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In October Dad won a contract to build industrial granaries in Malad City, the dusty farm town on the other side of Buck’s Peak. It was a big job for a small outfit—the crew was just Dad, Shawn, Luke, and Audrey’s husband, Benjamin—but Shawn was a good foreman, and with him in charge Dad had acquired a reputation for fast, reliable work.

Shawn wouldn’t let Dad take shortcuts. Half the time I passed the shop, I’d hear the two of them shouting at each other, Dad saying Shawn was wasting time, Shawn screaming that Dad had damned near taken someone’s head off.

Shawn worked long days cleaning, cutting and welding the raw materials for the granaries, and once construction began he was usually on-site in Malad. When he and Dad came home, hours after sunset, they were nearly always cussing. Shawn wanted to professionalize the operation, to invest the profits from the Malad job in new equipment; Dad wanted things to stay the same. Shawn said Dad didn’t understand that construction was more competitive than scrapping, and that if they wanted to land real contracts, they needed to spend real money on real equipment—specifically, a new welder and a man lift with a basket.

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“We can’t keep using a forklift and an old cheese pallet,” Shawn said. “It looks like shit, and it’s dangerous besides.”

Dad laughed out loud at the idea of a man basket. He’d been using a forklift and pallet for twenty years.

I WORKED LATE MOST NIGHTS. Randy planned to take a big road trip to find new accounts, and he’d asked me to manage the business while he was gone. He taught me how to use his computer to keep the books, process orders, maintain inventory. It was from Randy that I first heard of the Internet. He showed me how to get online, how to visit a webpage, how to write an email. The day he left, he gave me a cellphone so he could reach me at all hours.

Tyler called one night just as I was getting home from work. He asked if I was studying for the ACT. “I can’t take the test,” I said. “I don’t know any math.”

“You’ve got money,” Tyler said. “Buy books and learn it.”

I said nothing. College was irrelevant to me. I knew how my life would play out: when I was eighteen or nineteen, I would get married. Dad would give me a corner of the farm, and my husband would put a house on it. Mother would teach me about herbs, and also about midwifery, which she’d gone back to now the migraines were less frequent. When I had children, Mother would deliver them, and one day, I supposed, I would be the Midwife. I didn’t see where college fit in.

Tyler seemed to read my thoughts. “You know Sister Sears?” he said. Sister Sears was the church choir director. “How do you think she knows how to lead a choir?”

I’d always admired Sister Sears, and been jealous of her knowledge of music. I’d never thought about how she’d learned it.

“She studied,” Tyler said. “Did you know you can get a degree in music? If you had one, you could give lessons, you could direct the church choir. Even Dad won’t argue with that, not much anyway.”

Mother had recently purchased a trial version of AOL. I’d only ever used the Internet at Randy’s, for work, but after Tyler hung up I turned on our computer and waited for the modem to dial. Tyler had said something about BYU’s webpage. It only took a few minutes to find it. Then the screen was full of pictures—of neat brick buildings the color of sunstone surrounded by emerald trees, of beautiful people walking and laughing, with books tucked under their arms and backpacks slung over their shoulders. It looked like something from a movie. A happy movie.

The next day, I drove forty miles to the nearest bookstore and bought a glossy ACT study guide. I sat on my bed and turned to the mathematics practice test. I scanned the first page. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to solve the equations; I didn’t recognize the symbols. It was the same on the second page, and the third.

I took the test to Mother. “What’s this?” I asked.

“Math,” she said.

“Then where are the numbers?”

“It’s algebra. The letters stand in for numbers.”

“How do I do it?”

Mother fiddled with a pen and paper for several minutes, but she wasn’t able to solve any of the first five equations.

The next day I drove the same forty miles, eighty round-trip, and returned home with a large algebra textbook.

EVERY EVENING, AS THE CREW was leaving Malad, Dad would phone the house so Mother could have dinner waiting when the truck bumped up the hill. I listened for that call, and when it came I would get in Mother’s car and drive away. I didn’t know why. I would go to Worm Creek, where I’d sit in the balcony and watch rehearsals, my feet on the ledge, a math book open in front of me. I hadn’t studied math since long division, and the concepts were unfamiliar. I understood the theory of fractions but struggled to manipulate them, and seeing a decimal on the page made my heart race. Every night for a month I sat in the opera house, in a chair of red velvet, and practiced the most basic operations—how to multiply fractions, how to use a reciprocal, how to add and multiply and divide with decimals—while on the stage, characters recited their lines.

