After dinner, Peter does the washing up while I clear the table. The bulb in the front room has blown and most of the light is coming from the TV. The set is old and silvered, with one of those big, unwieldy backs like the shape of an alien’s head, and was probably left here by the previous tenants. It radiates coolly against the walls, turning the whole room as blue and lit as a fish tank.
Outside, it’s quiet as only these small places can be, which is to say densely, eerily, even though you’re probably safer here than anyplace north of West Burnside street, and, if truth be told, miles from it all. I can hear the woody creak of the neighbour’s front door, the bang a trashcan lid, and little else. That bare empty air perhaps: whistling, frozen.
Tonight, they’re playing a re-run of one of those old BBC wildlife documentaries, where people are nothing more than voices overlaying the landscape, and where life moves in one endless circle of birth, death and survival. I watch, standing up, as the camera pans out, then in. It’s the Arctic in springtime, ice and snow melting away to reveal a vast plain of grass and rock, the white rivers and streams twisted into the ground like maidenhair. The images are beautiful, remote and planetary all at once – almost fake in their perfection – and, as usual, I’m unable to look away.
The focus shifts and, a beat later, a young caribou comes into view, leaping over a high tussock of grass. Behind it, two wolves are giving chase. A calm, sonorous voice informs us that the calf can outrun its predators, so long as it does not lose its footing.
‘It’s going to make it,’ Peter says by the door.
I hadn’t realised he was there, but still I don’t turn around, even though he must be standing almost directly behind me, and my head is probably blocking his view. Instead, I consider the scene. The caribou is fast, graceful, and at first seems to have an advantage. But the ground beneath is not what it seems either, full of hidden rocks and slippery depressions.
I shake my head. ‘No it’s not.’
Sure enough, seconds later, the calf stumbles over a small outcrop. It rights itself and springs away again, but the wolf is close enough now to lock jaws. As if somehow knowing the final outcome, the caribou doesn’t even struggle once caught, but kneels patiently at the wolf’s swift, white feet, awaiting the inevitable. Peter disappears down the hall and I can tell he’s annoyed that I was right, but I feel vindicated. I go the kitchen and fill a glass with water and bring it back to the doorway. It tastes metallic, mineralled, like the source of all things.
One night, while Peter is at work, the phone in the hallway rings and rings. I don’t go to answer it immediately, because no one calls us here apart from my parents, and even then it’s once in a blue moon, but the sounds trills out like a birdcall throughout the entire house and eventually I pull aside my doona and pad down the hallway in my socks. It’s Ben, calling from Nepal, the line scratchy and thinned with distance.
‘Hey Idaho,’ he says when I pick up, and I get the feeling he’s almost shouting even though his voice is so quiet on the line. I have to press the phone hard to my ear to just hear.
‘Hey Nepal,’ I say back.
It’s early morning there to our night and Ben is calling from base camp. He’s typically amped, immediately launching into a story about the wild ride from Kathmandu, his excitement about the long trek ahead. I can practically feel the adrenalin coursing through his veins, and the heat of his body in his thermal gear, through the fast and loose speed of his words.
My idea of Nepal is of Sherpa’s huts and prayer flags. Mountains that rise higher than the flight of birds, purpled forests filled with cedar and pine. I know that winds sweeping across the Indian Ocean will carry moisture over the Himalayas only to have it condense into rainless clouds, and that one in ten of the climbers who attempt to scale Mount Everest will die. I do not mention either of these things to my brother. Ben’s voice splits and flattens on the phone. The delay means that we are often talking over each other. I wrap the phone cord around my fingers and wait for a pause.
‘Maybe I’ll come,’ I say. ‘Meet you at base camp. Go along for the ride.’
There are a few breaths of silence, like the pause they put in the middle of daytime television shows when one character is reluctant to tell the other a terrible truth. On the other end, I hear Ben sigh.
