Construction began on the milking barn in Oneida. Shawn designed and welded the main frame—the massive beams that formed the skeleton of the building. They were too heavy for the loader; only a crane could lift them. It was a delicate procedure, requiring the welders to balance on opposite ends of a beam while it was lowered onto columns, then welded in place. Shawn surprised everyone when he announced that he wanted me to operate the crane.
“Tara can’t drive the crane,” Dad said. “It’ll take half the morning to teach her the controls, and she still won’t know what the hell she’s doing.”
“But she’ll be careful,” Shawn said, “and I’m done falling off shit.”
An hour later I was in the man box, and Shawn and Luke were standing on either end of a beam, twenty feet in the air. I brushed the lever lightly, listening as the hydraulic cylinders hissed softly to protract. “Hold!” Shawn shouted when the beam was in place, then they nodded their helmets down and began to weld.
My operating the crane was one of a hundred disputes between Dad and Shawn that Shawn won that summer. Most were not resolved so peacefully. They argued nearly every day—about a flaw in the schematics or a tool that had been left at home. Dad seemed eager to fight, to prove who was in charge.
One afternoon Dad walked over and stood right next to Shawn, watching him weld. A minute later, for no reason, he started shouting: that Shawn had taken too long at lunch, that he wasn’t getting the crew up early enough or working us hard enough. Dad yelled for several minutes, then Shawn took off his welding helmet, looked at him calmly and said, “You gonna shut up so I can work?”
Dad kept yelling. He said Shawn was lazy, that he didn’t know how to run a crew, didn’t understand the value of hard work. Shawn stepped down from his welding and ambled over to the flatbed pickup. Dad followed, still hollering. Shawn pulled off his gloves, slowly, delicately, one finger at a time, as if there weren’t a man screaming six inches from his face. For several moments he stood still, letting the abuse wash over him, then he stepped into the pickup and drove off, leaving Dad to shout at the dust.
I remember the awe I felt as I watched that pickup roll down the dirt road. Shawn was the only person I had ever seen stand up to Dad, the only one whose force of mind, whose sheer tonnage of conviction, could make Dad give way. I had seen Dad lose his temper and shout at every one of my brothers. Shawn was the only one I ever saw walk away.
IT WAS A SATURDAY NIGHT. I was at Grandma-over-in-town’s, my math book propped open on the kitchen table, a plate of cookies next to me. I was studying to retake the ACT. I often studied at Grandma’s so Dad wouldn’t lecture me.
The phone rang. It was Shawn. Did I want to watch a movie? I said I did, and a few minutes later I heard a loud rumble and looked out the window. With his booming black motorcycle and his wide-brimmed Aussie hat, he seemed entirely out of place parking parallel to Grandma’s white picket fence. Grandma started making brownies, and Shawn and I went upstairs to choose a movie.
We paused the movie when Grandma delivered the brownies. We ate them in silence, our spoons clicking loudly against Grandma’s porcelain plates. “You’ll get your twenty-seven,” Shawn said suddenly when we’d finished.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll go either way. What if Dad’s right? What if I get brainwashed?”
Shawn shrugged. “You’re as smart as Dad. If Dad’s right, you’ll know when you get there.”
The movie ended. We told Grandma good night. It was a balmy summer evening, perfect for the motorcycle, and Shawn said I should ride home with him, we’d get the car tomorrow. He revved the engine, waiting for me to climb on. I took a step toward him, then remembered the math book on Grandma’s table.
“You go,” I said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Shawn yanked his hat down on his head, spun the bike around and charged down the empty street.
I drove in a happy stupor. The night was black—that thick darkness that belongs only in backcountry, where the houses are few and the streetlights fewer, where starlight goes unchallenged. I navigated the winding highway as I’d done numberless times before, racing down the Bear River Hill, coasting through the flat stretch parallel to Fivemile Creek. Up ahead the road climbed and bent to the right. I knew the curve was there without looking for it, and wondered at the still headlights I saw shining in the blackness.
I began the ascent. There was a pasture to my left, a ditch to my right. As the incline began in earnest I saw three cars pulled off near the ditch. The doors were open, the cab lights on. Seven or eight people huddled around something on the gravel. I changed lanes to drive around them, but stopped when I saw a small object lying in the middle of the highway.
It was a wide-brimmed Aussie hat.
I pulled over and ran toward the people clustered by the ditch. “Shawn!” I shouted.
The crowd parted to let me through. Shawn was facedown on the gravel, lying in a pool of blood that looked pink in the glare from the headlights. He wasn’t moving. “He hit a cow coming around the corner,” a man said. “It’s so dark tonight, he didn’t even see it. We’ve called an ambulance. We don’t dare move him.”
Shawn’s body was contorted, his back twisted. I had no idea how long an ambulance might take, and there was so much blood. I decided to stop the bleeding. I dug my hands under his shoulder and heaved but I couldn’t lift him. I looked up at the crowd and recognized a face. Dwain.* He was one of us. Mother had midwifed four of his eight children.
