Below is the first chapter in my fourth novel, The Weight of Regret. I’m about halfway through the book at the moment. The story revolves around a man who finds his life hanging in the balance after an accident, and believing he has little time left, he pens letters to the family that he abandoned long ago hoping to bridge the gap of the decades since he disappeared.
John Lambert turned onto the long stretch of remote highway that circumnavigated the canyons of northern Arizona. The lights of the nearest town had long faded and the pitch black darkness swallowed his truck whole. He drove through the belly of the whale alone. He had seen few cars once he made the turn off the main artery that led north from Interstate 40, but he liked the isolation, he thrived on it. In fact, he had spent the last thirty years living in the canyons mostly in an old camper that he often towed behind his truck. He looked into his side mirror and searched for the camper in the faint glow of his tail lights. At first, his heart raced at the empty space behind his truck, but then, he remembered that he had left his camper behind when he ventured into Red Lake. He exhaled relief at the thought of his camper parked among the boulders deep in a canyon.
He had just turned sixty, and he chuckled to himself at how bad his memory had become. He couldn’t remember what he did just a few hours ago or what he intended to do in the next moment. He looked over at the yellow note pad jammed against the window on his dashboard. An old pen clung to the side of the pad, and the edges of the remaining pages were bent and worn. The corners of the pages that hung over the edge of the dashboard flapped lightly in the breeze from the vent on his console. He could hear the heater running low in the silence of his cab. He might not have good memory, but his hearing still worked fine. Besides, he had the note pad to remind him of things.
He flipped on the interior light switch and grabbed the pad. Another sigh of relief. He had scratched through a meager grocery list and the words “propane” and “gas” on the top page of the pad. He remembered putting the propane tanks in the back of his truck with the full gas cans. He had secured them with elastic bands so that they wouldn’t tip over and spill once he turned off the paved road and headed into the desert along the bumpy trail toward his camper. He pushed the note pad back into its spot above his center console. If only he could forget his old life as easily as he forgot the day’s chores. Things would be easier then.
John rubbed his eyes and wished away the burden of the day. The heater emitted a musty smell that comforted him like the smell from an old wood stove. A tiredness, so common in recent years, rushed over him, and although his camper was just a little more than thirty miles ahead, he suddenly felt he couldn’t make it. His eyelids grew heavy and his head bobbled in an instant. He shook his head to wake himself up, but the fog of exhaustion still hung over him like a heavy blanket. He thought about the sleeping bag in the back of his truck. He could pull over to the side of the road and climb into the back of his covered truck bed and sleep for a while. That would be safer than continuing down the long, dark road. Danger lurked on either side among the steep canyons that twisted and squeezed the narrow two-lane road. One haphazard turn of the wheel would send him careening down the face of an embankment to an almost certain death, especially with so much fuel in the back of his truck.
His head bobbed again and he shook himself to wake up. He felt down toward the cup holder between his seats and pulled the coffee tumbler to his mouth. He regretted drinking it the moment it hit his lips. Cold coffee. He wanted to spit it out, but he swallowed it anyway and pushed the cup back into the holder in disgust. The unsettling taste of old, cold coffee woke him up, at least temporarily. His stomach lurched. He hated cold coffee. He’d brew some more when he got back to his camper. It really didn’t help him stay awake anyway, but he loved the comfort of a nice, hot cup, one of the few luxuries he afforded himself in his spartan life.
The radio signal had faded not long after he left the glow of Red Lake. He scanned through the channels again hoping to find something, anything, to distract himself from his exhausted state. He lowered the driver’s window slightly. The wind rustled loudly through the crack in his window, and the cold air slapped his worn face. His unwieldy gray hair danced in the onslaught of the wind. He turned up the heater to counter the cold air, but his face remained chilly. He couldn’t leave the window down for the rest of the drive, but at least it would keep him awake for the time being.
Between the wind and the heater, John’s thoughts rattled around in his head as he sped down the lonesome highway toward his camper hidden deep in the canyons. He kept focused on the warmth and comfort of his camper and how good it would feel to lie down in his bed for the night. As usual, he had nowhere to go and no one to go to, so he could sleep as long as he wanted. He decided that he would sleep all day tomorrow. Why not? He had replenished his supplies and his current spot in the desert had been a godsend. He’d seen no one in the entire three months he’d been parked there. No nosy hikers and certainly no tourists. Tourists didn’t venture that far into the desert, especially during the winter. There had been no one to ask questions.
