When I arrived at the peak, Mother was making the Thanksgiving meal. The large oak table was covered with jars of tincture and vials of essential oil, which I cleared away. Charles was coming for dinner.
Shawn was in a mood. He sat on a bench at the table, watching me gather the bottles and hide them. I’d washed Mother’s china, which had never been used, and I began laying it out, eyeing the distance between each plate and knife.
Shawn resented my making a fuss. “It’s just Charles,” he said. “His standards aren’t that high. He’s with you, after all.”
I fetched glasses. When I put one in front of him, Shawn jabbed a finger into my ribs, digging hard. “Don’t touch me!” I shrieked. Then the room turned upside down. My feet were knocked out from under me and I was swept into the living room, just out of Mother’s sight.
Shawn turned me onto my back and sat on my stomach, pinning my arms at my sides with his knees. The shock of his weight forced the breath from my chest. He pressed his forearm into my windpipe. I sputtered, trying to gulp enough air to shout, but the airway was blocked.
“When you act like a child, you force me to treat you like one.”
Shawn said this loudly, he almost shouted it. He was saying it to me, but he was not saying it for me. He was saying it for Mother, to define the moment: I was a misbehaving child; he was setting the child right. The pressure on my windpipe eased and I felt a delicious fullness in my lungs. He knew I would not call out.
“Knock it off,” Mother hollered from the kitchen, though I wasn’t sure whether she meant Shawn or me.
“Yelling is rude,” Shawn said, again speaking to the kitchen. “You’ll stay down until you apologize.” I said I was sorry for yelling at him. A moment later I was standing.
I folded napkins from paper towels and put one at each setting. When I placed one at Shawn’s plate, he again jabbed his finger into my ribs. I said nothing.
Charles arrived early—Dad hadn’t even come in from the junkyard yet—and sat at the table across from Shawn, who glared at him, never blinking. I didn’t want to leave them alone together, but Mother needed help with the cooking, so I returned to the stove but devised small errands to bring me back to the table. On one of those trips I heard Shawn telling Charles about his guns, and on another, about all the ways he could kill a man. I laughed loudly at both, hoping Charles would think they were jokes. The third time I returned to the table, Shawn pulled me onto his lap. I laughed at that, too.
The charade couldn’t last, not even until supper. I passed Shawn carrying a large china plate of dinner rolls, and he stabbed my gut so hard it knocked the wind out of me. I dropped the plate. It shattered.
“Why did you do that?” I shouted.
It happened so quickly, I don’t know how he got me to the floor, but again I was on my back and he was on top of me. He demanded that I apologize for breaking the plate. I whispered the apology, quietly, so Charles wouldn’t hear, but this enraged Shawn. He grabbed a fistful of my hair, again near the scalp, for leverage, and yanked me upright, then dragged me toward the bathroom. The movement was so abrupt, Charles had no time to react. The last thing I saw as my head hurled down the hall was Charles leaping to his feet, eyes wide, face pale.
My wrist was folded, my arm twisted behind my back. My head was shoved into the toilet so that my nose hovered above the water. Shawn was yelling something but I didn’t hear what. I was listening for the sound of footsteps in the hall, and when I heard them I became deranged. Charles could not see me like this. He could not know that for all my pretenses—my makeup, my new clothes, my china place settings—this is who I was.
I convulsed, arching my body and ripping my wrist away from Shawn. I’d caught him off guard; I was stronger than he’d expected, or maybe just more reckless, and he lost his hold. I sprang for the door. I’d made it through the frame and had taken a step into the hallway when my head shot backward. Shawn had caught me by the hair, and he yanked me toward him with such force that we both tumbled back and into the bathtub.
The next thing I remember, Charles was lifting me and I was laughing—a shrill, demented howl. I thought if I could just laugh loudly enough, the situation might still be saved, that Charles might yet be convinced it was all a joke. Tears streamed from my eyes—my big toe was broken—but I kept cackling. Shawn stood in the doorway looking awkward.
“Are you okay?” Charles kept saying.
“Of course I am! Shawn is so, so, so—funny.” My voice strangled on the last word as I put weight on my foot and a wave of pain swept through me. Charles tried to carry me but I pushed him off and walked on the break, grinding my teeth to stop myself from crying out, while I slapped playfully at my brother.
Charles didn’t stay for supper. He fled to his jeep and I didn’t hear from him for several hours, then he called and asked me to meet him at the church. He wouldn’t come to Buck’s Peak. We sat in his jeep in the dark, empty parking lot. He was crying.