Peter is my brother’s best friend. Or maybe was. I’m not exactly sure where their friendship lies ever since Ben left us for Nepal, just as I’m not sure what Peter and I are to each other now. When we were younger, Ben was one of those dependable older brothers – steadfast enough to take our parents’ charge of looking after his lonesome younger sister seriously. He never minded my tagging along, and it always felt genuine to me. Even if there was something in it for him too: respect from the adults and, later, adoration from the girls. Maybe it was the same with Peter too. Like Batman and Robin, Holmes and Watson – the charismatic adventurer and his awkward, gangly sidekick. My brother did always have a soft spot for the stragglers and the strays.
I think it was Ben who first got the subscription to National Geographic and, in a short while, we were all obsessed. The three of us would gather in his room, flipping through the thin, glossy pages, fantasising about our own impossible journeys and cutting out the best photos to stick up on our walls. Though we soon outgrew other things, this one went on for years.
But Ben also had an adventurous streak that often saw him gone for days, transfixed by some new task or pursuit. He would take off whenever he liked, ignoring anyone who didn’t come along for the ride. This might have seemed callous, but he never meant it, and always came back for you in the end. It was only later that I realised that this thoughtlessness too could be a kind of arrogance – the entitlement of those who could, over those who could not. And, as we grew older, Ben’s flights became wilder, more arduous. The time he spent at home less and less.
So, in the end, it was often just Peter and me, sorting through photos of the Okavango Delta or White-naped Crane while Ben went out kayaking or on a weekend-long hike. Peter had glasses, which he stills wears, and a slight lisp, which he has since lost, except when he gets nervous. All in all, he might have seemed like an odd match for my brother, but I thought he was a good one for me, and I liked those afternoons, with the door to Ben’s room burrowed shut and the rain making a melt of the outside world. I especially liked it when it was just Peter and I, moving at the same slow, thoughtful pace, somehow made less lonely by the fact that we had been left behind together. We would kneel on the worn carpet, burning our knees, and put on Billy Idol or The Pretenders, thumbing pages, at first self-consciously, and then happily. I still remember Peter concentrating on cutting the paper, struggling to remove the photo in a perfectly straight line.
After graduation, the idea was that we would go see these places, do all the things that National Geographic said were possible. We decided to start out close to home. Idaho after all was not so far from Portland, and our families. The plan was to spend a summer near Yellowstone, hiking, camping, getting fit, before moving on to bigger things. We rented a house in Ashton, with Peter working at the local video store and me not doing much of anything at all. Ben stayed long enough to get a seasonal job at the park and save up money before announcing he was heading to India and from there, the Himalayas. Within a fortnight, he was gone.
On Monday, I get up early for the first time in weeks. I gather my hair into what I hope is an outdoorsy kind of ponytail – high and tight, but not too high, more girl scout than cheerleader – and pull on my green parka and a pair of thick-soled boots, which I’d carefully laid out the night before. When I put on my glasses the world goes foggy. There’s a fingerprint on the lens. I clean it off, but some residue remains. Outside everything looks honeycombed. I make my way to the campgrounds with the Grand Teton ranges rising up at my back.
When I arrive, everything is quiet and damp. It’s the bare few months before the warm weather and everyone is hovering in some kind of pre-holiday limbo. In the brochures I saw before coming here, all the campers looked happy and fit. Crowded around roaring fires and log cabins in turtlenecks and rain-gear, or else hiking against awesome backdrops of blue-tinted mountains and lakes. Here, they just look depleted. Sitting with their cans on too-small fold-up chairs next to caravans or under dew-covered tarps. Too tired, too cold or too lazy to do or be much else.
I can’t seem to find any signs and it takes me several minutes to locate the big portable office propped up on concrete bricks on some flattened ground. There’s no one inside, so I stand there awkwardly for a few minutes while rangers and holidaymakers pass by. Behind the desk, there’s a low chair with the padding showing through a rip in the seat and four barley-colour divots in the carpet where the metal legs have worn the fibre away. I blow on my hands to warm them and burrow my fingers into my sleeves. Finally, a woman with short, dark hair and nametag that says ‘Delia’ appears and sits down.
I say my name and explain that I’m here for the attendant’s job. Delia nods and flicks on the computer screen, tapping her teeth with her pen before reeling off a list of duties.