Back in 1980 when he first started roaming the remote stretches of northern Arizona, few hikers or tourists showed up around his many campsites. It was easier to disappear then because there was no Internet or intense media circus that would flush out a man trying to leave his life behind. At this point, no one would ever recognize him, not even his own family. Thirty years would do that to a man, to any man regardless of his situation. He’d spent more than half his life running away, and on some level that troubled him despite his seemingly unbridled freedom. He had broken free of one thing only to fall into the prison of another. He appreciated the cruel irony of it all even if it cut him deeply. Regardless, he’d gotten bolder in the last few years often venturing out to towns like Red Lake and walking freely among the residents in the light of day. He no longer cowed under the dire threat of being discovered. He felt truly free on some level, but that freedom still cost him dearly.
Inevitably, when he was tired, his mind wandered lazily to things past. He hated when it happened and had tried for years to stop it, but the vacant years of his freedom left nothing to dwell on except the extreme loneliness that had filled his days. He thought of Brenda. He wondered how she was doing now and if she too had succumbed to age as he had. He knew she had, but he couldn’t imagine her as an old woman. He hadn’t seen her in almost thirty years. Well, he hadn’t really seen her in thirty-three years since that morning he walked out of their house for the last time. He still remembered her as a beautiful, young twenty-something, a wife and mother with her whole life ahead of her. He hoped her life had turned out okay even if he wasn’t a part of it.
Ahead in the distance, a faint light grew stronger and momentarily brightened around the whipsawing curves in the canyon road. An approaching car. John felt relieved to see another soul in this vast open area, but at the same time, he registered some concern. He’d never seen someone so close to his campsite. The lights grew brighter until the car entered the brief straightaway ahead of him and zipped past him without any acknowledgment that they shared this lonely stretch of road. John exhaled after he realized he was holding his breath. He still did that after all these years when someone was perilously close to his campsite. No one looked for him anymore he told himself. He had no reason to worry he thought, but old habits died hard. Like a wild deer, he stood ready to bolt at the slightest sign of a stalker.
His concerns dissipated further when he realized that he had miscalculated where he was. He still had several more miles to go before he reached his campsite. The trail that led to his camper hid behind a series of rock formations that sloped downward along the side of the road like a giant arrow pointing the way to go, but anyone unfamiliar with the area would be hard-pressed to find the trail, much less follow it to the camper secured behind several large rocks in the canyon. It had been the perfect hiding spot the past few months, even for a man who really didn’t have to hide anymore. He knew this, but he kept up the charade anyway. It justified his loneliness, ensured that he paid the price that he knew he owed.
Exhausted and frustrated that he still had a ways to go, John shook his head again hoping to thwart the heavy eyelids that narrowed his line of sight. His head bobbed and he felt the truck drift to the side of the road. His heart jumped and he jolted upright in this seat fearful of what had just happened. Another second or two longer and he would have careened off the shoulder and into the canyon below. He slapped both sides of his face to keep himself awake, but the sting did little to ward off the sleep demons. He kept his eyes drowsily focused on the area illuminated by his headlights, which were turned to their brightest setting.
In an instant, he saw it ahead of him, something that he couldn’t quite make out but that stood firmly in the road just beyond the periphery of his headlights. Was it a person or an animal of some kind? He couldn’t quite tell, but he reacted immediately jerking the truck’s wheel to the right to avoid that which threatened to impale his vehicle. The moment he twisted the wheel, the truck left the smooth asphalt and rattled along the rocky edge of the road and bumped up and down with such force that John lost his grip on the steering wheel. The truck seemed to drive itself in that moment before it plunged off the side of the road. His reaction time slowed by fatigue, he tried to grab the wheel one last time before his truck lost its traction and became airborne. John felt his stomach heave as the truck dove into the rocky canyon below the road.
In the few seconds that it took for John to lose control of his truck and plunge into the darkness, time stood still for him. For a brief moment, he had escaped his body and looked down from above as he struggled with the truck and lost control. He watched as he plunged down into the canyon. He screamed, but the sound was lost and dissipated quickly in the dark desert sky. He gripped the steering wheel fiercely and braced himself for impact as if he could somehow regain control of the truck once it hit the rocks below and drive away, scared but unharmed. The fall took an eternity in his mind. He thought the impact would be immediate and definite, but the quiet plunge into darkness lasted long enough to make him believe that he was dreaming.
His life hung in the balance. The truck’s headlights, at once illuminating nothing but darkness in the space ahead of him, shone a harsh light on boulders that suddenly appeared before him. His head jerked to the side and he squeezed his eyes shut. The brutal impact thudded against him with such force that all consciousness left him. His sense of being out of his body faded quickly and he thought or felt nothing as if his mind had been instantly erased or extinguished.
