Dad didn’t leave his bed for two months unless one of my brothers was carrying him. He peed in a bottle, and the enemas continued. Even after it became clear that he would live, we had no idea what kind of life it would be. All we could do was wait, and soon it felt as though everything we did was just another form of waiting—waiting to feed him, waiting to change his bandages. Waiting to see how much of our father would grow back.
It was difficult to imagine a man like Dad—proud, strong, physical—permanently impaired. I wondered how he would adjust if Mother were forever cutting his food for him; if he could live a happy life if he wasn’t able to grasp a hammer. So much had been lost.
But mixed in with the sadness, I also felt hope. Dad had always been a hard man—a man who knew the truth on every subject and wasn’t interested in what anybody else had to say. We listened to him, never the other way around: when he was not speaking, he required silence.
The explosion transformed him from lecturer to observer. Speaking was difficult for him, because of the constant pain but also because his throat was burned. So he watched, he listened. He lay, hour after hour, day after day, his eyes alert, his mouth shut.
Within a few weeks, my father—who years earlier had not been able to guess my age within half a decade—knew about my classes, my boyfriend, my summer job. I hadn’t told him any of it, but he’d listened to the chatter between me and Audrey as we changed his bandages, and he’d remembered.
“I’d like to hear more about them classes,” he rasped one morning near the end of the summer. “It sounds real interesting.”
It felt like a new beginning.
DAD WAS STILL BEDRIDDEN when Shawn and Emily announced their engagement. It was suppertime, and the family was gathered around the kitchen table, when Shawn said he guessed he’d marry Emily after all. There was silence while forks scraped plates. Mother asked if he was serious. He said he wasn’t, that he figured he’d find somebody better before he actually had to go through with it. Emily sat next to him, wearing a warped smile.
I didn’t sleep that night. I kept checking the bolt on the door. The present seemed vulnerable to the past, as if it might be overwhelmed by it, as if I might blink, and when my eyes opened I would be fifteen.
The next morning Shawn said he and Emily were planning a twenty-mile horse ride to Bloomington Lake. I surprised both of us by saying I wanted to go. I felt anxious when I imagined all those hours in the wilderness with Shawn, but I pushed the anxiety aside. There was something I had to do.
Fifty miles feels like five hundred on a horse, particularly if your body is more accustomed to a chair than a saddle. When we arrived at the lake, Shawn and Emily slipped nimbly off their horses and began to make camp; it was all I could do to unhitch Apollo’s saddle and ease myself onto a fallen tree. I watched Emily set up the tent we were to share. She was tall and unthinkably slight, with long, straight hair so blond it was nearly silver.
We built a fire and sang campfire songs. We played cards. Then we went to our tents. I lay awake in the dark next to Emily, listening to the crickets. I was trying to imagine how to begin the conversation—how to tell her she shouldn’t marry my brother—when she spoke. “I want to talk to you about Shawn,” she said. “I know he’s got some problems.”
“He does,” I said.
“He’s a spiritual man,” Emily said. “God has given him a special calling. To help people. He told me how he helped Sadie. And how he helped you.”
“He didn’t help me.” I wanted to say more, to explain to Emily what the bishop had explained to me. But they were his words, not mine. I had no words. I had come fifty miles to speak, and was mute.
“The devil tempts him more than other men,” Emily said. “Because of his gifts, because he’s a threat to Satan. That’s why he has problems. Because of his righteousness.”
She sat up. I could see the outline of her long ponytail in the dark. “He said he’ll hurt me,” she said. “I know it’s because of Satan. But sometimes I’m scared of him, I’m scared of what he’ll do.”
I told her she shouldn’t marry someone who scares her, that no one should, but the words left my lips stillborn. I believed them, but I didn’t understand them well enough to make them live.
I stared into the darkness, searching it for her face, trying to understand what power my brother had over her. He’d had that power over me, I knew. He had some of it still. I was neither under his spell, nor free of it.
“He’s a spiritual man,” she said again. Then she slipped into her sleeping bag, and I knew the conversation was over.
I RETURNED TO BYU a few days before the fall semester. I drove directly to Nick’s apartment. We’d hardly spoken. Whenever he called, I always seemed to be needed somewhere to change a bandage or make salve. Nick knew my father had been burned, but he didn’t know the severity of it. I’d withheld more information than I’d given, never saying that there had been an explosion, or that when I “visited” my father it wasn’t in a hospital but in our living room. I hadn’t told Nick about his heart stopping. I hadn’t described the gnarled hands, or the enemas, or the pounds of liquefied tissue we’d scraped off his body.
I knocked and Nick opened the door. He seemed surprised to see me. “How’s your dad?” he asked after I’d joined him on the sofa.
In retrospect, this was probably the most important moment of our friendship, the moment I could have done one thing, the better thing, and I did something else. It was the first time I’d seen Nick since the explosion. I might have told him everything right then: that my family didn’t believe in modern medicine; that we were treating the burn at home with salves and homeopathy; that it had been terrifying, worse than terrifying; that for as long as I lived I would never forget the smell of charred flesh. I could have told him all that, could have surrendered the weight, let the relationship carry it and grow stronger. Instead I kept the burden for myself, and my friendship with Nick, already anemic, underfed and underused, dwindled in obsolescence.
I believed I could repair the damage—that now I was back, this would be my life, and it wouldn’t matter that Nick understood nothing of Buck’s Peak. But the peak refused to give me up. It clung to me. The black craters in my father’s chest often materialized on chalkboards, and I saw the sagging cavity of his mouth on the pages of my textbooks. This remembered world was somehow more vivid than the physical world I inhabited, and I phased between them. Nick would take my hand, and for a moment I would be there with him, feeling the surprise of his skin on mine. But when I looked at our joined fingers, something would shift so that the hand was not Nick’s. It was bloody and clawed, not a hand at all.
When I slept, I gave myself wholly to the peak. I dreamed of Luke, of his eyes rolling back in his head. I dreamed of Dad, of the slow rattle in his lungs. I dreamed of Shawn, of the moment my wrist had cracked in the parking lot. I dreamed of myself, limping beside him, laughing that high, horrible cackle. But in my dreams I had long, silvery hair.
THE WEDDING WAS IN SEPTEMBER.
I arrived at the church full of anxious energy, as though I’d been sent through time from some disastrous future to this moment, when my actions still had weight and my thoughts, consequences. I didn’t know what I’d been sent to do, so I wrung my hands and chewed my cheeks, waiting for the crucial moment. Five minutes before the ceremony, I vomited in the women’s bathroom.
When Emily said “I do,” the vitality left me. I again became a spirit, and drifted back to BYU. I stared at the Rockies from my bedroom window and was struck by how implausible they seemed. Like paintings.
A week after the wedding I broke up with Nick—callously, I’m ashamed to say. I never told him of my life before, never sketched for him the world that had invaded and obliterated the one he and I had shared. I could have explained. I could have said, “That place has a hold on me, which I may never break.” That would have got to the heart of it. Instead I sank through time. It was too late to confide in Nick, to take him with me wherever I was going. So I said goodbye.