Weather-wise, there was nothing special about the day. No rain. No snow. Or smog or fog. Or heat waves radiating over the road. Nothing but feathery clouds scattered across a bright blue sky.
Stan Ellis sat right behind his father who drove staring straight ahead, one arm draped on the armrest, the other loosely gripping the steering wheel. Stan was too young to understand the mechanics of driving. At eight all he cared about was getting there. Sometimes he paid attention to whatever was happening outside the car, but mostly he read or listened to his parents talk or followed along with whatever song came on the radio.
On this day, July 14, they were going camping at Hebgen Lake somewhere near Yellowstone. Stan’s family had never been there before, but that was what made it special. They loved to check out new places and this was one that they’d heard good things about.
Stan’s mom had planned out the details. Food. Campground. Packing the station wagon. She had given Stan a list of stuff to bring and he had packed all that and more.
One thing his mom loved was music. Their station wagon was old, so it didn’t have a CD player. Only a radio. So his mom was constantly searching for a station that came in loud and clear.
Whenever a news program came on, his parents rehashed every topic. Stan didn’t understand politics and didn’t really care. Instead he read. He was currently immersed in a Louis L’Amour book, Down the Long Hills, a story in which a wagon train is attacked, only two surviving. Two kids. A seven-year old and a three-year-old. He imagined himself being there, hiding during the attack, then trying to survive on his own.
Just like the kids in the book, he would have to keep moving, searching for help, building shelter, finding food. Stan thought he would be thoughtful like the older kid, for he had grown up camping and hiking. But would he be too terrified to think clearly? Hopefully he’d never have to find out.
The road climbed into the hills, twisting and turning. His father complained about his limited view, fearing that a careless driver would cross the dividing line or that something would jump out in front of the car or that something would go wrong mechanically and he would lose control. When his dad worried, things got quiet. So no radio, no conversation, just tension.
When it happened Stan wasn’t paying attention. He’d leaned back and closed his eyes, picturing himself alone in the wilderness, searching for berries, not afraid, but approaching each task in his usual logical manner.
When the car suddenly swerved to the right and the tires screeched, he sat up, instantly alert. The crash jolted him, sending him forward, banging his head against the back of his father’s seat, then flinging him backward into his own, hurting his neck and shoulder. Shattered glass flew everywhere.
When the noise stopped, Stan realized that they were jammed up against the hillside to the right, the front caved-in, the windshield spider-webbed. Stan leaned over the back of his father’s seat and saw blood pouring down his mom’s forehead, the funny angle of his father’s neck. Stan knew enough from watching television shows that his parents were in bad shape. Possibly even dead. The only hope for their survival was him.
He slid across the seat and climbed out on the right side, forcing the door open with his feet. Once he was free, he surveyed the situation. The other car, a silver Honda, was jammed against the left side of their car. That driver was immobile, just like his parents. Stan looked inside that car and noticed that the man’s legs were at funny angles. And blood was everywhere.
Knowing he needed to have a strategic plan, Stan found a good sized boulder and sat in the sun. His first thought was that his parents would wake up and tell him where to go and what to do. But as time passed and they didn’t wake up, Stan figured he was on his own.
He got his bag out of the back seat, then took off down the road, heading back where they had come from. As he walked he sipped from his canteen, but also kept an eye out for a fresh water source.
The road wound down and down, twisting around one hillside, then the other. He never saw any traffic. Stan got tired, but knew he couldn’t quit. Too much was at stake.
Night approached. Stan saw no lights of nearby buildings, no indication that anyone was about, so he turned into the woods to seek shelter. The kid in the book used low-hanging tree branches as shelter, so that’s what Stan looked for. He found none, but he did find a hollowed-out tree with an indentation just big enough for him to squeeze into.
Before it got completely dark, he gathered fallen leaves into a body-sized pile for him to sleep on. Then he carried more over to use as covering. Even though it was summer, it would get cold as the night progressed.
Stan was normally a brave kid. He stood up to bullies when a little kid was being picked on, he volunteered to go to the blackboard whenever he could, and he explored his neighborhood with friends, always the leader. But this was different. At home he knew his parents would be waiting for him, dinner cooked, a soft bed, a warm embrace.
Out here he was on his own, and as it became darker, Stan lost confidence in his ability to survive. Every sound terrified him. Every snap of a twig was a predator coming to eat him. Every grunt was a gun-toting killer. Stan shook from head to toe, and not just from the cold.