‘You’ll need to greet and register guests as they arrive, process payments and maintain the daily communication log,’ she says. ‘You’ll be on your feet for at least eight hours a day. And we need someone who can assist with four hours of lifting and maintenance. Can you handle 25 pounds?’
I nod, glad of the parka, its puffy folds, and how it hides how small I really am. Across the desk, Delia sighs and looks at me directly. I try not to blink. ‘Look,’ she pauses for a second, appearing to have forgotten my name, ‘we need a people person. Someone who can handle the campers, lead the hikes. Someone tough, but friendly.’
I sense that this is my chance to say something, preferably with words like ‘really’ and ‘sure’ to show how tough, but friendly, I really am. But all I can think of is the fact that if I were Ben, I wouldn’t need to prove anything at all. That Delia would have lit up at the mere sight of me.
‘I know a lot about the park,’ I say instead, wanting to tell her, for example, about the massive chamber of volcanic rock lying in wait beneath the geysers, or the thermal rivers that never freeze, even in the dead of winter, but continue to flow and steam in some unearthly way. I want to tell her that I know about the coyotes hunting across the white-packed ground, and the marmots and bison, who can cut through deep swathes of snow with nothing more than the sway of their powerful necks. I want to tell her about the image I’ve seen of a red fox walking silently across the drift, before leaping, supernatural and strange, body-deep into the powder to make the kill. But something inside tells me that Delia will not appreciate these facts, so I just keep quiet. The silence drags on and on. I stare at the yellowing admin notes on the corkboard, the bright blue tacks that hold them there, racking my brains. Delia just sits and waits it out, and I know that between the two of us, this silence will have consequences only for me.
When I get home, Peter is with a girl in the kitchen. I hear their voices first: his, quiet and nervous, and then hers, loud, drawn and somehow inflected. Laughter, followed by the sound of the refrigerator being opened and closed. I bang the front door loudly to let them know I’m here.
I consider going straight to my room but end up in the kitchen anyway. When he sees me Peter straightens a little, as if standing to attention. Both of them are still in their work uniforms. The girl has a black tank top under hers and is slouchy and gorgeous in that mascaraed, messy kind of way. Her hair is dyed bright red, dark at the roots, and even though I’m right there she doesn’t stop talking for a good while, something about San Lucas and spring break in Acapulco.
‘Laura, this is Marley,’ Peter says finally. ‘Ben’s sister.’
Laura manages a brief ‘hey’ before turning back to Peter. ‘So anyway, you should think about it.’
‘Yeah. Definitely.’ Peter’s eyes dart to me. ‘How was the interview?’
I shrug and say I didn’t get it.
Laura frowns. ‘The attendant’s job? My friend works there. He said they practically shoved the nametag onto him within the first five minutes. Always dying for staff.’
I glance at Peter and he’s standing with his hands in his pockets, slightly hunched. He senses me looking and straightens and for a moment I think he’s going to say something in my defence. I feel like a fake sheath of corn, all straight and square. But instead he simply refuses to meet my eye and changes the subject.
There was one morning, just after Ben left, that we finally got ourselves together and caught one of the buses heading up the byway. It was summer, peak season, and the vehicle was crammed tight with families: the interior thick with the vacuumed smell of carpet cleaner and body heat, the air conditioning blasting over it all. Accents pinged about like darts for the ear to catch, the Midwest, Chicago, Montreal, and even the occasional strain of something elusively European.
There was a trail that looped around the lake and back again, dipping in and out of the pines and wide stretches of exposed land. Yellow, buttery wildflowers and then dirt as bare as clay. We ambled down the path on the tail of a larger group. The shade was as cool as winter air, and when I stepped into the sunlight the warmth seeped right into my bones like a thaw. Along the river edge, there was a spot where the pines grew thick and close, forming a narrow lee of sorts, pale stones and midges and water wide, brown and clear. Peter stopped to pick up some pebbles, which he managed to skip across the surface once and then not at all. I could hear birds in the treetops, the sound somehow infinitely more precise, more bell-like, than anything on the BBC. Peter shrugged his backpack off his shoulders and came to stand nearby.