I began to study trigonometry. There was solace in its strange formulas and equations. I was drawn to the Pythagorean theorem and its promise of a universal—the ability to predict the nature of any three points containing a right angle, anywhere, always. What I knew of physics I had learned in the junkyard, where the physical world often seemed unstable, capricious. But here was a principle through which the dimensions of life could be defined, captured. Perhaps reality was not wholly volatile. Perhaps it could be explained, predicted. Perhaps it could be made to make sense.

The misery began when I moved beyond the Pythagorean theorem to sine, cosine and tangent. I couldn’t grasp such abstractions. I could feel the logic in them, could sense their power to bestow order and symmetry, but I couldn’t unlock it. They kept their secrets, becoming a kind of gateway beyond which I believed there was a world of law and reason. But I could not pass through the gate.

Mother said that if I wanted to learn trigonometry, it was her responsibility to teach me. She set aside an evening, and the two of us sat at the kitchen table, scratching at bits of paper and tugging our hair. We spent three hours on a single problem, and every answer we produced was wrong.

“I wasn’t any good at trig in high school,” Mother moaned, slamming the book shut. “And I’ve forgotten what little I knew.”

Dad was in the living room, shuffling through blueprints for the granaries and mumbling to himself. I’d watched him sketch those blueprints, watched him perform the calculations, altering this angle or lengthening that beam. Dad had little formal education in mathematics but it was impossible to doubt his aptitude: somehow I knew that if I put the equation before my father, he would be able to solve it.

When I’d told Dad that I planned to go to college, he’d said a woman’s place was in the home, that I should be learning about herbs—“God’s pharmacy” he’d called it, smiling to himself—so I could take over for Mother. He’d said a lot more, of course, about how I was whoring after man’s knowledge instead of God’s, but still I decided to ask him about trigonometry. Here was a sliver of man’s knowledge I was certain he possessed.

I scribbled the problem on a fresh sheet of paper. Dad didn’t look up as I approached, so gently, slowly, I slid the paper over the blueprints. “Dad, can you solve this?”

He looked at me harshly, then his eyes softened. He rotated the paper, gazed at it for a moment, and began to scrawl, numbers and circles and great, arcing lines that doubled back on themselves. His solution didn’t look like anything in my textbook. It didn’t look like anything I had ever seen. His mustache twitched; he mumbled. Then he stopped scribbling, looked up and gave the correct answer.

I asked how he’d solved it. “I don’t know how to solve it,” he said, handing me the paper. “All I know is, that’s the answer.”

I walked back to the kitchen, comparing the clean, balanced equation to the mayhem of unfinished computations and dizzying sketches. I was struck by the strangeness of that page: Dad could command this science, could decipher its language, decrypt its logic, could bend and twist and squeeze from it the truth. But as it passed through him, it turned to chaos.

I STUDIED TRIGONOMETRY FOR a month. I sometimes dreamed about sine, cosine and tangent, about mysterious angles and concussed computations, but for all this I made no real progress. I could not self-teach trigonometry. But I knew someone who had.

Tyler told me to meet him at our aunt Debbie’s house, because she lived near Brigham Young University. The drive was three hours. I felt uncomfortable knocking on my aunt’s door. She was Mother’s sister, and Tyler had lived with her during his first year at BYU, but that was all I knew of her.

Tyler answered the door. We settled in the living room while Debbie prepared a casserole. Tyler solved the equations easily, writing out orderly explanations for every step. He was studying mechanical engineering, set to graduate near the top of his class, and soon after would start a PhD at Purdue. My trig equations were far beneath his abilities, but if he was bored he didn’t show it; he just explained the principles patiently, over and over. The gate opened a little, and I peeked through it.

Tyler had gone, and Debbie was pushing a plate of casserole into my hands, when the phone rang. It was Mother.

“There’s been an accident in Malad,” she said.