“You didn’t see what you thought you saw,” I said.
If someone had asked me, I’d have said Charles was the most important thing in the world to me. But he wasn’t. And I would prove it to him. What was important to me wasn’t love or friendship, but my ability to lie convincingly to myself: to believe I was strong. I could never forgive Charles for knowing I wasn’t.
I became erratic, demanding, hostile. I devised a bizarre and ever-evolving rubric by which I measured his love for me, and when he failed to meet it, I became paranoid. I surrendered to rages, venting all my savage anger, every fearful resentment I’d ever felt toward Dad or Shawn, at him, this bewildered bystander who’d only ever helped me. When we argued, I screamed that I never wanted to see him again, and I screamed it so many times that one night, when I called to change my mind, like I always did, he wouldn’t let me.
We met one final time, in a field off the highway. Buck’s Peak loomed over us. He said he loved me but this was over his head. He couldn’t save me. Only I could.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
WINTER COVERED CAMPUS IN thick snow. I stayed indoors, memorizing algebraic equations, trying to live as I had before—to imagine my life at the university as disconnected from my life on Buck’s Peak. The wall separating the two had been impregnable. Charles was a hole in it.
The stomach ulcers returned, burning and aching through the night. Once, I awoke to Robin shaking me. She said I’d been shouting in my sleep. I touched my face and it was wet. She wrapped me in her arms so tight I felt cocooned.
The next morning, Robin asked me to go with her to a doctor—for the ulcers but also for an X-ray of my foot, because my big toe had turned black. I said I didn’t need a doctor. The ulcers would heal, and someone had already treated the toe.
Robin’s eyebrow rose. “Who? Who treated it?”
I shrugged. She assumed my mother had, and I let her believe it. The truth was, the morning after Thanksgiving, I had asked Shawn to tell me if it was broken. He’d knelt on the kitchen floor and I’d dropped my foot into his lap. In that posture he seemed to shrink. He examined the toe for a moment, then he looked up at me and I saw something in his blue eyes. I thought he was about to say he was sorry, but just when I expected his lips to part he grasped the tip of my toe and yanked. It felt as if my foot had exploded, so intense was the shock that shot through my leg. I was still trying to swallow spasms of pain when Shawn stood, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Sorry, Siddle Lister, but it hurts less if you don’t see it coming.”
A week after Robin asked to take me to the doctor, I again awoke to her shaking me. She gathered me up and pressed me to her, as if her body could hold me together, could keep me from flying apart.
“I think you need to see the bishop,” she said the next morning.
“I’m fine,” I said, making a cliché of myself the way not-fine people do. “I just need sleep.”
Soon after, I found a pamphlet for the university counseling service on my desk. I barely looked at it, just knocked it into the trash. I could not see a counselor. To see one would be to ask for help, and I believed myself invincible. It was an elegant deception, a mental pirouette. The toe was not broken because it was not breakable. Only an X-ray could prove otherwise. Thus, the X-ray would break my toe.
My algebra final was swept up in this superstition. In my mind, it acquired a kind of mystical power. I studied with the intensity of the insane, believing that if I could best this exam, win that impossible perfect score, even with my broken toe and without Charles to help me, it would prove that I was above it all. Untouchable.
The morning of the exam I limped to the testing center and sat in the drafty hall. The test was in front of me. The problems were compliant, pliable; they yielded to my manipulations, forming into solutions, one after the other. I handed in my answer sheet, then stood in the frigid hallway, staring up at the screen that would display my score. When it appeared, I blinked, and blinked again. One hundred. A perfect score.
I was filled with an exquisite numbness. I felt drunk with it and wanted to shout at the world: Here’s the proof: nothing touches me.
BUCK’S PEAK LOOKED THE way it always did at Christmas—a snowy spire, adorned with evergreens—and my eyes, increasingly accustomed to brick and concrete, were nearly blinded by the scale and clarity of it.
Richard was in the forklift as I drove up the hill, moving a stack of purlins for the shop Dad was building in Franklin, near town. Richard was twenty-two, and one of the smartest people I knew, but he lacked a high school diploma. As I passed him in the drive, it occurred to me that he’d probably be driving that forklift for the rest of his life.
I’d been home for only a few minutes when Tyler called. “I’m just checking in,” he said. “To see if Richard is studying for the ACT.”
“He’s gonna take it?”
“I don’t know,” Tyler said. “Maybe. Dad and I have been working on him.”
Tyler laughed. “Yeah, Dad. He wants Richard to go to college.”
