“Where are you?” Aunt Hannah demanded as soon as Alex thumbed talk. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I just crossed into Michigan,” Alex said, choosing the easiest question first. When she’d spotted the welcome to Michigan sign—great lakes! great times!—she felt a sense of things opening up, expanding, as if she’d been traveling in a perpetual night on a lonely road hemmed by a thick, black forest and was only now getting her first glimpse of the sun. “I had to get gas.” Which was really neither here nor there.
“Michigan. What the bloody hell’s in Michigan?” Aunt Hannah’s second husband had been a Brit. Aunt Hannah wasn’t. She was originally from Wisconsin—Sheboygan, which Alex didn’t think was a real place until the Everly Brothers mentioned it—and said bloody was way better than other swears because all her friends, most of whom were Lutherans, thought she was just being cute: Oh, that Hannah. So Aunt Hannah said bloody quite often, especially in church.
“Lots of things,” Alex said. She stood a few feet away from the gas station’s bathrooms in a blush of salmon-colored light from the setting sun. Across the street, a billboard suggesting a visit to Oren in Amish country jockeyed with one exhorting families to bring their elderly to a hospice named Northern Light—god’s light in dark times—and another suggested a visit to the Iron Mining Museum north of town. “I just needed some time.”
“Time. Time for what?” Aunt Hannah’s voice was tight. “You think this is a bloody game? We’re talking about your life, Alexandra.”
“I know that. It’s just . . .” She toyed with a silver whistle on a sterling chain around her neck. The whistle had been a gift from her father when she was six, on their first overnight hike: You ever get into trouble out here, honey, you just blow that and I’ll be there in a heartbeat. This was one of her few, clear, precious memories of him. “I need to do this now, while I still can.”
“I see. So they’re with you?”
Alex knew what—who—she meant. “Yes.”
“I notice your father’s gun is missing, too.”
“I’ve got it.”
“I see,” Aunt Hannah said again, although her tone suggested she really didn’t. “Do you honestly think suicide is the answer?”
“Is that what you think?” From somewhere over her shoulder, Alex heard the bathroom door open, and a moment later two girls, a blonde and a brunette, swished by, each wearing a powder-blue sweatshirt with Somerville high and a tennis racket stenciled in a blaze of white. “You think I’m going to kill myself ?”
She regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth.
Glancing at Alex, Ponytail Blonde leaned in to whisper something to Ponytail Brunette, who also threw Alex a look. They both did the whole peek-whisper-giggle routine all the way across the lot to a small, ancient-looking school bus and a harried older guy with glasses and a frizz of Einstein hair.
Cheeks burning, Alex turned away. “It’s nothing like that.”
Although if she were being truthful, it wasn’t like she hadn’t downed a couple shots of Jack and taken her dad’s gun out a few times for a good hard stare. The thing that stopped her, mainly, was the thought that her hand might jerk and she’d end up giving herself a frontal lobotomy or something, which would be just too pathetic. She could picture the gossip girls—kids like Ponytail Blonde and Ponytail Brunette—at lunch afterward: Like, gawd, how lame.
Aunt Hannah said, “Yes, but if you were coming back, you wouldn’t have taken them.”
“No. All it means is that they’re not coming back.”
“Alexandra, there’s no need for you to do this on your own. Your mother was my sister.” Aunt Hannah’s voice got a little watery. “I know she would never have agreed to this. This was not their intention.”
“Well, isn’t it good they’re not around to argue the point?”
Aunt Hannah went from watery to desert-dry in a nanosecond. “Don’t use that tone of voice with me, Alexandra. You are only seventeen. You are a very sick young woman, and you are not old enough to know what’s best in this situation. Stubbornness and self-pity are not answers.”
This was getting them nowhere. All Aunt Hannah saw was a seventeen-year-old orphan, with a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball, who’d finally cracked under the strain. “I know, Aunt Hannah. You’re right. Feeling sorry for myself and being a pain in the ass are not answers.”
“Good. Now we’ve cleared that up.” Her aunt honked into a tissue. “When are you coming back?”
Uh . . . maybe never? “First week in October. Maybe . . . the eighth?”
She could hear her aunt counting under her breath. “Twelve days? Why so long?”
“It takes that long to hike there and back.”
“Well, there aren’t any roads.”
“But you can’t be serious. You’re not strong enough.”
