Around 9 a.m. Billy Roland saw the water tower and the first cluster of buildings in the distance, steered his rented Ford to the shoulder of the road, and stopped. He sat there for a moment, adrift in memories, looking through the windshield at a wooden sign that said, “Welcome to Rosewood—Pop. 8,400.” After all these years, he was home.
Five minutes later he passed a barrier of orange traffic cones and the still-smoking remnants of a recent accident, and a mile after that he parked in the visitor’s lot at the regional hospital. Catherine Roland’s room was easy to find. He knocked softly on the door, then inched it open. She was asleep, her chest gently rising and falling underneath a light blanket.
Billy pulled a chair up to her bedside. His mind whirled with a mixture of love, sorrow, and guilt. Love because she was his mother, sorrow because of her sudden illness, guilt because it had been so long since he’d seen her in person. He talked often with her via telephone and sent her gifts and Christmas cards — but he hadn’t come home to visit. He certainly could have. Billy was single and unattached, and traveling was no problem for a novelist anyway; a writer can write anyplace. The truth was, he hadn’t come home because the town of Rosewood — even the mention of Rosewood — made him uneasy.
But he was here now. He was clinging to that thought when finally he slumped deeper into the chair, rested his chin on his chest, and slept.
He awoke to find a nurse in the room with them. She was middle-aged, her head tilted slightly and her hands tucked into the pockets of her uniform as she studied Billy’s sleeping mother. After a moment she looked up at him.
“You’ve been out for a while,” the nurse said, smiling.
Billy assumed she meant his nap rather than his estrangement. “I drove most of the night.” He squinted at his watch. “Got here about an hour ago.”
“Did you hear about our accident? It’s made things pretty busy here.”
“I drove past it,” he said, stretching and wiping his eyes. “Looked serious — I saw a car and a school bus under an overpass, both burned to a crisp.”
The nurse nodded. “It would’ve been deadly, if not for a bystander. He saw the wreck and pulled half a dozen kids and the driver from the burning bus — thankfully it wasn’t full — then rescued two ladies from the car. Carried the last one out just before the whole thing blew up, according to the victims.”
Billy thought about that. “Guess I’m lucky I missed it, in more ways than one.” He looked down at his mother. “From what the doc said on the phone, I thought I might be too late.”
“Actually, your timing’s good. She’s doing better.”
Billy saw the nurse studying his face over the top of her glasses. Her eyes were blue and friendly, her hair graying under her white cap. He didn’t know nurses wore caps anymore.
“You know me,” he said. “Don’t you?”
“I know you’re a writer now. My name’s Elaine. I remember you, from when your sister was here for surgery.” She hesitated. “And …”
“And from what happened before that. Right?” He felt the old, familiar discomfort ripple down his backbone. He never stopped thinking about that summer. It was why he hadn’t come back in so long.
She nodded slowly. “Yes. Most folks around here remember you, Billy.”
He could only shrug. “Long time ago.”
“It’s hard to forget a hero,” the nurse said, smiling again.
“I’m no hero. If you remember what happened, you also know why I was there at that house that day, at that moment. You know I did something I’m ashamed of.” He motioned toward the door — the outside world. “That good Samaritan you told me about, at the school bus wreck? He’s a hero. Not me.”
A silence passed. At last she said, “I also heard there was a good reason you were there that day, at the Westbrooks’ house — a reason you did what you did.”
Billy didn’t reply. He focused on the clear blue sky beyond the room’s single window, remembering that midsummer morning 25 years ago when he and fellow fifth-grader Jerry Goldman sat hidden on the wooded hillside across from the Southgate subdivision, looking down at the fancy house on the far side of the road. It was sunny that day too, sunny and warm. Jerry rode there on the back of Billy’s bike — doubleheading, they called it. From where they were watching, they could see one side of the house and part of the backyard, above the board fence. The swimming pool winked silver in the sun.
The thought made Billy’s stomach feel queasy. The nurse must have noticed, because she said, “You’re not gonna DFO on me, are you?”
“Faint. As in the patient ‘Done Fell Out.’”
He felt himself smile. “No. I’m okay.”
After a pause Billy sighed and looked her in the eye. “I had to do what I did that day.” He turned again to the window, and to his memories. “I remember saying to Jerry, I don’t want to, but I just —”
“— don’t have any other choice.”