I thought Tyler was joking until an hour later when we sat down to dinner. We’d only just started eating when Dad, his mouth full of potatoes, said, “Richard, I’ll give you next week off, paid, if you’ll use it to study them books.”
I waited for an explanation. It was not long in coming. “Richard is a genius,” Dad told me a moment later, winking. “He’s five times smarter than that Einstein was. He can disprove all them socialist theories and godless speculations. He’s gonna get down there and blow up the whole damn system.”
Dad continued with his raptures, oblivious to the effect he was having on his listeners. Shawn slumped on a bench, his back against the wall, his face tilted toward the floor. To look at him was to imagine a man cut from stone, so heavy did he seem, so void of motion. Richard was the miracle son, the gift from God, the Einstein to disprove Einstein. Richard would move the world. Shawn would not. He’d lost too much of his mind when he’d fallen off that pallet. One of my father’s sons would be driving the forklift for the rest of his life, but it wouldn’t be Richard.
Richard looked even more miserable than Shawn. His shoulders hunched and his neck sank into them, as if he were compressing under the weight of Dad’s praise. After Dad went to bed, Richard told me that he’d taken a practice test for the ACT. He’d scored so low, he wouldn’t tell me the number.
“Apparently I’m Einstein,” Richard said, his head in his hands. “What do I do? Dad is saying I’m going to blow this thing out of the water, and I’m not even sure I can pass.”
Every night was the same. Through dinner, Dad would list all the false theories of science that his genius son would disprove; then after dinner, I would tell Richard about college, about classes, books, professors, things I knew would appeal to his innate need to learn. I was worried: Dad’s expectations were so high, and Richard’s fear of disappointing him so intense, it seemed possible that Richard might not take the ACT at all.
THE SHOP IN FRANKLIN was ready to roof, so two days after Christmas I forced my toe, still crooked and black, into a steel-toed boot, then spent the morning on a roof driving threading screws into galvanized tin. It was late afternoon when Shawn dropped his screw gun and shimmied down the loader’s extended boom. “Time for a break, Siddle Liss,” he shouted up from the ground. “Let’s go into town.”
I hopped onto the pallet and Shawn dropped the boom to the ground. “You drive,” he said, then he leaned his seat back and closed his eyes. I headed for Stokes.
I remember strange details about the moment we pulled into the parking lot—the smell of oil floating up from our leather gloves, the sandpaper feel of dust on my fingertips. And Shawn, grinning at me from the passenger seat. Through the city of cars I spy one, a red jeep. Charles. I pass through the main lot and turn into the open asphalt on the north side of the store, where employees park. I pull down the visor to evaluate myself, noting the tangle the windy roof has made of my hair, and the grease from the tin that has lodged in my pores, making them fat and brown. My clothes are heavy with dirt.
Shawn sees the red jeep. He watches me lick my thumb and scrub dirt from my face, and he becomes excited. “Let’s go!” he says.
“I’ll wait in the car.”
“You’re coming in,” Shawn says.
Shawn can smell shame. He knows that Charles has never seen me like this—that every day all last summer, I rushed home and removed every stain, every smudge, hiding cuts and calluses beneath new clothes and makeup. A hundred times Shawn has seen me emerge from the bathroom unrecognizable, having washed the junkyard down the shower drain.
“You’re coming in,” Shawn says again. He walks around the car and opens my door. The movement is old-fashioned, vaguely chivalrous.
“I don’t want to,” I say.
“Don’t want your boyfriend to see you looking so glamorous?” He smiles and jabs me with his finger. He is looking at me strangely, as if to say, This is who you are. You’ve been pretending that you’re someone else. Someone better. But you are just this.
He begins to laugh, loudly, wildly, as if something funny has happened but nothing has. Still laughing, he grabs my arm and draws it upward, as if he’s going to throw me over his back and carry me in fireman-style. I don’t want Charles to see that so I end the game. I say, flatly, “Don’t touch me.”
What happens next is a blur in my memory. I see only snapshots—of the sky flipping absurdly, of fists coming at me, of a strange, savage look in the eyes of a man I don’t recognize. I see my hands grasping the wheel, and I feel strong arms wrenching my legs. Something shifts in my ankle, a crack or a pop. I lose my grip. I’m pulled from the car.