The nose of the truck struck the boulder below the road with such force that it bent in half twisting itself like a soda can against the immovable mass of the rock. The truck bed flayed upward losing its cover and the contents that had been secured against all but the most unexpected forces. The propane tanks and gas cans catapulted from the truck and plunged further down the craggy embankment. Each tank rattled and rolled furiously down the hill and exploded as the heat and friction of the fall ignited the fuel inside. The explosions echoed through the canyon briefly illuminating the grim rock face before the darkness swallowed them whole again.
The brutality of the impact left the truck bent end upon end between two large boulders. The position made it impossible to open the doors, but it ensured that the truck would not fall further into the vast darkness below, at least not immediately. The desert night at once interrupted by the sound of the crash fell still again, a quiet solitude that belied the trauma that had unfolded in a matter of seconds. A fragile life hung in the balance in the vast canyon, but the noisy storm passed quickly.
John Lambert came to a rest in the most violent of ways. He had removed his hands from the steering wheel before the moment of impact to cover his face, but the force did not spare him. The steering wheel jammed his chest on impact and his arms and head slammed against the windshield before it shattered and glass rained down upon him. His legs bent unnaturally as the metal of his truck bowed to the pressure of the impact. The force crushed the bones in his legs and wedged them into a fixed position fused with the mangled metal. He came to a rest almost upside down like he had leaned back too far in a reclining chair and it had tilted over. His relaxed position betrayed the gravity of his situation.
Only a few seconds passed from the point that John jerked the wheel of his truck to the right to the point he came to a rest wedged between two boulders. In that short frame, the cacophony of the crash assailed the solitude of the desert night, but just as quickly, the deafening silence returned and the desert resumed its nightly routine breathing easily as if its nap had never been interrupted. A passer-by would be hard-pressed to discover any evidence of a crash save for some faint tire marks on the road and tracks on the rocky shoulder that promptly disappeared over the edge of the canyon. Such marks were not uncommon as many a driver had veered off the edge only to recover and continue the journey frightened but unscathed. Not so for John.
The once warm air of the truck cab quickly gave way to the cold desert air. It wrapped itself around him adding insult to his injuries. John still wore the coat he had put on before he’d left his camper earlier in the evening. He had anticipated the cold. A handful of decades living in the desert had taught him to always be prepared, but nothing prepared him for being trapped in a canyon with his life hanging in the balance.
Moments passed and John lay in the mangled remains of his truck unconscious and unaware of the threat to his survival. His ragged, shallow breathing provided the only sign that he had survived the crash. The notepad that had been firmly ensconced on his dashboard sat on his stomach with the pen still clipped to its side like he had fallen asleep while writing something. A blanket that he had stuffed behind his seat in case he ended up stranded in cold clung to the edge of his broken passenger window dangling over the edge of the rocks that cradled his truck. Its threads stretched from the pull of gravity as it clung to the jagged glass that remained of the window. The coffee tumbler freed of its awful, cold contents sat on its side against the remaining corner of glass in the passenger window, its lid missing. The rush of the cold air and quiet abandonment of the desert consumed the gaping hole in the twisted truck as John lay there unaware that he clung to life as the clock ticked away.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he stirred. At first, his face twitched, and then, his fingers moved almost imperceptibly. He opened his eyes slowly as if from a dream. A bolt of pain shot through his neck and down into his arms and belly, but no signals arrived from his legs. A coppery taste filled his mouth and his nose felt blocked like he had bad congestion from a cold. He strained to interpret what he saw ever so faintly in the darkness. His pupils widened and the dim light from the waxing moon brightened. He turned his head slowly to survey the situation, but it took him a few moments to realize what had happened.
He moved slowly like an elderly man beset by arthritis, but eventually he found his position and understood his state of being. He couldn’t sit up completely. He could only lean up for a moment before pain and gravity got the best of him. His hands grasped for his legs. He couldn’t feel them at all, and he couldn’t touch them with his hands because the metal of the truck was bent and clamped down upon them like the jaws of some mechanical shark. He felt a tingle, no a burning sensation, at the base of his spine. It felt like the entire weight of the truck was pinning him down at his waist. He exhaled and coughed a phlegm-filled cough.
He fell back into his reclining position and rubbed his face with his hands. His fingers found the multiple lacerations on his forehead. None of them seemed more than superficial, but they provided more than their fair share of the pain he felt at that moment. His heart sank and the pit in his stomach ached as he realized the dire circumstances that governed him. Hopelessness had found him once again, and he could not run away this time. He struggled to feel his toes, even imagined that he felt them, but he knew in the deepest trenches of his mind that they were all but severed from his body. He felt his life dripping away slowly like water slowly leaking from a bucket that was already only half full.