Jerry Goldman’s young face looked worried and frightened at the same time. “I know you don’t.” He checked his watch, a cheap Timex with an orange band. “Sure you don’t want me to wait here for you?”
“No. I need you to take my bike home. If things go well, I’ll have too much stuff on me to ride it back. I’ll call you later.” Maybe from the police station, Billy thought. While he was mulling that over, they saw a car back out of the house’s garage, then head out of the subdivision and east on Valley Road. It was what they’d been waiting for.
“Showtime,” Billy said, rising to his feet. He realized his hands were shaking. The two 11-year-olds exchanged a long look.
Without another word, Billy left the cover of the woods, jogged down the hill and across the road to the side of the house, and then crept around the corner and out of Jerry’s sightline. At the front door he took a deep breath and turned the knob. If it was locked, he planned to try the garage door — but it wasn’t. He eased it open. He already knew the wife was out back because they’d seen her there a moment ago, with her young son and a dog. The house should be empty.
Billy shut the door and hurried down a long hallway.
The master bedroom, he found, was at the rear of the house. He crept inside and looked around. The room was bright, and even though a picture window covered most of the south wall he doubted anyone outside could see in. Billy felt himself relax a bit. This room had no outside doors. The husband was gone, and through the window Billy could see the wife and little boy in chairs beside the swimming pool. If they decided to head back inside, he could retrace his steps and be out the front door and gone in seconds.
He drew another long breath. He hoped he wasn’t making a mistake — but as he’d told Jerry, this was something he had to do. There was no other solution.
The plan had taken shape quickly, once he understood the situation. The thing was, his 6-year-old sister, Grace, suffered from a steadily worsening heart defect, and a meeting between his parents and Grace’s doctor last week revealed that it must be corrected quickly. It was also revealed that the surgery would cost more than $20,000 — money the Rolands didn’t have. Billy’s father had been laid off and they were mired in debt. The hospital expressed its sadness but stood firm: the head of the surgery department could allow no procedures, no matter how necessary, that could not be covered by the patient or by insurance. Billy saw his parents arrive back home in tears. They simply had no options.
The following day Billy received two pieces of news that sparked an idea. His friend Linda overheard her mother, a waitress at a hotel restaurant downtown, telling her dad that the wife of a local doctor named Westbrook had supposedly shown up at a banquet wearing a $100,000 diamond necklace. A hundred grand, she’d said. No wonder doctors charge so much.
The second piece of information came from another friend, Scruffy Morgan. (Actually, most of Billy’s friends were scruffy, and all belonged to families on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.) Scruffy said he knew someone who fenced items like jewelry and electronics for 30 cents on the dollar. When Billy confessed that he didn’t know what “fenced” meant, Scruffy explained that this guy would take stolen goods off your hands for a third of what it was worth, no questions asked. Instant cash.
It took Billy Roland less than a minute to reach a decision. He would somehow locate the home of this rich wife, somehow get inside her house, and somehow find and steal enough to pay for his sister’s surgery. He even thought of how to explain the small fortune in cash he would receive from Scruffy’s contact: He’d tell his dad he found it in an abandoned shack in the woods where he and Jerry sometimes played. Billy knew his parents, painfully honest, would normally turn the money over to the police … but these were not normal times. Grace’s life was at stake.
As things turned out, Billy indeed located the house — there was only one Dr. Westbrook in the phonebook — and he and Jerry staked the place out for several days to check the comings and goings of the parents and their toddler son. Now, a week after the hospital gave the Rolands the news that would practically sign Grace’s death warrant, here Billy was, on the verge of giving her back a chance at living.
It was all way too much for an 11-year-old to handle, but he thought that so far he was doing pretty well. Now he just had to find the necklace and beat feet out of Dodge. Was it wrong, what he was doing? A crime? Sure it was. He tried to justify it by reminding himself that anyone who can buy things that expensive can also afford to do without them.
He took another look through the window. The little boy was sitting in a beach chair and his mother was standing and saying something and wagging her finger at him. Off to one side, also watching them was their big golden collie. Billy thanked his stars that the dog was outside and not in.
But who knew how long they’d all stay outside? That thought made him get down to business, riffling through drawers and jewelry boxes. He quickly found what he figured must be the diamond necklace, some other items, and a thick wad of 20s in a bank envelope. He stuffed everything into his pockets. He had one bad moment when he looked out the window again and didn’t see Mrs. Westbrook — but then spotted her, standing in the distance, talking to a plump neighbor lady through a gate in the fence. The earlier instructions and finger wagging must’ve been to convince her child to remain sitting in his chair while she took a gossip break.
