an incredibly close-knit family and one strong kid over there. What else could you want? I commend you on the success of your life’s endeavors.”
He clapped Jake on the shoulder with a curt nod.
“Now, speaking of your tough young man-”
Dean stepped away from the stunned Jake and knelt before Will who was nearly to tears. He put a hand on Will’s shoulder, choosing his words deliberately.
“Hey, buddy. Will. Look at me for a second.”
Ashamed, Will complied.
“Don’t fall victim to this in your head. Okay? Only you can let that happen. Nothing here is your fault. You deserve none of this. Because nobody deserves anything. I don’t deserve my amazing wife or my son. To have lived this long, or so well. But I refuse to take this life for granted… This… This thing you are experiencing will give you such an incredibly unique perspective on my world. Fresh eyes, if you will. You may feel lost right now. But you will find your way- there’s no time constraint on that, either… In the meantime, just don’t give up. Never stop trying. You are so very important.”
Dean stood up straight, adjusted the stethoscope around his neck and smiled warmly.
Will coughed. He mustered a smile.
“Thanks…” He said with a cough, clearing his throat.
“Now, we’ll sort all this stuff out later! How about we get your leg examined? The radiology room is ready for you, and I’ll push you right over. Let’s go!”