John Lambert started to cry, not from the pain of his injuries but from the searing fate that stared him in the eyes. He spat blood from his mouth and wailed out loud in the endless darkness. He body heaved and pain shot up his spine and out through his hands and head, but he didn’t care. His life depended on the alertness of strangers in the middle of a desolate area far removed from frequent traffic. He knew his truck wasn’t visible from the road. He’d traversed this very spot along the road to his camper many times over the past few months, and he knew the edge of the cliff above was very steep. Even a person on foot would have to lean over the edge of the cliff and strain to see his truck wedged below. For all practical purposes, he had received a death sentence. This was how it would end, and John cried at the injustice of it all in spite of all the pain and misery he had caused in the lives of those he had cared about most.
He had no idea how long it took him to grieve, but at some point he realized that he had to make the most of the fleeting moments that remained. He wiped the tears from his eyes and what he thought was blood from his face and tried to assess his situation as clear-eyed as he could. He ignored the unbearable pain that wracked his body. He would be free from it soon. Oddly, he felt a certain freedom knowing how he would meet his end, a freedom he had experienced in another form over thirty years ago when he left his former life behind and began the self exile that ultimately brought him to this place trapped into the mangled remains of his life.
He felt something lightly pressing against his stomach and he patted his hand down his chest until he grasped the notepad. He sighed in relief as an idea came to him instantly. He gripped the pad harder like it would save him, a life raft in a tumultuous sea. It would save him he thought, but hours would pass before any daylight arrived and he worried that he wouldn’t last that long. He tried to lean up toward the steering wheel above him, but the pain pushed him back down into his repose. He tried again. And again. He screamed as the pain became too much. The darkness quickly swallowed his anguish to no avail.
A sudden thought pulsed through his mind, and he reached out to the door of his glove compartment. It too stood just beyond his fingertips, but it seemed more accessible than the steering wheel because it was almost level with him in the contorted truck cabin. He leaned up a little and shifted to his right to pop the knob of the door latch. Nothing. He pushed it again and the left side of the door cracked open slightly, but the other side was jambed. He fell back into his position and exhaled. He caught his breath and made one more surge toward the glove compartment. He crammed his fingers into the slight opening and pulled with the weight of his body falling backward. The flimsy door popped open and some contents from the glove compartment fell to the floor and rattled around in the truck. John hoped that the flashlight had stayed put. He leaned up again and felt around the glove compartment in the dark. His fingers searched frantically as his strength started fading. Finally, he felt the cold metal cylinder that he so desperately wanted. He grabbed it and held on tightly as his strength finally failed him and he fell back into his reclining position.
He lay in the cold darkness breathing heavily like he had just run a fast mile. He had the notepad and the flashlight firmly in his grasp, the two remaining physical things that had any meaning to him in his awful situation. He couldn’t remember the last time he had changed the batteries in the flashlight. Months ago he had had a flat tire and had used the flashlight while he changed the tire, but he couldn’t remember if he had used it lately. He felt along the grip of the flashlight for the switch and promptly pushed the button. Light flooded the cabin, and relief rushed over him. He had never felt so happy to see light, a strong, bright beam at that.
He shined the flashlight around the cab to orient himself to his surroundings. The light gave him power, the power to understand where he was and what had happened to him. He looked first to his legs, and he immediately saw the reason for his lack of feeling. His legs were trapped between the floorboard and the dashboard, both of which had been twisted upward as the truck bent between the boulders. His contorted legs were completely hidden in the twisted metal, but John knew that they were a lost cause. He’d no longer be able to run the desert trails in the mornings just before sunrise. His legs had taken him far over the years. They’d relieved him from a life he’d never wanted. He grimaced at the unnatural angle of his legs, but he felt no pain there.
He surveyed the rest of the cab in the small beam of light. The shattered windshield and the scattered contents of his truck gleamed in the light. He saw the coffee tumbler on his passenger window below him and smiled because he wished he had some hot coffee to ward off the cold that had quickly consumed him. One last cup of hot coffee would be a fitting end. He noticed the blanket hanging by its edge on the craggy glass next to the coffee cup. He’d need that blanket if he wanted to survive the cold, but it sat hopelessly out of his reach.
His attention returned to the notepad. He knew what he had to do. His time was short, and he needed to say some things that hadn’t been said. He needed to explain himself before others explained him. They wouldn’t understand. He knew that the past thirty years had left a gap of sorts in the lives of those few he truly cared about, and he felt that he owed them an explanation after all this time. Such explanations would neatly tie up the loose ends that he had let flail in the wind for so long. At least, he hoped he could tie them up.
Despite his injuries and the pain that shook his body, John Lambert put the flashlight on his chest and used his chin to steady it. He picked up the notepad and unclipped the pen from its side. He turned to the first clean page and began to write shakily and pour his heart out one last time. He wrote to Brenda, John Jr., Thomas, and Jenny. He wrote to them all as if his life depended on it, and in many ways it did.