MOTHER HAD LITTLE INFORMATION. Shawn had fallen. He’d landed on his head. Someone had called 911, and he’d been airlifted to a hospital in Pocatello. The doctors weren’t sure if he would live. That was all she knew.

I wanted more, some statement of the odds, even if it was just so I could reason against them. I wanted her to say, “They think he’ll be fine” or even “They expect we’ll lose him.” Anything but what she was saying, which was, “They don’t know.”

Mother said I should come to the hospital. I imagined Shawn on a white gurney, the life leaking out of him. I felt such a wave of loss that my knees nearly buckled, but in the next moment I felt something else. Relief.

There was a storm coming, set to lay three feet of snow over Sardine Canyon, which guarded the entrance to our valley. Mother’s car, which I had driven to Debbie’s, had bald tires. I told Mother I couldn’t get through.

THE STORY OF HOW Shawn fell would come to me in bits and pieces, thin lines of narrative from Luke and Benjamin, who were there. It was a frigid afternoon and the wind was fierce, whipping the fine dust up in soft clouds. Shawn was standing on a wooden pallet, twenty feet in the air. Twelve feet below him was a half-finished concrete wall, with rebar jutting outward like blunt skewers. I don’t know for certain what Shawn was doing on the pallet, but he was probably fitting posts or welding, because that was the kind of work he did. Dad was driving the forklift.

I’ve heard conflicting accounts of why Shawn fell.* Someone said Dad moved the boom unexpectedly and Shawn pitched over the edge. But the general consensus is that Shawn was standing near the brink, and for no reason at all stepped backward and lost his footing. He plunged twelve feet, his body revolving slowly in the air, so that when he struck the concrete wall with its outcropping of rebar, he hit headfirst, then tumbled the last eight feet to the dirt.

This is how the fall was described to me, but my mind sketches it differently—on a white page with evenly spaced lines. He ascends, falls at a slope, strikes the rebar and returns to the ground. I perceive a triangle. The event makes sense when I think of it in these terms. Then the logic of the page yields to my father.

Dad looked Shawn over. Shawn was disoriented. One of his pupils was dilated and the other wasn’t, but no one knew what that meant. No one knew it meant there was a bleed inside his brain.

Dad told Shawn to take a break. Luke and Benjamin helped him prop himself against the pickup, then went back to work.

The facts after this point are even more hazy.

The story I heard was that fifteen minutes later Shawn wandered onto the site. Dad thought he was ready to work and told him to climb onto the pallet, and Shawn, who never liked being told what to do, started screaming at Dad about everything—the equipment, the granary designs, his pay. He screamed himself hoarse, then just when Dad thought he had calmed down, he gripped Dad around the waist and flung him like a sack of grain. Before Dad could scramble to his feet Shawn took off, leaping and howling and laughing, and Luke and Benjamin, now sure something was very wrong, chased after him. Luke reached him first but couldn’t hold him; then Benjamin added his weight and Shawn slowed a little. But it wasn’t until all three men tackled him—throwing his body to the ground, where, because he was resisting, his head hit hard—that he finally lay still.

No one has ever described to me what happened when Shawn’s head struck that second time. Whether he had a seizure, or vomited, or lost consciousness, I’m not sure. But it was so chilling that someone—maybe Dad, probably Benjamin—dialed 911, which no member of my family had ever done before.

They were told a helicopter would arrive in minutes. Later the doctors would speculate that when Dad, Luke and Benjamin had wrestled Shawn to the ground—and he’d sustained a concussion—he was already in critical condition. They said it was a miracle he hadn’t died the moment his head hit the ground.

I struggle to imagine the scene while they waited for the chopper. Dad said that when the paramedics arrived, Shawn was sobbing, begging for Mother. By the time he reached the hospital, his state of mind had shifted. He stood naked on the gurney, eyes bulging, bloodshot, screaming that he would rip out the eyes of the next bastard who came near him. Then he collapsed into sobs and finally lost consciousness.


In the morning I drove to Buck’s Peak. I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t rushing to my brother’s bedside. I told Mother I had to work.

“He’s asking for you,” she said.

“You said he doesn’t recognize anyone.”

“He doesn’t,” she said. “But the nurse just asked me if he knows someone named Tara. He said your name over and over this morning, when he was asleep and when he was awake. I told them Tara is his sister, and now they’re saying it would be good if you came. He might recognize you, and that would be something. Yours is the only name he’s said since he got to the hospital.”

