1 LIFE & DEATH
I turn toward the glaring light. It’s not really where I want to go. I want to stay with Aaron, to drive away with him in Bernard’s beat-up old truck, to be close to him, to cradle in my hands the bouquet of flowers he gave me and watch in awe as they spring back to life and know, too, my heart will restart. But just like a moth driven to the glow, I float forward, staring into the brightness, catching glimpses of the silhouette of my mother, praying that what I see isn’t my mother’s ghost, but truly her physical self-standing there in the doorway.
Dierdra greets me within the framework of the front door, stiff, motionless, without a smile or open arms. The hood from her coat sits high on her head. The high points of her face—her nose, cheeks, chin, forehead, and lips—are awash in light. They protrude from the shadows and give the illusion I’m being greeted by the grim reaper. All that is lacking is the blood-soaked sickle clutched in her hand yet, here too, I imagine a weapon of sorts.
I hear a whoosh-whoosh from above and, as I look skyward, I see a bird, a large one, crane-looking, swooping down, following the road to where I see the brake lights of Aaron’s truck beaming through the darkness. I think maybe he has changed his mind about escorting me to the front door. I hesitate, caught in mid-step. And then I see the strange-looking large bird circle above him. I see Aaron jut his head out the window. He looks up. The brake lights disappear. The truck moves forward. The bird flies out ahead, as though in the lead. I remember back to when Cherrie and I climbed down from Helen Lake on Mount Shasta. Although I had only caught a peek at the bird between breaks in the clouds, the form is familiar. There, on the mountain, it had the appearance of a ghost. Here, caught in the glow of the streetlights, I see the bird more clearly, yet without detail. It flies, similar to the shadow one sees passing along the ground as a bird passes overhead, bent and twisted, blending with the texture of its milieu.
I stand on the threshold but an arm’s length away, a step from entering the cabin, yet my heart aches to retreat, to turn from my mother, the grim reaper, and to sprint down the road in chase of Aaron. But to what end? Could I beat Aaron to the stop sign? I can still hear the sound of his truck rumbling down the gradient. Catching him is possible, if he slows and stops and if I’m at my best running speed. But what then? Step in front of the truck? Hold up my hand. Plead my case? What can I say to change Aaron’s mind that I haven’t already said? He made his choice. Turned and drove away. He left me with a hand full of decaying flowers and a bruised if not broken heart. He gave no care to the thought of my mother dying or the pain I might endure at the knowing. Why should I make an effort to reconcile?
“Where’ve you been?”
I brush past Dierdra and saunter into the living room. A man, dressed in a policeman’s uniform, sits on the couch, perched forward, as if ready to spring into action at the slightest provocation. Dierdra, grabbing me by the shoulder, spins me around, her eyes a-glare. She has never before been physically abusive to me. I sense this is about to change.
“I asked you where you’ve been!”
I jab my thumb over my shoulder to the officer. “What’re the police doing here?”
Dierdra’s slap comes hard and fast. The sting, biting my cheek, causes my eyes to water. The liquid crests and overflows, draping oversized tears down my cheeks. I swipe them away. I put on my case-hardened looking face.
I hear the police officer rising to his feet behind me. I want to scream at Dierdra. Tell her what a mean mother she’s becoming. My hand, instinctively, balls up into a fist. Deep down, in a place I’m not known to frequent, I feel the urge to fight back.
I do neither.
I turn and walk into the kitchen. “You didn’t see the note?” I ask in as calm a voice as I can.
“The one I left.” I look to the refrigerator where I had pinned the post-it prior to leaving with Aaron to the Crags. It isn’t there. I turn and look at the officer, who is digging and pulling paper out of his breast pocket.
“My apologies, Mrs. Grant,” he says. “I clean forgot about it.” He hands the note to her and backpedals, as though he feels he needs to keep at least an arm’s length distance between them.
I start to put the pieces of the puzzle together in my mind; the officer’s car sitting in the driveway in front of Dierdra’s car and the officer in possession of the note. Obviously, he arrived sometime before Dierdra. I know he wouldn’t have had a problem gaining entrance to the cabin, because we never locked the door. How could we?