I feel icy pavement on my back; pebbles are grinding into my skin. My jeans have slid down past my hips. I’d felt them peeling off me, inch by inch, as Shawn yanked my legs. My shirt has risen up and I look at myself, at my body spread flat on the asphalt, at my bra and faded underwear. I want to cover myself but Shawn has pinned my hands above my head. I lie still, feeling the cold seep into me. I hear my voice begging him to let me go, but I don’t sound like myself. I’m listening to the sobs of another girl.
I am dragged upward and set on my feet. I claw at my clothing. Then I’m doubled over and my wrist is being folded back, bending, bent as far as it will go and bending still. My nose is near the pavement when the bone begins to bow. I try to regain my balance, to use the strength in my legs to push back, but when my ankle takes weight, it buckles. I scream. Heads turn in our direction. People crane to see what the commotion is. Immediately I begin to laugh—a wild, hysterical cackle that despite all my efforts still sounds a little like a scream.
“You’re going in,” Shawn says, and I feel the bone in my wrist crack.
I go with him into the bright lights. I laugh as we pass through aisle after aisle, gathering the things he wants to buy. I laugh at every word he says, trying to convince anyone who might have been in the parking lot that it was all a joke. I’m walking on a sprained ankle, but the pain barely registers.
We do not see Charles.
The drive back to the site is silent. It’s only five miles but it feels like fifty. We arrive and I limp toward the shop. Dad and Richard are inside. I’d been limping before because of my toe, so my new hobble isn’t so noticeable. Still, Richard takes one look at my face, streaked with grease and tears, and knows something is wrong; Dad sees nothing.
I pick up my screw gun and drive screws with my left hand, but the pressure is uneven, and with my weight gathered on one foot, my balance is poor. The screws bounce off the painted tin, leaving long, twisting marks like curled ribbons. Dad sends me home after I ruin two sheets.
That night, with a heavily wrapped wrist, I scratch out a journal entry. I ask myself questions. Why didn’t he stop when I begged him? It was like getting beaten by a zombie, I write. Like he couldn’t hear me.
Shawn knocks. I slide my journal under the pillow. His shoulders are rounded when he enters. He speaks quietly. It was a game, he says. He had no idea he’d hurt me until he saw me cradling my arm at the site. He checks the bones in my wrist, examines my ankle. He brings me ice wrapped in a dish towel and says that next time we’re having fun, I should tell him if something is wrong. He leaves. I return to my journal. Was it really fun and games? I write. Could he not tell he was hurting me? I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I begin to reason with myself, to doubt whether I had spoken clearly: what had I whispered and what had I screamed? I decide that if I had asked differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.
I put away my journal and lie in bed, reciting this narrative as if it is a poem I’ve decided to learn by heart. I’ve nearly committed it to memory when the recitation is interrupted. Images invade my mind—of me on my back, arms pressed above my head. Then I’m in the parking lot. I look down at my white stomach, then up at my brother. His expression is unforgettable: not anger or rage. There is no fury in it. Only pleasure, unperturbed. Then a part of me understands, even as I begin to argue against it, that my humiliation was the cause of that pleasure. It was not an accident or side effect. It was the objective.
This half-knowledge works in me like a kind of possession, and for a few minutes I’m taken over by it. I rise from my bed, retrieve my journal, and do something I have never done before: I write what happened. I do not use vague, shadowy language, as I have done in other entries; I do not hide behind hints and suggestion. I write what I remember: There was one point when he was forcing me from the car, that he had both hands pinned above my head and my shirt rose up. I asked him to let me fix it but it was like he couldn’t hear me. He just stared at it like a great big jerk. It’s a good thing I’m as small as I am. If I was larger, at that moment, I would have torn him apart.
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT you’ve done to your wrist,” Dad told me the next morning, “but you’re no good on the crew like that. You might as well head back to Utah.”
The drive to BYU was hypnotic; by the time I arrived, my memories of the previous day had blurred and faded.
They were brought into focus when I checked my email. There was a message from Shawn. An apology. But he’d apologized already, in my room. I had never known Shawn to apologize twice.
I retrieved my journal and I wrote another entry, opposite the first, in which I revised the memory. It was a misunderstanding, I wrote. If I’d asked him to stop, he would have.
But however I chose to remember it, that event would change everything. Reflecting on it now I’m amazed by it, not by what happened, but that I wrote what happened. That from somewhere inside that brittle shell—in that girl made vacant by the fiction of invincibility—there was a spark left.
The words of the second entry would not obscure the words of the first. Both would remain, my memories set down alongside his. There was a boldness in not editing for consistency, in not ripping out either the one page or the other. To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s. I have often wondered if the most powerful words I wrote that night came not from anger or rage, but from doubt: I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.