‘It’s almost like we’re the only two left,’ he said, and I wasn’t sure whether he meant because of Ben and Nepal or because everyone else had disappeared down the trail, but in way both were true so I said, ‘I know what you mean.’
He nodded and rubbed his arm. ‘I guess we should keep going.’
I turned back towards him, and the path. ‘Okay.’
But neither of us moved. I strained to hear the birds again but they too seemed to have gone silent. Instead there was just the gentle lap of the lake to our right, the sound of Peter breathing in. When he had spoken before, I could hear that old nervousness in his voice as it stumbled and dived, and a part of me was still trying to work out what that meant. In the brief seconds before he kissed me, I sensed he was going to, and closed my eyes as if in preparation. It wasn’t smooth exactly – an odd angle, heads turning the wrong way – but I didn’t mind. We held to each other, clumsily but together, and my backpack swayed with me like a counter-weight. He felt like my oldest friend. A friend who I had kept only through my brother perhaps, but who I thought might stay with me despite the loss of him as well. It wasn’t until he put a hand to the waist of my jeans and pulled at the zip that I realised what he wanted.
A branch snapped against my ankle, scratching the skin between my sock and the cuff of my jeans. I couldn’t quite fit into words what I meant to say. How I wanted it to happen, but differently. How it all seemed so unsure.
I began to form a sentence, but trailed off midway through, and in that instant I began to feel something spiral outwards between us, like a tightly wound spring suddenly coming undone.
Peter frowned, hesitating, then his expression flashed with exasperation. ‘God Marley, why can’t we ever just for once do something real?’
A bird sounded behind us, close. I looked up, but there was nothing but needles. There were people all over the lake, the banks were slicked with tracts of mud, we were too exposed, another hiking group could come by within minutes. Yet it wasn’t for any of these reasons that I finally pulled away – it was because, for the first time, I understood how truly Peter felt that we had been left behind. That to him, we were not moving at the same speed at all, but rather were stuck with each other, like coral and rock, held together by our own steadiness, our own careful, motionless grip.
I hear them out on the porch just after eleven. I am both straining to listen and straining not to. There’s Laura’s laughter, full and teasing, and Peter’s soft-spoken murmur. The drum of heels against deck as they walk up the steps. I hear too quiet, and a shift of weight. When they finally come in, they creep down the hallway into his room and shut the door behind them.
In the kitchen, I heat up the milk in a saucepan and add three spoonfuls of cocoa powder. The countertop is some sort of faux black granite and the drawers have been fixed with country-style handles. The floor tiles are cream again, ugly and decorative. We have nothing to furnish the house with and it’s as bare as the day we came, with a set of mothy furniture that belonged to another generation. The windows are small and there is never enough light, and in this place I can feel nothing but the dimness and the damp and the frayed edges of my own self-limits. The night is cold and I end up pulling my parka over my pyjamas and turning on the TV. I watch in the hope of lulling myself to sleep, but no sleep comes. The screen is replete with images of impossible things. Bright green pools of sulphuric acid in the Danakil Depression. Whole mountains eroded by desert sands, until what remains is just a heavy shelf of rock supported by a smooth, slender neck of stone. Something called a halocline in the Yucatan caves of Mexico, where a layer of freshwater flows above a layer of saltwater, giving the eerie illusion of dry air. As the camera surfaces through it, I cannot help but imagine the first diver to encounter such a thing. Ripping off their masks to inhale a lungful of oxygen, only to realise, too late, their mistake. But still, I am captivated by it all – the delicate tension that comes with seeing such far-off things, with its gentle stings of sadness and wonder, while at the same time knowing that you will never get there yourself.
I hear footsteps down the hall and when I look up Peter is standing there in his boxers and a long-sleeved shirt, looking of all things sheepish and just a little bit pleased. I don’t get up, but continue to watch the screen. He has a glass of water in his hand and drinks in long, big gulps.
‘Laura’s going to do the Inca trail over the summer,’ he says. ‘She can’t believe I’ve never been to South America, what with the whole continent pretty much on our doorstep.’
The TV flickers and an image comes up that could almost be a remote Tibetan plateau. Thin air. Deer and golden dust.