Uncle Mickey, when constructing the house, didn’t install a lock on the front door. When I questioned Dierdra on this, I was told Uncle Mickey never felt security was needed. He considered the townsfolk—she said—part of his family. Why would they steal from him? It never entered his mind they would. And if they did, Uncle Mickey was of the nature he’d give them the shirt off his back.
I look to my bedroom door. It stands open. I think I remember closing it before leaving with Aaron this morning. What else had the officer been looking for? Besides the note?
Searching for what? And why?
Had the officer thought I’d been hurt or worse yet, dead? Was he looking for clues as to my disappearance? I couldn’t think of anything else, which would make him so bold as to search our house without a warrant. In my mind, the officer’s concern for my welfare would be the only justifiable reason for ransacking our house.
I take a step toward the officer so I can read his name tag.
“Officer Scheeler, what're you doing in our house?” What're you looking for?”
Officer Scheeler ignores me. He keeps his eyes directed at Dierdra. Dierdra studiously reads the note. I can see her lips moving as she reads the words. They tremble with emotion.
Gone hiking to the Crags with Aaron. Not sure when we’ll be back but will be sometime today. Hope things went well for you in Redding.
Dierdra approaches me with quivering lips and tears in her eyes.
“Jewels, I’m so sorry.” She lays the palm of her hand on my face. Her thumb brushes away the last of the wetness on my cheek. Her eyes reflect the torment grinding away within. They dart around in search of forgiveness.
I feel a red-hot burn where she lays her hand, only because the skin is still inflamed. Her touch cools the hostility burning in me. It dilutes the acidic broth stewing in my belly.
“I’m so sorry,” Dierdra says. “When I came home and saw the car here and the officer in the house...I just...well, I didn’t know what to think. I thought he was going to tell me you were...”
I study Dierdra’s face as her voice trails off.
“What? Dead? Mom, you’ve got to quit thinking I’m hurt or going to die. And then it dawns on me. “You didn’t call the police, did you?”
Dierdra shakes her head. “No. Like I said. The gentleman was here when I got home.”
I turn to Scheeler. “Who called you?”
“No one.” He pulls out a pencil and a notepad and motions to the couch. “Have a seat.”
I move over and stand next to Dierdra in a show of solidarity. “Not until you tell us what this is all about. If you aren’t here looking for me, then why're you in our house? What’re you looking for?” I point to the note in Dierdra’s hand. “Besides that.”
“I was. Looking for you.”
Dierdra reaches out. She lifts my hand. “What're these?”
I look down at the flower bouquet. I had completely forgotten them. Instead of wilting, as would be expected, the flowers—despite not having their stems immersed in water—continue to add color and bloom. The Castle Crag bellflowers rise in posture, even as the three of us stare. It reminds me of watching a time-elapse video of a plant growing. I can see the white to pale blue corolla lobes curling back and protruding around the center of the flower. The stems and hairy leaves come alive, turning leathery. I see the likeness of two large-pointed teeth on the edges of the leaves taking shape.
Had I not known better I would have guessed Aaron had purchased the flowers at the local flower shop. It’s hard to imagine he had, just minutes before, pulled the dried-out bouquet from the truck’s glove compartment and handed them to me.
“Excuse me,” I say. “I’ll be right back.”
I rummage through the kitchen cabinets in search of a flower vase. Up on the top shelf of the coffee mug and drinking glasses’ cabinet I spy Uncle Mickey’s mountaineering beer glasses. I remember Dierdra telling me they were a present from Simon to his brother Mickey, eight glasses in all, individually inscribed with the profile of a mountain, its coordinates, elevation, first ascent, classic routes, and other pertinent facts. A copy of the actual geological survey marker found at the top of each mountain is imprinted, in black lettering, on the base of the glass.