“Dwain! Help me turn him.”
Dwain hefted Shawn onto his back. For a second that contained an hour, I stared at my brother, watching the blood trickle out of his temple and down his right cheek, pouring over his ear and onto his white T-shirt. His eyes were closed, his mouth open. The blood was oozing from a hole the size of a golf ball in his forehead. It looked as though his temple had been dragged on the asphalt, scraping away skin, then bone. I leaned close and peered inside the wound. Something soft and spongy glistened back at me. I slipped out of my jacket and pressed it to Shawn’s head.
When I touched the abrasion, Shawn released a long sigh and his eyes opened.
“Sidlister,” he mumbled. Then he seemed to lose consciousness.
My cellphone was in my pocket. I dialed. Dad answered.
I must have been frantic, sputtering. I said Shawn had crashed his bike, that he had a hole in his head.
“Slow down. What happened?”
I said it all a second time. “What should I do?”
“Bring him home,” Dad said. “Your mother will deal with it.”
I opened my mouth but no words came out. Finally, I said, “I’m not joking. His brain, I can see it!”
“Bring him home,” Dad said. “Your mother can handle it.” Then: the dull drone of a dial tone. He’d hung up.
Dwain had overheard. “I live just through this field,” he said. “Your mother can treat him there.”
“No,” I said. “Dad wants him home. Help me get him in the car.”
Shawn groaned when we lifted him but he didn’t speak again. Someone said we should wait for the ambulance. Someone else said we should drive him to the hospital ourselves. I don’t think anyone believed we would take him home, not with his brain dribbling out of his forehead.
We folded Shawn into the backseat. I got behind the wheel, and Dwain climbed in on the passenger side. I checked my rearview mirror to pull onto the highway, then reached up and shoved the mirror downward so it reflected Shawn’s face, blank and bloodied. My foot hovered over the gas.
Three seconds passed, maybe four. That’s all it was.
Dwain was shouting, “Let’s go!” but I barely heard him. I was lost to panic. My thoughts wandered wildly, feverishly, through a fog of resentment. The state was dreamlike, as if the hysteria had freed me from a fiction that, five minutes before, I had needed to believe.
I had never thought about the day Shawn had fallen from the pallet. There was nothing to think about. He had fallen because God wanted him to fall; there was no deeper meaning in it than that. I had never imagined what it would have been like to be there. To see Shawn plunge, grasping at air. To watch him collide, then fold, then lie still. I had never allowed myself to imagine what happened after—Dad’s decision to leave him by the pickup, or the worried looks that must have passed between Luke and Benjamin.
Now, staring at the creases in my brother’s face, each a little river of blood, I remembered. I remembered that Shawn had sat by the pickup for a quarter of an hour, his brain bleeding. Then he’d had that fit and the boys had wrestled him to the ground, so that he’d fallen, sustained a second injury, the injury the doctors said should have killed him. It was the reason Shawn would never quite be Shawn again.
If the first fall was God’s will, whose was the second?
I’D NEVER BEEN TO the hospital in town, but it was easy to find.
Dwain had asked me what the hell I was doing when I flipped a U-turn and accelerated down the hillside. I’d listened to Shawn’s shallow breathing as I raced through the valley, along Fivemile Creek, then shot up the Bear River Hill. At the hospital, I parked in the emergency lane, and Dwain and I carried Shawn through the glass doors. I shouted for help. A nurse appeared, running, then another. Shawn was conscious by then. They took him away and someone shoved me into the waiting room.
There was no avoiding what had to be done next. I called Dad.
“You nearly home?” he said.
“I’m at the hospital.”
There was silence, then he said, “We’re coming.”
Fifteen minutes later they were there, and the three of us waited awkwardly together, me chewing my fingernails on a pastel-blue sofa, Mother pacing and clicking her fingers, and Dad sitting motionless beneath a loud wall clock.
The doctor gave Shawn a CAT scan. He said the wound was nasty but the damage was minimal, and then I remembered what the last doctors had told me—that with head injuries, often the ones that look the worst are actually less severe—and I felt stupid for panicking and bringing him here. The hole in the bone was small, the doctor said. It might grow over on its own, or a surgeon could put in a metal plate. Shawn said he’d like to see how it healed, so the doctor folded the skin over the hole and stitched it.
We took Shawn home around three in the morning. Dad drove, with Mother next to him, and I rode in the backseat with Shawn. No one spoke. Dad didn’t yell or lecture; in fact, he never mentioned that night again. But there was something in the way he fixed his gaze, never looking directly at me, that made me think a fork had come along in the road, and I’d gone one way and he the other. After that night, there was never any question of whether I would go or stay. It was as if we were living in the future, and I was already gone.
When I think of that night now, I don’t think of the dark highway, or of my brother lying in a pool of his own blood. I think of the waiting room, with its ice-blue sofa and pale walls. I smell its sterilized air. I hear the ticking of a plastic clock.
