Excerpts from novel in progress-Journey Proud,
by Marnie Andrews
It was a long tunnel, like those cut through the mountains of her childhood to make the journey easier, the kind that wove through the rock formations into brief patches of light before plunging into blackness again. Car lights helped, but she was so dazzled by the snippets of sunshine, the tunnels seemed unending. And yet, the tunnels were all that seemed familiar in this western landscape. She could rest in the dark, without facing the sheer-drop views of Colorado.
She had come to find what remained of her brother. Not the earthly goods, though there were still a few to be looked through, and given away. She had come to meet the one friend whose name she knew, to collect what memory he might share with her about the brother she had not known.
From the phone conversation with this friend, she had constructed a mental sketch. Andrew had become a mountaineer, a guide, a person who understood the wilderness. So the mystery of his death, of his fall in the tracks between his camp and town, had not, would not be solved.
All the questions she’d asked Jim, on the phone could only be answered through conjecture. Perhaps he had realized he had too little protection, and headed for town to escape hypothermia. Perhaps he had remembered something, started to return, but slipped and hit his head, and the cold got him while he lay unconscious.
What did she think she was doing, coming out here? Hadn’t she spent enough time on the road, did she need escape so much that she would chase a ghost?
When she got to the coffee shop, she recognized Jim without asking. He was the only one there she could imagine as friend to her brother; tall, broad-shouldered, and a wide-open smile. Jim hugged her immediately, as if touching her could release his own questions left hanging about her brother’s death.
Jim talked about the survival training where they had met, and how Jim was the first partner Andrew had chosen when putting together an expedition company. Stories of talks in shallow caves through meteor-showered nights, of twisted ankles and narrow escapes slowly filled the interior colors of the brother who for her had always been a shadow, moving in and out of rehab, with big dreams and little to show for them.
She had wanted Andrew to notice her. She had wanted to talk with him the way he had talked to Jim, without the pretense that he was supposed to be better, with a better job, better house, or some steady anchor. She had wanted to choose what he finally chose, but the danger seemed too great, one from which she could not recover, one which he had not survived.
Dusk had descended by the time she hugged Jim goodbye. He had given her directions to where Andrew had been found, past the big teetering rock slab to the left, with the waterfall at the bottom of the ridge on the right. Jim had left rocks piled in interconnecting circles.
She would go there tomorrow. She found a room at the clapboard hotel at the edge of the main drag and immediately slept, and dreamed of sleeping against her brother’s arm as their parents’ car wound around the Great Smokey Mountains.
The fog crept up during dusk, causing the sun to leave its last orange traces as a whisper in the air, before disappearing into the thickening gray smoke, then thicker cotton blanket of dark surrounding her headlights. She felt she might suffocate, that the cool air might transform as she took it in her lungs into a thin layer of silk, turn her into a mummified doll from her lungs out, then spread through the blood vessels until all her insides were smooth, insulated, still.
She shook her head. It must be the exhaustion, she thought. She should stop the car, take a walk. The vision of her brother’s backpack, the few things he still possessed at his death scattered inside it, shook in her brain like bits of colored sparkles falling through a shaken globe of a cityscape.
There was something that kept her in the car she couldn’t perceive. She had always loved the fog before, but now as she headed west through the mountains, she felt an urgency to keep moving. If she were home, she’d be wandering through the house picking up something to put away, yet putting it down in another, more estranged place from where it belonged. But in this car she could only shift in her seat, worry about what lay beyond the next curve, and keep her foot pressed to the accelerator or brake.
She had forgotten the sound of his voice, his laugh. She punished herself for it, and searched for it as she did any lost object, trying to remember where she was when she was last in contact with it. But as she searched for some memory that would bring it all back, she realized she had forgotten all of what had happened between them as well.
She finally remembered that she had adored him, thought him beautiful, and wanted to be like him when she got older. He had the highest IQ, for Mother had made sure they all knew they weren’t operating at their potentials. Then she saw his blond, blond hair, his lithe body. She knew he had finally steered clear of her because he perceived the attraction she felt, but she had wanted to tell him he needn’t worry. She hadn’t wanted to touch him, just to stand near him, be a pal, engage in quiet, smart talk.
But none of these bits of him enabled her to hear him. Finally, an old event surfaced, a silent one. They had fought hard, she couldn’t remember why, maybe come to blows, when Mother had stopped them, sat them down in the kitchen facing each other, knee to knee, and left them there until she decided they could move.
So they sat, grim, stone-faced, eyeballing each other as her hands clenched the sides of her chair. They barely breathed. She was nine, maybe, and this was the first time she felt she held his gaze, and it was furious. They sat forever, maybe ten minutes, neither moving their embracing knees nor speaking.
The fog lifted, or she did, above the fog, and the moon, bright and full, waved through wisps of clouds. She could have pulled over here to rest, she was alone on the road. But her hands clenched the steering wheel.
She appealed to Daddy’s spirit to come and weigh-in a judgment on her soul for her transgression of forgetting; for loving her brother so much, or her image of him, that she never took in the details of who he really was, or even the timbre of his voice.
She could hear her daddy’s laugh. It started just a little, like a musing about a puzzle, but then it grew, expanding to that big, booming laugh that he gave when something really tickled him. Would he speak? No, the laugh became the moon itself, moving up and behind the tittering clouds, the Chorus of Laughter.
“What?” she fumed, “What’s so fucking funny?” She smiled to herself. That’ll get him, she had never cursed in front of Daddy. No response. The moon still moved with her, but paled, the driving intensified with sharp S curves, and more patches of fog. She had never felt so alone.
Then, darkness finally took over, miles of darkness cut by headlights, occasionally illuminating some outcropping of sharp rock. She thought she might tire of the boredom of her stare behind the lights, but she was wide-awake.
“Andrew!” she spoke sharply, then softly, “Andrew.”
“I wish we’d had more time. I wanted to know you, what you hoped for, what you needed. I would have been a blanket to cover you so you wouldn’t freeze if I had known. Or bound up your head and carried you to safety from where you’d fallen. If you’d have just let me in, I could have pushed aside my illusions of you, if you’d just given me a chance.”
Just then, she remembered his was the tenor. Not that she heard it just then, but just to remember its range gave her some hope. She sang the doxology to herself. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” So many times the family had held hands and sung it over a meal. “Praise him all creatures here below.” So many Sunday dinners of fried chicken and rice with gravy. “Praise him above ye heavenly hosts.” Surely, one of those times she had held his hand, unmindful of its significance. “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” She’d held his hand.
Dawn spilled onto the mesas of New Mexico. Suddenly, she was out of the mountains. All below her was flat land and scrub brush. All above her was bright red orange yellow pink in every direction. She got out of the car and started walking.