One night, after downing a beer per glass, Uncle Mickey and Simon made a pact to climb all eight of the mountains listed in the glass set, which included favorite mountains in the Sierra and Cascade ranges. They used Shasta as their training ground, climbing it from the south, the north, and the west. As their confidence grew, they took on Rainier and Whitney, climbing them and Shasta, once again, all in the same year.
I find it unsettling the pint glass I manage to pull from the shelf happens to be emblazoned with Mount Hood’s likeness and description. I read some of the facts: elevation: 11,249 feet; 1st ascent: 1857 by Henry Pittock; voted Oregon’s “Most likely to erupt” and, on the survey marker it says, “250 dollars fine for disturbing this mark”.
I cannot get the sense of how Simon and Uncle Mickey, experienced climbers, perished on a mountain, which is home to 6 resorts with 4600 acres of skiable terrain.
My research of the mountain reveals, out of the 10,000 people who attempt to climb Mount Hood each year, only 130 people died since records have been kept.
Pretty good odds I have to admit, which only fuels my skepticism and fosters denial. I half expect Uncle Mickey to burst through the back door, pour a glass of his favorite brew, and enthrall me with stories of his latest adventure. Dad would be sure to follow in Uncle Mickey’s footsteps, dusting off the snow from his shoulders and the frost from his beard as he enters.
So goes a young girl’s mind, wandering in the possibilities of the impossible.
I recall reading; the worst climbing accident on Mount Hood occurred in the mid-eighties when seven teenagers and two school teachers froze to death while attempting to retreat from a storm. This train of thought and holding the cold cup in my hand causes shivers to run up and down the length of my spine. I move to the sink and run the glass under warm water in an effort to wash out the dust and to rein in my cold-induced shakes.
The glass, by design, is thick, heavy, and tapered. Its opening doubles the circumference of the base. This makes the glassware ideal for a short-stemmed flower vase.
I clip the ends of the flowers off at a slant, fill the glass with warm water, and tuck the stems into the vase. I heard if one puts a penny and an aspirin in the water the flowers will last longer because the copper acts as a fungicide and the aspirin makes the water more acidic. I don’t think, in this case, either is necessary. Whatever life-force energy Aaron gave the flowers, I reason, they will do just fine without any artificial rejuvenation.
Aaron’s perceived ability to bring things back to life shakes the foundations of my beliefs, namely those taught to me by the Catholic Church. If one possesses the ability to resurrect, then, without question—I had been taught—that person is a deity. I can’t help but wonder; if Aaron is truly some type of true-blood Lemurian divine being, where’s that going to leave me?
The little girl from Minnesota, who had been led to believe Paul Bunyan, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny are real, but since learned they are nothing but fabrications invented by adults to spur the imaginations of little children, no longer accepts blind faith. And what about my dad, Simon, and Chuck, real people who now lay dead? Where’s God? Where’s the Catholic Church? Where are the miracles to save them! Or bring them back to life? Who wouldn’t, at the age of sixteen, become cynical in all things after having lived through what I have suffered?
Do I believe Aaron is gifted? Yes! Can I believe he is a divine being? I hold reservation. More so, I don’t want to believe he’s capable of resurrecting anything. Yet, here I stand, looking down on the incarnate proof of his ability to raise flowers from the dead.
It’s also true I felt invigorated in the hospital when Aaron touched me. The pig—although I firmly believed it had been dead and would stay dead forever—nevertheless showed signs of life when Aaron accidentally touched it. And now the flowers, blossoming in all their glory, as if it were springtime on the Crags, continue to mount a come-back-to-life transformation, even as I stand and stare.
I ask myself: At what point does Aaron’s transference of life-force energy no longer have an effect? Minutes, hours, days after something or someone dies? How long had the flowers been dead or dying?
I understand summer comes late in the mountains, which includes the Crags, so I think it is possible Aaron picked the flowers recently, maybe even on the first day I saw him looking down at us from Crown Dome while Cherrie and I were boy hunting.
