I’m hard at work on my favorite part of writing, which is, oddly enough, just writing. I’ve taken the material I had already written for Grace of God and I’m doing a lot of revision based on my outline and my more fully-fleshed ideas about the novel. I’ve abandoned the original approach in the first chapter and broken it into two chapters. The man who saves Grace, John McDermott, gets his own introductory chapter because I want him to be the moral center of the story. He’s a more prominent character in the book now than I had originally intended. I think readers will be inherently interested in learning more about John and the impact he has on Grace throughout the novel. Let’s see how it unfolds. In the meantime, here’s the chapter where John is introduced.
John McDermott’s morning had begun like most of his mornings – sitting on the back porch drinking his coffee as he watched the sun rise above the trees on the far end of his pasture. This particular morning had missed its sunrise as had the previous three mornings. Heavy rains had pelted the great state of Alabama for more than three days straight. Just when he thought he’d get a break, another front would move in and drop buckets of rain on his cows and the overgrown pasture in which they roamed.
He’d gone out for his customary morning walk around the pasture to check on things and tidy up his farm despite the rain in each of the past three days, but he felt drained this morning and had stayed put on his porch having an extra cup of coffee or two. The unyielding rain had zapped his energy. His old bones ached. His cranky hip fussed at him when he stepped onto the short step leading into his house. Instead of walking the pasture, he’d taken a nap. The cows could wait. There was plenty to eat and drink.
In his youth, he would have trudged out into the rain and still finished all of his chores by the time his wife called him for lunch. He would have relished the challenge of man against nature, savored the grit of the mud on his shoes and clothes, but nature was slowly winning the battle bit by bit. His wife was gone now, and so was his youth.
By late morning, he had returned to his porch with another freshly-brewed cup of coffee still trying to shake off the remnants of his long nap. He glanced out into the relentless rain that hung over his property like a thin, white veil. Puddles formed all around his yard as the earth regurgitated the rain, too waterlogged to absorb much more. He shook his head in disbelief. He hadn’t seen a rain like this in all of his 65 years. Noah’s Ark came to mind, and he mused that he’d have to build an ark for his cows if this continued.
He didn’t recognize the distinct buzz of a low-flying airplane in the distance until he returned to his porch with his lunch. He sat the plate down on the small table next to his rocking chair and fingered the stale sandwich while he stood near the railing. He took one bite and chewed slowly before he acknowledged the sound growing in its urgency. He leaned over the railing and tried to peer into the sky, but the clouds and rain offered him no perspective to identify the source of the sound.
John’s farm stood in the path of a regular landing route at the Birmingham airport many miles to the south. He regularly saw airplanes high above his field pointing toward the big city’s airport. Generally, the planes were too high in the air to cause much of a ruckus. He really only noticed them when they punctured the bright blue sky with a metallic glint, but he rarely heard them because he lived far enough away from the airport.
By the time he recognized the noise as that of an airplane, he knew something was wrong. He was no pilot, and he had only flown on a plane twice in his life, but he knew the surrounding area well enough to know that the closeness of the noise was not normal. He also knew the sound of the engines suggested trouble. He’d worked on many farm machines in his life and he knew the sound of a struggling engine. This plane was in trouble.
Fed up with his inability to catch sight of the invisible plane from his porch, John donned a rain jacket and an old farmer’s hat and hurried down the porch steps into the pouring rain. He walked further into his backyard to get a better view of the surrounding area and peered into the sky. The rain felt like darts in his eyes, and he could see nothing above him, but the sound of the sputtering engines increased until a high whine rode the slight breeze.
He finally isolated the general direction of the noise and concentrated his search on the horizon above his pasture. For a brief moment, he thought he saw a dark object, like the Loch Ness Monster emerging from the deep, pierce the low-hanging clouds above his pasture, but it disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared. He walked toward the pasture aiming for the stand of trees on the far side. Several cows stared at him inquisitively, but he ignored them.
Just as he was about to give up and return to the damp confines of his porch, the rain let up, and while the clouds still hung low over his pasture, visibility improved enough for him to see the airplane descend just on the other side of the stand of trees. The plane wobbled side to side at first and then righted itself, but it continued to descend.
John stood still with his hand above his eyes to shield them from the gray glare of the daylight. The trees on the far edge of his pasture grasped for the plane as if they were pulling it to the ground. His heart rate increased and his stomach ached as he watched the plane try to reverse its descent. It continued to fall from the sky, banked left, and then dropped behind the scraggly pines. John’s breath hitched as he waited for the impact.
An fireball lit up behind the trees and the ground at John’s feet rumbled as if an earthquake were gaining momentum and rolling through the area. He staggered a bit as if the explosion threw shrapnel at him, but he was too far away to get hit by any debris, and beyond the initial fire, he couldn’t see much behind the trees.
He paused momentarily staring at the horizon in disbelief, but then, instinct kicked in and he turned back to his house. He moved as fast as his old legs would let him and bounded up the steps with his heavy boots thumping across the old wooden porch. The screen door protested when he swung it open and thumped loudly against the frame as the determined old man made a beeline for the phone hanging on his kitchen wall.
He mashed 9-1-1 on his phone and gave a vivid description of the crash and location to the dispatcher. He heaved a big sigh of relief when he hung up, but his heart still raced in his chest. He couldn’t believe what he had seen. He felt the need to do something, but he reasoned that no one could have possibly survived that explosion. A morbid curiosity overcame him.