I was silent.

“I’ll pay for the gas,” Mother said. She thought I wouldn’t come because of the thirty dollars it would cost in fuel. I was embarrassed that she thought that, but then, if it wasn’t the money, I had no reason at all.

“I’m leaving now,” I said.

I remember strangely little of the hospital, or of how my brother looked. I vaguely recall that his head was wrapped in gauze, and that when I asked why, Mother said the doctors had performed a surgery, cutting into his skull to relieve some pressure, or stop a bleed, or repair something—actually, I can’t remember what she said. Shawn was tossing and turning like a child with a fever. I sat with him for an hour. A few times his eyes opened, but if he was conscious, he didn’t recognize me.

When I came the next day, he was awake. I walked into the room and he blinked and looked at Mother, as if to check that she was seeing me, too.

“You came,” he said. “I didn’t think you would.” He took my hand and then fell asleep.

I stared at his face, at the bandages wrapped around his forehead and over his ears, and was bled of my bitterness. Then I understood why I hadn’t come sooner. I’d been afraid of how I would feel, afraid that if he died, I might be glad.

I’m sure the doctors wanted to keep him in the hospital, but we didn’t have insurance, and the bill was already so large that Shawn would be making payments a decade later. The moment he was stable enough to travel, we took him home.

He lived on the sofa in the front room for two months. He was physically weak—it was all he had in him to make it to the bathroom and back. He’d lost his hearing completely in one ear and had trouble hearing with the other, so he often turned his head when people spoke to him, orienting his better ear toward them, rather than his eyes. Except for this strange movement and the bandages from the surgery, he looked normal, no swelling, no bruises. According to the doctors, this was because the damage was very serious: a lack of external injuries meant the damage was all internal.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t. He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense. They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another.

I felt guilty that I hadn’t visited him immediately in the hospital, so to make it up to him I quit my job and tended him day and night. When he wanted water, I fetched it; if he was hungry, I cooked.

Sadie started coming around, and Shawn welcomed her. I looked forward to her visits because they gave me time to study. Mother thought it was important that I stay with Shawn, so no one interrupted me. For the first time in my life I had long stretches in which to learn—without having to scrap, or strain tinctures, or check inventory for Randy. I examined Tyler’s notes, read and reread his careful explanations. After a few weeks of this, by magic or miracle, the concepts took hold. I retook the practice test. The advanced algebra was still indecipherable—it came from a world beyond my ability to perceive—but the trigonometry had become intelligible, messages written in a language I could understand, from a world of logic and order that only existed in black ink and on white paper.

The real world, meanwhile, plunged into chaos. The doctors told Mother that Shawn’s injury might have altered his personality—that in the hospital, he had shown tendencies toward volatility, even violence, and that such changes might be permanent.

He did succumb to rages, moments of blind anger when all he wanted was to hurt someone. He had an intuition for nastiness, for saying the single most devastating thing, that left Mother in tears more nights than not. These rages changed, and worsened, as his physical strength improved, and I found myself cleaning the toilet every morning, knowing my head might be inside it before lunch. Mother said I was the only one who could calm him, and I persuaded myself that that was true. Who better? I thought. He doesn’t affect me.

Reflecting on it now, I’m not sure the injury changed him that much, but I convinced myself that it had, and that any cruelty on his part was entirely new. I can read my journals from this period and trace the evolution—of a young girl rewriting her history. In the reality she constructed for herself nothing had been wrong before her brother fell off that pallet. I wish I had my best friend back, she wrote. Before his injury, I never got hurt at all.

* My account of Shawn’s fall is based on the story as it was told to me at the time. Tyler was told the same story; in fact, many of the details in this account come from his memory. Asked fifteen years later, others remember it differently. Mother says Shawn was not standing on a pallet, only on forklift tines. Luke remembers the pallet, but substitutes a metal drain, with the grating removed, in place of the rebar. He says the fall was twelve feet, and that Shawn began acting strangely as soon as he regained consciousness. Luke has no memory of who dialed 911, but says there were men working in a nearby mill, and he suspects that one of them called immediately after Shawn fell.