So, I wonder, is his ability any different from, say, someone’s skill in the medical profession? Who, under the right conditions, possesses the expertise to resurrect a person back from the dead? You hear about it now and again; the person who floats underwater for twenty minutes or more, and due to the slowing hypothermic effect the medical mavens miraculously revive them. I witnessed this with my friend, Chuck Segovia. He was believed dead, yet came back to life for a few more days before dying. Is this all Aaron is doing? Using his superior knowledge and honed skills to impart a medical healing of the body? Even when it comes to reviving flowers?
I gaze at the flowers. How odd, I think, I’m looking for answers through the flower’s transformation instead of basking in the romanticism of the age old tradition of a boy gifting a girl flowers.
“Where are you?” I hear Dierdra say this from the living room.
I make one last attempt to arrange the flowers in the mountaineering glass before answering. “Coming.”
As I enter the living room, I see Dierdra and Scheeler sitting on the couch, twisted a bit, facing each other. I hear Louk Hollingsworth’s name mentioned in their conversation.
“What about Louk?” I ask.
Dierdra slides over and pats the couch in the space between her and the officer. “Come. Sit,” she says. “Officer Scheeler would like to ask you some questions.”
“I’m okay here.” I stand tall. I fold my arms across my chest, bracing for the questions Scheeler seems intent on asking.
“Just a few,” Scheeler says as he readies his notebook and pen, “questions. You were with Aaron Delmon in the park today. That correct?”
I nod. “Yes. Castle Crags’ park.”
“Mind telling me what you two were doing up there?”
“Hiking?” I say with a non-voiced duh attached.
In the back of my mind, I wonder if there’s a regulation or law against stripping down and sitting in one’s underwear in the park.
“Just how well do you know Aaron Delmon?”
I look to Dierdra. She sits with a stoic look on her face, almost too prim and proper. Her hands lay folded in her lap. She holds her head erect, as though giving the two of us her undivided attention. Yet I can see it in her eyes, her thoughts roam elsewhere.
How am I to answer the officer? How well do I know Aaron Delmon? I can only guess I have just scratched the surface. After all, isn’t it me who said, "quiet waters run deep"? If you want to explore them, you have to jump in. And jump in I had, yet I had also resisted swimming to the deep end. So, do I really know Aaron?
In my opinion, not at all.
What can I tell the officer? Aaron goes to school. He works a job. He has a family, bit unusual, yes, but nonetheless, he lives with a father-figure and the equivalent of two brothers. (I know I’m ignoring the female component, but, secretly and, maybe even egotistically, I hope I can fill the void)
Aaron possesses skills, yes. But doesn’t everyone? Maybe his are a bit more advanced, but so are the talents of elite athletes. Aaron’s a whiz kid in some ways. In others, I find him lacking. Socially, he seems but a child. I find him aloof, awkward in his interaction with others, as if he must mull over his words before speaking, as though he’s raised apart from those of his own age. I believe he’s struggling to align at his peers' level, as though—and I know most of his classmates would agree—he doesn’t fit in. He’s more than just an outsider. He’s been outcast.
“Mom knows,” I say, evading Scheeler’s question and attempting to lure Dierdra back into the conversation. “He’s a nice guy.”
Dierdra nods, reflexively, but she doesn’t mouth anything. I see the furrow in her forehead deepen. Her eyes turn surly.
“Yes,” Scheeler says, “so your mother told me. Said he was there when you were run over by the snowboarder. Said he tended to you and carried you to the car.”
I find run over by a snowboarder a curious way to describe my being knocked off my feet by a snow board. But yes, the snowboarder rode on the road, and yes, I, in effect, nearly became road-kill, so I give Scheeler some leeway. Still, I imagine how I might have looked had I been run over by a snowboard, flat face and all, like one of those cartoon characters you see on TV.
“And,” I say, “Aaron was kind enough to spend the whole night in the waiting room at the hospital. Mom tell you this?”
“She did. She also mentioned it was Louk Hollingsworth who ran you over with the snowboard.”
It’s unlikely the officer would need my mother to tell him who knocked me over with the snowboard. All he had to do was read the police report. In fact, he may have even written the aggravated assault report on the girl who had been run over by a snow board. I feel as though, through Officer Scheeler’s questions, I’m being led somewhere.