Sitting across from me is my father, and as I look into his worn face it hits me, a truth so powerful I don’t know why I’ve never understood it before. The truth is this: that I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor, a wolf among sheep; there is something different about me and that difference is not good. I want to bellow, to weep into my father’s knees and promise never to do it again. But wolf that I am, I am still above lying, and anyway he would sniff the lie. We both know that if I ever again find Shawn on the highway, soaked in crimson, I will do exactly what I have just done.
I am not sorry, merely ashamed.
THE ENVELOPE ARRIVED THREE weeks later, just as Shawn was getting back on his feet. I tore it open, feeling numb, as if I were reading my sentence after the guilty verdict had already been handed down. I scanned down to the composite score. Twenty-eight. I checked it again. I checked my name. There was no mistake. Somehow—and a miracle was the only way I could account for it—I’d done it.
My first thought was a resolution: I resolved to never again work for my father. I drove to the only grocery store in town, called Stokes, and applied for a job bagging groceries. I was only sixteen, but I didn’t tell the manager that and he hired me for forty hours a week. My first shift started at four o’clock the next morning.
When I got home, Dad was driving the loader through the junkyard. I stepped onto the ladder and grabbed hold of the rail. Over the roar of the engine, I told him I’d found a job but that I would drive the crane in the afternoons, until he could hire someone. He dropped the boom and stared ahead.
“You’ve already decided,” he said without glancing at me. “No point dragging it out.”
I applied to BYU a week later. I had no idea how to write the application, so Tyler wrote it for me. He said I’d been educated according to a rigorous program designed by my mother, who’d made sure I met all the requirements to graduate.
My feelings about the application changed from day to day, almost from minute to minute. Sometimes I was sure God wanted me to go to college, because He’d given me that twenty-eight. Other times I was sure I’d be rejected, and that God would punish me for applying, for trying to abandon my own family. But whatever the outcome, I knew I would leave. I would go somewhere, even if it wasn’t to school. Home had changed the moment I’d taken Shawn to that hospital instead of to Mother. I had rejected some part of it; now it was rejecting me.
The admissions committee was efficient; I didn’t wait long. The letter arrived in a normal envelope. My heart sank when I saw it. Rejection letters are small, I thought. I opened it and read “Congratulations.” I’d been admitted for the semester beginning January 5.
Mother hugged me. Dad tried to be cheerful. “It proves one thing at least,” he said. “Our home school is as good as any public education.”
THREE DAYS BEFORE I turned seventeen, Mother drove me to Utah to find an apartment. The search took all day, and we arrived home late to find Dad eating a frozen supper. He hadn’t cooked it well and it was mush. The mood around him was charged, combustible. It felt like he might detonate at any moment. Mother didn’t even kick off her shoes, just rushed to the kitchen and began shuffling pans to fix a real dinner. Dad moved to the living room and started cursing at the VCR. I could see from the hallway that the cables weren’t connected. When I pointed this out, he exploded. He cussed and waved his arms, shouting that in a man’s house the cables should always be hooked up, that a man should never have to come into a room and find the cables to his VCR unhooked. Why the hell had I unhooked them anyway?
Mother rushed in from the kitchen. “I disconnected the cables,” she said.
Dad rounded on her, sputtering. “Why do you always take her side! A man should be able to expect support from his wife!”
I fumbled with the cables while Dad stood over me, shouting. I kept dropping them. My mind pulsed with panic, which overpowered every thought, so that I could not even remember how to connect red to red, white to white.
Then it was gone. I looked up at my father, at his purple face, at the vein pulsing in his neck. I still hadn’t managed to attach the cables. I stood, and once on my feet, didn’t care whether the cables were attached. I walked out of the room. Dad was still shouting when I reached the kitchen. As I moved down the hall I looked back. Mother had taken my place, crouching over the VCR, groping for the wires, as Dad towered over her.
WAITING FOR CHRISTMAS THAT year felt like waiting to walk off the edge of a cliff. Not since Y2K had I felt so certain that something terrible was coming, something that would obliterate everything I’d known before. And what would replace it? I tried to imagine the future, to populate it with professors, homework, classrooms, but my mind couldn’t conjure them. There was no future in my imagination. There was New Year’s Eve, then there was nothing.
I knew I should prepare, try to acquire the high school education Tyler had told the university I had. But I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to ask Tyler for help. He was starting a new life at Purdue—he was even getting married—and I doubted he wanted responsibility for mine.
I noticed, though, when he came home for Christmas, that he was reading a book called Les Misérables, and I decided that it must be the kind of a book a college student reads. I bought my own copy, hoping it would teach me about history or literature, but it didn’t. It couldn’t, because I was unable to distinguish between the fictional story and the factual backdrop. Napoleon felt no more real to me than Jean Valjean. I had never heard of either.
* Asked fifteen years later, Dwain did not recall being there. But he is there, vividly, in my memory.