But the kid hadn’t done that. As Billy watched, the little boy — maybe 2 or 3 years old — climbed down and was walking unsteadily toward some toy blocks near the edge of the swimming pool. That would’ve probably been okay, except that the dog picked that moment to bound over and nuzzle the boy, who stumbled — And fell into the pool.
Billy heard no splash, and apparently Mrs. Westbrook didn’t either; she and her neighbor were still chatting away. And for some reason the child didn’t cry out. Billy could see him struggling in the too-deep water.
Billy stood there thunderstruck. For a long moment he did nothing, staring in horror. He felt an almost overwhelming urge to take what he’d found and leave right now, get his crazy self out the front door and get away. He could do it. He had what he came for.
But he couldn’t. Instead he dropped his latest handful of loot, picked up a heavy stone carving from the dresser, and threw it. The window exploded. Billy heaved a chair through it also, to break out most of the rest of the glass, then burst through the broken window onto the patio, sprinted to the pool, and dived in.
The child was silent now, and sinking. Billy grabbed him, pulled him to the surface, and lifted him out onto the concrete. He wasn’t breathing. Billy knelt beside him and pushed on his chest the way his schoolteacher taught them. Billy could hear Mrs. Westbrook’s screams and her running footsteps, but they seemed unbelievably distant, not even a part of his world. He kept pushing, waiting, pushing again, water dripping from his face onto the little boy’s, and finally — as Mrs. Westbrook arrived, her face as pale as the white patio — the child coughed up water and took in a huge, hitching breath.
Billy moaned his relief; he could feel hot tears in his eyes. He raised his head and looked up at the woman, who stood there a second longer, her face frantic and both hands clapped over her mouth. Then she stooped down and swept her child into her arms. He was coughing but he had some color now, Billy saw.
He also saw Mrs. Westbrook turn to look at the jagged hole in the window, and the broken glass and the overturned bedroom chair on the patio. Her gaze shifted to Billy. “You were … you were in my house.”
He didn’t reply. He was caught, and he knew it. His pockets bulged with stolen goods.
Dazed, clutching her child to her chest, the woman blurted to her even more dazed-looking neighbor, “Call my husband. Tell him to come quick.” In a trembling voice she told the neighbor the phone number. Neither she nor Billy said another word. Her son, however, did. He pointed a chubby finger at the dog and whimpered, “Oscar pushed me in the water, Mama.”
Five minutes later the boy’s father arrived, storming in through the side gate with his tie loosened and eyes as big as quarters. He fell to his knees beside his wife and his son, who now looked listless but otherwise good as new. The neighbor had vanished, probably to tell everyone on her phone list about all the excitement.
Mrs. Westbrook didn’t seem to know whether to be grateful or outraged. Her husband just knelt there and listened as she told him about leaving little Richie, then hearing the window break, then realizing she couldn’t see Richie, and then watching this boy here dive into the pool and pull their drowning son to safety.
Westbrook turned then to stare at Billy, and spent the next few minutes listening to his explanation. Billy didn’t try to sugarcoat it — what good would that do? He said he’d needed money badly, had entered their unlocked home looking for cash and jewels, and had seen the little boy fall into the water.
“You were stealing from us?” the man said, with another look at the shattered window.
“Yes, sir.” Billy wondered if his voice sounded as miserable as he felt.
A long silence passed. “Why did you help my son?” Westbrook asked quietly. “You could’ve left, right? No one would’ve ever known.”
Billy swallowed. “I would’ve known,” he said.
More silence. As if at a signal, both of them looked down at Richie, watching him breathe, staring into his eyes, realizing just how close a call it had been.
Then Westbrook turned back to Billy. “Why’d you need money so badly?”
Again Billy stuck to the truth. In a shaky voice he told them about his sister, and the surgery she needed, and that his family couldn’t afford it.
Suddenly Westbrook’s face changed. “What’s your name, son?”
He studied Billy carefully for several seconds. “A man named Edgar Roland came to one of my physicians last week, about a small child with valvular stenosis —”
“That’s my sister, Grace. Edgar Roland’s my father,” Billy said. “What do you mean, your physicians?”
“I’m head of surgery at the hospital. Your parents talked to a Dr. Lancaster, didn’t they?”
Another long silence.
Finally Westbrook said, “Let’s go see your dad.”