He pushed himself as deep into the tree as he could, then covered himself with leaves, only his face sticking out. He hoped that he was invisible to whatever evil forces were out there. And when he got cold, he curled up, trying to contain his body heat as best he could.
When the sky lightened, Stan stood and brushed off as many of the leaves as he could. He picked up his bag and headed downhill, moving as quickly as he could. He was hungry, thirsty and tired, but he kept moving, taking only the tiniest sips of water in order to make what he had last as long as possible.
The land flattened out, thankfully, and off to the left Stan saw a ranch. When he got to the dirt road that seemed to be its driveway, Stan picked up his pace. He listened for charging dogs, not wanting to be bitten before he could get help for his parents.
Laundry swung from a rope line stretching from a pole to the barn. The buildings were bright white with green trim and seemed to be in good repair. No rusted-out vehicles or appliances were visible. Flowers bloomed in trim gardens running along the driveway. There was nothing threatening, nothing that indicated danger, so Stan approached.
Just as he was about to go up the first step, the door opened. A grandmotherly woman smiled at him. “Whatcha doin’ out here, young man?”
Stan told her about the accident and about the condition of his parents and the other driver. He held back the tears that threatened to fall, but it was hard. He thought of the kids in the book and how brave they had been. He wanted to show this woman that he was also brave.
“Come in,” she said. “Would you like some lemonade?”
“No, thanks. Can I wait out here?”
She smiled. “You’re a smart boy. I wouldn’t go inside a stranger’s house either. How about you sit on the porch while I phone the sheriff and then bring you something to eat and drink?”
“Thanks, ma’am. That would be great.” Stan sat in a rocking chair to the right of the door. He thought that someday he’d want a chair like this one, out on a porch so that he could look out over his land.
The woman returned with a glass of lemonade and a tray of sandwiches and cookies. “The sheriff is on his way. He’ll go up the mountain first to check on your folks. The ambulance is also coming. And the doctor.” She sat in the chair next to Stan. “Is there anything I can get you? A blanket or a jacket?”
“A blanket would be nice,” he said. “And can I use your bathroom?”
“Sure.” The woman opened the door, saying, “It’s down the hall. Second door on the left. I’ll wait out here so you feel safe.”
After using the toilet, Stan looked in the mirror. He had a cut in his forehead, but it wasn’t deep and had already quit bleeding, but it was bruising. Purple and blue and red radiated out across his face. He looked as if he was wearing paint for Halloween. Stan wondered if he looked that bad, what did his parents look like?
Stan didn’t see the sheriff go by, but he did hear the siren of the ambulance. The wait for information was horrendous. He rocked, ate, maybe even slept after he wrapped the blanket around himself.
In time, in what felt like late afternoon, the sheriff drove up. He knelt before Stan. “Hi,” he said. “Were you in that accident?”
Stan nodded. “How are my parents?”
The sheriff sighed as he put his large hand on Stan’s shoulder. “I have bad news. Both of your parents are dead. The only consolation I can offer is that they most likely died right away, with very little pain.” He sat next to Stan. “Now, let’s figure out what we can do for you.”
“Who should we call to come get you?”
Stan thought for a bit. He knew he had aunts and uncles somewhat nearby where they lived, but he seldom saw them. His mother’s parents were both dead. All that was left was his dad’s parents. “My Grandpa and Grandma Ellis live near Bozeman.” He dug in his bag and pulled out a spiral notebook. He opened it to the back cover. “Their phone number is right here.”
“Can I borrow this?” the sheriff asked. Stan handed it to him and then the sheriff went inside. After a few minutes he returned, a smile on his face. “Well, the good news is that they were home. They are leaving now to come get you. Mr. Ellis said it would take them a few hours, but they wouldn’t stop along the way.”
The sheriff looked at the woman. “Ma’am, thanks for taking care of the boy. I told his grandparents that he’d be at my office, so we’d better leave now.”
Stan smiled at the woman. “I never asked your name.”
“Mrs. Willoughby. My friends call me Norma.” She handed Stan a slip of paper. “That’s my number and address. If you need anything, no matter how small, send me a note or give me a call. You hear?”
“Thanks,” Stan said. He followed the sheriff down the stairs and got into the back seat. On the way into town, the reality of what had happened hit Stan. Tears poured down his cheeks. He mourned his mom and dad, his home, his friends, his school, all the things that were gone.
Life with his grandparents would be good because they were kind people. Whenever he visited them, he was allowed to roam the ranch at will, as if it was his. Now it will be.