I deliberately do not look at Peter when I say my next words. ‘You’ll never go. You think you want to, but you’ll never make it.’
For a moment my body is electric with tension, its sweet, abrasive grip, but then I feel a heaviness forming at the base of my chest, and something descends between us, as if to a final rest. I do not even need to look at Peter to know the expression on his face.
His voice is far behind me, hurt and distant. ‘That’s what you think, Marley. That’s all you ever think.’
I wake feeling like I haven’t slept at all but when I glance through the gap in the curtains the morning light is soft and dim and everything has a bluish tint to it.
Ben’s old F-150 is still there in the carport, covered by a dusty tarp. When I pull it back I can see that the Ford still bears the marks of his last trip, the white cab sprayed with dirt and tracks of rainwater as if overcome by rust, the left wiper broken at the joint. I pour a bottle of water over the windscreen to sluice away the layer of morning frost, and when I crank the ignition the engine comes to life with a shudder that shakes me to the knees.
I take the fastest route to Highway 20. The town and the giant silos of the granary pass by within minutes, giving way to a flat, winding road with stumpy wooden barriers and a long yellow stripe. I can see the conifers growing on both sides, their needles dark and bitter at this time of year, and the grey sky rearing up ahead. Everything seems so empty, so devoid of people, that at times it feels as though I’m driving through my own imagination. Once I get far enough, or at least what I think is far enough, I take a right at the next fork in the road. The asphalt transforms abruptly into gravel, the width so narrow that it can only accommodate one vehicle at a time and the wheel begins to shudder in my grip. After a while, I come across a low metal gate. I roll the Ford to a stop and get out, zipping up my parka and pulling on a pair of my brother’s thick woollen gloves. As I approach, I can see that there’s a chain snaked around the bars in a figure eight and a rusty padlock the size of my fist. I swing one foot over, and then the other.
The ground is hard and frozen, but broken by whitebark pine and spruce. I walk until I can’t see where I’ve come from anymore and, after a time, the land begins to rise, the distant shadow of a spur coming into focus up ahead.
I think of Ben in Nepal. How by now he will have found his summit and come to rest at a plateau, his mind at peace with the knowledge that he has done all he set out to do that day, a pattern that he is sure to replicate for the rest of his life. I think about how to others, I must always seem to be trying, and failing at the same time.
The light is dulling and it’s not long before I begin to feel the sprinkle of rain on my neck. I’m hot inside my parka from going uphill, but I pull the hood over my head and yank down on the drawstrings anyway. All around me, the landscape seems to repeat itself over and over. I see no awesome vistas, no roaring gorges or waterfalls, no signs of wildlife, and the loneliness is so apparent it’s almost comforting.
I try to find some marker, some sign – a crest of land, a terrible shoulder of rock – to show that I am there, that I have come as far as I need to, but one route is so intelligible from the next, and the landscape so bland and stale, that I almost laugh. The path is long gone and the way ahead splits itself up in all directions. I wait for the feelings of drama and conquest, but none come. Rainwater drips down from the hood of my parka onto my neck. Ben’s gloves are damp and sagging so I strip them off and let myself come to a rest.
Months later, I will take my brother’s car this same way again. Though I only have one suitcase, a chest of drawers and a washing basket filled with a few other useless things, I will load up that monster of a pick-up anyway and turn its giant wheel east down the highway, in the direction of the Midwest. I will sleep, sometimes afraid, in the backseat, and pick no one up along the way. It should have been weeks later, or days, not months. But what can I say other than that, for a time, even though I knew it that day on the spur, I still clung to a childhood belief of loyalty, of right and wrong, and of what people owed you when they acted a certain way.
There will be, on the passenger seat, a postcard, not of Everest, but of the blue, tropical sea, with a translucent forest of coral and viper coloured fish. No one I know sends postcards anymore. The stamp will say that it has come from Queensland, in Australia, and the message on the back will be almost illegible, full of exclamation points and underlines and mad, impatient script. But it is not what it says, or even who sent it, that really matters in the end. For I was on my way to college by then, at Oberlin, and my brother gone in the world for what seemed like a very long time.