He rose to his feet. “Come on. Your sister’s going to have her operation.”
Billy’s head was spinning. “But — you don’t understand. My parents — they don’t have the money to pay for it.”
Dr. Westbrook looked at him then, and though he didn’t actually smile, his eyes sparkled. “They do now,” he said.
And they did. Or someone did — because two days later little Grace Roland underwent successful surgery to repair a defective heart valve. There were no charges of any kind, for the operation or the medicine or the hospital stay. The one time Billy’s father took Dr. Westbrook aside to ask about it, he was told not to worry. Everything was covered.
But, as is often the case in life, everyone did not live happily ever after. A month later Grace developed an infection, and this time they couldn’t save her. To Billy, his “solution” had only delayed the inevitable. Then tragedy struck yet again. Shortly after Grace’s funeral, his father died of a massive heart attack.
Flat broke now, Billy’s mother began cleaning houses — a job she kept for the next 15 years, long after Billy worked his way through college and moved north and launched a successful writing career. He seldom visited her but faithfully mailed her a portion of every royalty check. He had a feeling she would’ve preferred the visits.
In a less immediate form, heartbreak found the Westbrook family as well. According to the letters Billy received from his mother, the boy he’d saved from drowning became a disappointment to everyone he knew. Richie Westbrook rebelled more and more as the years passed, not only against authority but against all things good or decent. He was thrown out of half a dozen schools and into half a dozen jail cells and rehab centers, and by the age of 20 had a rap sheet as long as his needle-tracked arms. His family finally gave up on him, and when his parents died most of their estate went to their older son in Atlanta, who cared little about Rosewood and even less about his brother; what money Richie did get went straight up his nose or into his veins. The last thing Billy had heard from his mother about the matter was that little Richie Westbrook was 27 and homeless and living on the streets on the wrong side of town.
“So what did I accomplish?” Billy asked the nurse.
His mother was still asleep, and he knew his voice was bitter but couldn’t help it.
The nurse didn’t answer.
“I guess I bought my sister another month or so,” he said. “But all I really did was build up false hope for everyone. As for the Westbrooks, I committed a felony but got away with it — and I’m not even sure pulling their son out of that pool was a favor. I wound up saving him so he could lead a life of misery.” He heaved a sigh. “Am I wrong?”
The nurse — had she said her name was Elaine? — merely nodded. “Yes. Yes, you are.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me ask you a question. You ever see the movie It’s a Wonderful Life? Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed?”
“We used to watch it every Christmas. Why?”
At one point,” she said, “when they’re in the cemetery and it’s snowing, Clarence — the angel — tells George Bailey that all those soldiers on the transport died because his brother Harry wasn’t there to save them. And that Harry wasn’t there because, long ago, George hadn’t been there to save Harry.”
“I remember,” Billy said.
“Well, my real question is, do you believe that? That present events can alter future events?”
“Of course I do.”
“You should,” she said, smiling. “George did. Never doubt the words of an angel, Billy.”
He studied her face. “What are you saying, exactly?”
The nurse leaned forward, pinning him with her gaze. “I’m saying you’re wrong. You are a hero.”
Billy just shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
She smiled again. “You will.”
She turned then, bent down, lovingly touched his sleeping mother’s cheek, and walked out the door.
He was staring after her, feeling puzzled but strangely comforted, when his mother’s wavering voice interrupted his thoughts. “Billy?” she said. “Is that you?”
He sat forward and took her hand. “It’s me, Mom. I’m here.”
She examined him as if fascinated, her eyes wide and alert. “You look good, Billy. You look … peaceful.”
He thought again of the nurse’s level gaze, of her confusing yet reassuring words. “I am, Mom. I’m just glad to see you.”
Moments later his mother’s eyes closed again, but the smile that had been on her lips lingered. He thought she looked peaceful as well.
When he was sure she was asleep again, Billy gently released her hand and left the room. Halfway to the nurses’ station a stooped old man in a hospital gown staggered along in front of him, holding onto the handrail that lined the corridor and pulling an IV stand along beside him.
Billy started to go around him then paused. What the nurse had said to him, and the sincerity with which she’d said it, echoed in his mind.
“Excuse me,” Billy said. “Have you been out here long, in the hallway?”
The old fellow’s grin revealed that his dentures were someplace else. “What do you think? Takes me 10 minutes to go 10 feet, these days.” He gave the IV pole a yank. “I’m better today, though. First time I’ve been out of that room in a week.”