Death was nothing new on the farm. He’d seen cows die during childbirth. He’d lost his wife to breast cancer a decade ago. He’d seen one of his farmhands get mangled to death in a piece of a equipment once – a sight that still gave him nightmares. Being an old man, he didn’t want to get too cozy with death, but he’d never seen something so dramatic as a plane crash, and he wondered what it must be like on the ground just beyond the trees.
Before he could think anymore about it, John zipped up his jacket and grabbed the keys to his rickety pickup. He made a quick transition through the gate to his pasture, but as he was returning to his truck after closing the gate behind him, it started to rain again. The whole world around him gave in to the sound of the rain pattering on the ground. The rest of the world huddled into itself as if it were waiting for the merciless rain to stop. Had he not seen the crash with his own eyes, he would be hard-pressed to believe that it had happened because the visible flames had rescinded behind the trees and the fog of the rain obscured the smoke rising from the crash site blending it into the dreary backdrop.
He pressed the gas pedal and maneuvered the truck over the terraced pasture. The bumpy ride made his back ache despite the deep, vinyl cushion of the bench seat in his truck. He drove as fast as he could without jarring himself from the driver’s seat. When he reached the trees and drove through the only gap large enough for his truck, he could see the smoke still swirling violently up from the remains of the plane that were strewn across the outer reaches of his pasture. He kept driving until the wreckage became more visible, and then he stopped at the nearest bits of twisted, charred metal.
John stepped out of his truck. The smell of jet fuel overwhelmed him. He instinctively pulled the lapel of his jacket up to shield his nose. Another smell greeted him, one that he could not quite place but it reminded him of the many cows he had found dead on the outer reaches of his pasture. The rain pelted him like it was warning him to stay away, but he persisted in walking toward the wreckage. On the far side of the scorched patch of earth, he could see the remains of the fuselage broken into three large pieces. The forward half had the nose wedged into the ground and was nothing but a black shell of its former self. He could not identify much beyond the outline of the front of the plane.
The tail section had broken into two pieces and remained remarkably intact. They were badly tattered and had some scorch marks and large pockmarks, but were identifiable. He hesitated to take more steps forward. Even from the distance, he could see the bodies through the opening of the tail section. He swallowed hard. A sickening feeling overcame him. Death on this scale exceeded his imagination. He moved forward anyway, his feet smacked the waterlogged earth beneath him.
As he moved closer, the sound of the rain and the pop of metal filled his ears. No cries for help and no sounds of struggle. Everyone had died. There were no survivors. John shook his head at all of the despair. Everyone single one of these families represented here would get bad news. They would live with the reality that their loved ones perished in a fiery crash in some god-forsaken field in the middle of nowhere. His nowhere.
He took another step toward the crash and hesitated. The jet fuel fumes and the odor of burned flesh pushed against him. He stood far enough away that he was unable to see the details in the fuselage, but as reluctance and curiosity battled in his mind, he knew that each step forward would lead him to things that he could never un-see. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath in spite of the odor. He exhaled quickly and then began walking to the broken tail section.
The smoke, although subdued by the pouring rain, grew thicker as he stepped toward the wreckage. The mangled metal and strewn-about remnants of the cabin littered his path forcing him to look at the ground carefully to avoid tripping or hurting himself. The earth squished beneath his feet. Each step sunk into the mud a few inches. This part of his field had always been swampy, but the relentless rain had made it even more so. He kept his eyes focused on the immediate area around him as if he were reluctant to look at the fuselage that smoldered and cracked a few hundred yards before him.
He saw something move, just a tiny flicker in his peripheral vision, but with all the death and devastation around him, his senses were attuned to any potential signs of life. He turned his head to confirm the movement. A streaked, pink object fluttered to his right. His heart stopped and he took a deep breath before he hurried toward the movement as quickly as his failing hip would allow. His heavy footsteps sent mud splattering all around him, and as his mind raced to make sense of what he saw, he cast a wave of mud upon the pink blanket as he came to an abrupt stop. For a very brief moment, he just stared at the ground before him, stunned. Unbelievable.
“Good God almighty!” he exclaimed. “You’re alive! Oh my God!”
A baby dressed in a yellow jumper and wrapped in a tattered pink blanket whimpered and whined as the rain came down upon it. Amazingly, it didn’t wail or scream. It simply acted as if it were suffering some discomfort. There were no apparent significant injuries to it other than a gash on its forehead, but even that gash seemed superficial.
John shook himself free from the shock and fell to his knees to examine the baby. He peeled away the soaked blanket. He couldn’t see any injuries. He carefully slid his hands under the baby and pulled it into his arms. Its jumper was soaked and he could feel it through the arms of his jacket. He pulled the baby close to him to give it some warmth. It whined and emitted a little cry as if he had awoken it from a deep sleep. He looked into its eyes, which were sea blue, and he thought it acknowledged him in some way. A spur of hope anchored in his chest in spite of the sharp pain in his hip as he pushed himself up and hurried back to his truck.
He grabbed on old blanket from behind the bench seat and swaddled the baby in it before he sat behind the wheel of his old truck. He looked out the windshield, dotted with drops and streaks of rain, at the wreckage. The stench of jet fuel permeated the air of his cab, and the rotting smell still punched his senses. Death and despair lingered in the air. He looked at the baby ensconced in the over-sized blanket. This little human had survived it all. It was a miracle, an impossibility that could only be explained by divine intervention. That much he was sure of. He had witnessed a miracle.