Where memory lives
Those departed are not lost
Knowledge brings closure
Four weeks later, Meghan is back at Tom Sandberg’s station. The County Medical Examiner’s office has taken DNA samples from the skeleton and Chuck Compton. The analysis results are in.
Meghan and Sandberg look up from their conversation as two men approach them. One is elderly but walks with strong strides and stands tall. The other is younger and bears a striking resemblance to him. Father and son, Meghan realizes.
Sandberg met the two men when the ME took the DNA samples and introduces Meghan to Chuck Compton and his son, Ray. Or, more accurately, to Chuck Hardin and son. On his twenty-first birthday, Chuck walked into a county courthouse to reclaim his biological father’s name.
Chuck takes Meghan’s hand in a firm grasp. “I don’t have the words to thank you enough, ma’am, for helping to find my brother. All these years, I knew he didn’t run off. Ray would’ve said ‘goodbye’ to me and Ma. Or sent word from somewhere. Pardon my language, but I always knew that bastard Sam Compton was behind it.”
The four settle around the table in the small conference room. Chuck looks at his son and smiles sadly. “Growing up, my boy was the spitting image of his uncle. On his eighteenth birthday, I looked at him and started thinking, ‘This is what my brother would’ve looked like at this age.’ I wish someone had walked their dog in those woods back in 1944. Ma wouldn’t have spent the rest of her short life hoping maybe Ray was okay somewhere.”
“Your mother died young?” Meghan asks.
“Yes, ma’am, when I was eighteen, four years after Ray disappeared. Tuberculosis they said. More like a broken spirit. Every day she told me how sorry she was for marrying that no-good Compton. She said it would’ve been better for me and Ray to be put up for adoption and had a chance for a better life.”
An image of her son John as a baby in another woman’s arms is too much for Meghan. She takes a tissue from her bag. There’s no point trying to hide her tears.
“I never told no one my plans. But after the funeral, I didn’t go back to the house. I’d talked one of my teachers into letting me spend the night at her house. The next morning I caught the bus to the capital. I didn’t take no clothes or nothing. Just the Sunday suit I’d been wearing and a few dollars I’d saved up from odd jobs. My teacher paid for the bus fare and gave me twenty-five dollars. She said it was the least she could do. She knew Ray would’ve wanted me out of there.”
“She’s the one who made the report to the police about Sam beating up Ray?” Sandberg asks.
Chuck nods. “She’d always told Ray how smart he was and how he could be a college boy. But we didn’t have no money, and Sam Compton wouldn’t have given it to Ray if we did. He didn’t think even high school was needed. Ray wanted to join the army and maybe make enough money to go after. If that didn’t work, he’d try his hand at baseball. He was a real good pitcher.”
Chuck looks at his son. “My Ray was always good in school, too. And his sister. It was hard work, but me and my wife saved every penny to send them both to college. Mary’s a nurse, and Ray here’s an architect. Their uncle would be proud.”
Meghan is too choked up to speak. She can only smile and wipe her eyes again.
“That bastard Compton must’ve heard Ray leaving,” Chuck continues. “And then followed him. We lived on the Watkins farm in one of the tenant houses. Compton was their manager. They sold the land to the county in the ’50s when old Mr. Watkins died, and that’s when it was turned into a park.”
Chuck’s voice wavers. “Compton always hated Ray and me. He and Ma never had kids of their own—not for lack of him trying. And he couldn’t blame it on Ma since she had us. But we were a sore reminder of his failure as a man. He must’ve used Ray’s talk of joining the army as a way to hide the deed. That’s why I never said nothing to no one when I made my plans. I would’ve left earlier, but I couldn’t leave Ma when she got sick.”
Ray Hardin takes over as his father pulls himself together. “When Dad got word that Sam Compton died in 1972, he and Mom were still living in the capital. They had my grandmother’s remains brought to a cemetery there and reburied as Mary Hardin. There’s room for Uncle Ray to lie next to her. We’re having a funeral service the Saturday after this one. We’d be honored if you could join us. The family would like to thank you for all you’ve done.”
Meghan and Sandberg both promise to attend. When the Hardins leave, there are a few moments of silence. Then Sandberg speaks.
“This case reminded me not to take family for granted. Becky and I are surprising the kids this weekend. My boy’s a football fanatic, and my girl loves the theater. We’ve got two tickets for the game in DC and two tickets for a play. Then we’ll join up for dinner. I think they’ll have fun.”
“I know what you mean. My son’s been talking about karate lessons for a few months now and hasn’t lost interest like he usually does. So Rick and I are taking him to sign up this Saturday. We’ll see if it lasts. But I want him to have the opportunity.”
Sandberg nods. His “non-case” is now officially closed, and he walks Meghan to her car. “It’s been a pleasure working with you, Dr. Bode. And I appreciate everything you’ve done. I’ll see you at the funeral. And who knows? Maybe I’ll need your help on another case down the line.”
Meghan’s throat tightens at the thought of another body. Even truly old skeletons will be difficult to excavate now. But the chance to bring closure to a family has been worth the emotional cost.
“You can count on me,” she tells Sandberg before driving home.
And so ends this adventure for Meghan. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. We’ll hear more from her before long, but we need a short rest to work on new ideas.