“Good. I just wondered if you saw a nurse go by, a few minutes ago. Tall, eyeglasses, 50 or so, grayish hair.”
“No,” he said, “but she sounds like the one who came to see me last night. I was having a bad time coughing and wheezing, figured I was done for. Never told me who she was — thought later I might’ve dreamed her.”
“Okay. Thanks anyhow.”
As Billy moved away the old man called after him, “I didn’t think nurses wore those little white caps anymore.”
At the nurses’ station Billy introduced himself and told the three ladies there about his mother waking up and speaking to him.
“That’s a good sign,” one of the nurses said, rising to her feet. “I’ll go check on her.”
“She was sleeping again, when I left.”
“I’ll check anyway. We have more time now, after all the hustle and bustle this morning.” She picked up a chart and headed off down the corridor.
“I guess she meant the school bus wreck,” Billy said to the remaining two nurses.
One of them — her nameplate said, “J. Galloway” — nodded. “Most of the accident victims went down to the children’s floor, but almost all of us were out there meeting the ambulances. Scary — but it could’ve been worse.”
“So I heard.” Remembering why he was here, he said, “Could you tell me how to find —”
“It was a miracle,” Nurse Galloway continued quietly, as if speaking to herself. “He came out of nowhere, saved the lives of every one of those kids. The grownups too.” She blinked, focusing again on Billy. “The most unlikely person in the world, to do something like that.”
Billy frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean we all knew him.” She added, with a hint of disapproval, “At least we used to.”
“Richie Westbrook. Dr. Westbrook’s son.”
Billy froze. Richie Westbrook?
“He rescued them all,” she said.
Suddenly Billy remembered the earlier nurse’s words to him, and what Clarence had said to George in the movie. Harry wasn’t there to save the men on the boat because George wasn’t there to save Harry.
Those six kids on the school bus … the driver … the people in the car …
What if Richie had drowned that day long ago? What if he hadn’t been there today, near the scene of the accident? Because Billy had no doubt, now: Richie Westbrook had been living underneath that overpass.
Billy swallowed and looked again at the nurses, who were watching him with a mixture of concern and suspicion.
“You okay, Mr. Roland?”
He took a deep breath. “I’m fine.”
They didn’t look convinced. They must’ve figured he was about to DFO. The one named Galloway said tentatively, “Weren’t you about to ask us something?”
“Right.” He paused, still shaken. “I’m looking for a nurse named Elaine. Tall lady, glasses, pretty blue eyes, white cap. I was talking to her earlier.”
She blinked. “That sounds like Elaine Nelson.”
“I met her years ago when my sister was a patient here,” Billy said, “She’s been looking in on my mother.”
The two nurses exchanged a glance. Galloway said, “We knew her too, back then.”
“I’m afraid she’s no longer here, Mr. Roland.”
He blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You must’ve seen one of our volunteers. Ms. Nelson hasn’t been on duty here for — well, for a long time.”
“She’s retired, you mean?”
Another uncomfortable look passed between Galloway and her colleague. And suddenly, somehow, Billy knew — Never doubt the words of an angel, Billy — what she was going to say next.
“Elaine Nelson died 10 years ago,” Galloway said.
Billy spent the rest of the day at his mother’s side. She woke up again around noon, and after an examination her doctor reported, with a hint of wonder in his voice, that she was much improved.
Later, when Billy and his mother were alone, she said, “That nurse who was here earlier — Elaine — she told me I would get well. And she said … ”
Billy watched her eyes fill with tears.
“She said she had seen Grace, Billy. She said, ‘Grace sends her love.’”
It was suddenly very quiet in the room.
“Do you believe that?” she asked him.
As crazy as it was, he did believe it.
“The nurse … do you think she’ll be back?”
Billy felt himself smile. I’m better, the old man in the hallway had said to him. First time I’ve been out of that room in a week.
“No,” he said. “I think she’s done what she came to do.”
Mrs. Roland seemed to think about that awhile. Finally she squeezed his hand, studied his face. “I’m glad you’re here, son.”
For a long moment they sat there silently, holding hands, watching the afternoon sun slanting in through the window.
Maybe he was home, he thought.
A writer can write anyplace.
John M. Floyd wrote “Margaret’s Hero” for the May/June 2014 issue and has five collections of short fiction, including Fifty Mysteries: The Angela Files (2014).