“We didn’t know his name at the time. Did we, mother?”
Dierdra hates me calling her mother. For her own reasons, she finds it vulgar. Maybe it’s because whenever I say it she can sense my duress and hear the tone of my voice take on a combative tenor. This occurrence would qualify; however, I didn’t say it to upset her. Admittedly, it was a contrived attempt on my part to gain her attention and thus her support.
Dierdra lowers her head. She wrings her hands. I suspect, by the quivering of her head, she’s on the verge of an emotional meltdown. I don’t understand why. Hopefully not because I called her, mother. In these past few months, she has grown vividly fragile, but I had hoped not that frail.
Dierdra, without looking up, speaks. Her words break soft, low in whisper, contorted, and filled with despair. Barely audible. Barely heard. Yet so heartrending I cannot but hear.
“Louk’s dead,” she says.
So now I know what it feels like to be punched in the gut by a raging Cherrie. I find myself bending over, clutching my stomach in attempt to absorb the horrifying news. I feel the color draining from my face. My heart empties of blood. I can’t breathe. Elephants sit on my chest. I think time has stopped. I’m suspended in torment, without hope of release.
Scheeler stands. With the sweep of his hand, he offers me his seat on the couch.
I shake my head, not in refusal to sit, but in denial of what I think I have just heard.
“Louk’s dead?” I say, between the flutter of my breaths.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Officer Scheeler points to the couch.
“How did he die? Car wreck?” I can only imagine the worse.
Car accident? Coming back from snow-boarding on Shasta? Over the side. Down the mountain. Into the trees. Who else was with him? I know he hung with Jason, several others. Oh, my God! Hadn’t Cherrie said she was going to meet Jason and go snow-boarding? Was she driving? Did the tank run out of steering fluid? And take them all over the cliff? The same as it tried to do to us?
I imagine seeing Cherrie and the boys going over the side of the mountain in the LC. I see Cherrie, in dying color as she slams her foot in desperation against the brake pedal, to no effect. I see her face, corkscrewed in fear as the car plummets over a cliff, her vision filled with nothing but sky and terror, the same horizon of horror we saw the day Aaron rescued us from death’s door.
Aaron would not be there on the mountain this day. Aaron would not be there to save them. Because Aaron stayed with me. On the Crags. Sitting with me on the granite ledge. In full view of the mountain. In our underwear. Meditating. Unaware of the tragedy unfolding.
Guilt wells up inside me. How will I be able to forgive myself if Cherrie, Louk, Jason, and others died due to the lack of a quart of steering fluid? Why hadn’t I been more persistent in nagging Cherrie about getting the power steering fixed on the LC? Am I to blame?
The punch deepens.
“How he died is what we’re here to find out,” Scheeler says, answering my question.
I hang in trance next to the officer. I beg him to tell me. “Was it a car wreck? Were there others with him?”
“Please. Have a seat.”
I step back as if I need separation, resisting consoling. I don’t want to be made to feel better. Not until I know. Not until I can get past the first punch on my own. This is what a sixteen-year-old girl learns from the death of her father and a best friend.
Getting over it cannot come too soon. For if it does, the skin lays thin over the wound, only to be broken again at the next scrape or scratch.
“Not until you tell me how he died,” I say.
“He didn’t die in a car wreck.” Scheeler offers me his hand. “Come. Sit down. I need you to tell me who might have been with him when he passed.”
I try to remember the last time I saw Louk. At the Burger Hut?
I never felt ill will toward Lightning Boy for hitting me with the snowboard. When he walked up to me and apologized at the Hut I felt drawn to him, as if I had known him in some past life. And because of this gut feeling I had another reaction. One of expectation. I actually had wanted him to ask me out. Even now, as I stand here and think about it, I don’t know if I would have said yes. Louk wasn’t the hunk Aaron is, but he had a certain charismatic appeal about him. His natural ease to the way he approached life drew you to him, for you wanted to discover and be part of his knowing. So if I would have said, no, it would have been my loss.