“Sure I am. It’s been three months since the last cycle. I’ve been running and swimming and lifting, and my weight’s up again. I’m plenty strong.”
“But what about the new treatments? You’re due in three days and—”
“I’m not doing any more treatments.”
“Dr. Barrett was very clear that this new procedure—” Her aunt broke off as Alex’s words registered. “What? What do you mean you’re not doing any more treatments? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course you are. What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I’m done, Aunt Hannah.”
“But . . . but the experimental drug,” her aunt spluttered. “The procedure, the PEBBLES—”
“You know they’re not going to work.” Like the new drug, the PEBBLES—Probes Encapsulated By Biologically Localized Embedding—were also experimental: nano-sized beads, full of poison and coated with a special light-sensitive chemical. Once injected into her bloodstream, the PEBBLES made their way to her brain, where they snuggled up to the tumor: a stubborn monster that had, after a dozen rounds of chemo and radiation, refused to die. When activated by an optic probe, the beads were supposed to release their deadly payload. So far, after four tries, hers had not, even though the doctors had reloaded her brain with enough PEBBLES to run a few dozen pinball machines.
“You have to give it time, Alexandra.”
That’s so easy for you to say. You’ve got time. “Aunt Hannah, it’s been two years since they found the thing. Nothing’s worked.”
“Granted, but the tumor’s growing relatively slowly. Dr. Barrett said you could go several more years, and by then, there will be new drugs.”
“Or there might not be. I just can’t do this anymore.” She expected an explosion on the other end, but there was only dead air. The silence spun out so long Alex thought their connection had dropped. “Aunt Hannah?”
“I’m here.” Pause. “When did you decide?”
“After my appointment with Barrett last week.”
Because my left hand shakes, Alex thought. Because I can’t smell anything. Because I’ve got a headful of teeny, tiny little rocks that aren’t working and that means more regular chemo and radiotherapy and I am so sick of losing my hair and puking my guts out for nothing and doing schoolwork in bed, and I’m not going into some hospice. Because, for once, I’m calling the shots.
But what she said was, “I don’t think there will be a better time. I need to do this while I still can.”
More silence. “I imagine the school will ask after you. Dr. Barrett will have a stroke.”
Privately, she thought Barrett might be relieved. No more having to look on the bright side. “What are you going to say?”
“I’ll think of something inventive. Will you call?”
“When I make it back,” she said, unsure if this was a promise she would keep. “To the car, I mean. Once I’m in the Waucamaw, there’s no cell coverage.”
“And what am I supposed to do? Hang a lantern from a tower? Twiddle my thumbs? Take up knitting?” When Alex didn’t reply, her aunt continued, “I’ve half a mind to call the police and have you dragged back.”
“What’s the other half say?”
“That you’re stubborn. That once you’ve made up your mind, there’s no talking to you.” Her aunt paused. “And that I’m not sure I blame you. That is not the same as saying that what you’re doing is right, but I understand.”
“Don’t mention it.” Her aunt sighed. “Oh, Alex, do be careful, all right? Try to come back in one piece?”
“I’ll be okay. It’s not like I’ve never backpacked before.”
“It’s not your competence I question. Make a fire, live off the land, build a house out of twigs and chewing gum . . . so like your father. If the bloody zombies attack, you’re set.”
“Thanks,” she said against the prick of tears. Crying was not the way she wanted this to end. “I should probably go. I love you, Aunt Hannah.”
“Oh, you bloody little fool,” her aunt said. “Don’t you think I know that?”
They never spoke to each other again.
Four days later, Alex perched on a knuckle of bone-cold rock and whittled an alder branch to a toothpick as she waited for her coffee water to boil. A stiff wind gusted in from the northwest, wet and cold. Far below, the Moss River sparkled with sun dazzle, a glittering ribbon that wound through a deep valley of leafless hardwoods, silver-blue spruce, and the darker green of dense hemlock and feathery white pine. The chilly air smelled chilly—which is to say that for Alex, it really smelled like nothing at all. Which Alex was pretty used to, having not smelled anything for well over a year.
The cold was a surprise, but then she’d never hiked the Waucamaw in late September either. The Waucamaw Wilderness had always been a summer adventure with her parents when pesky no-see-ums, bloodsucking mosquitoes, and heat that could melt a person to a sweat puddle were her biggest problems. Now, she was crunching over brittle ice and skidding on frost-covered roots and bare rock every morning. The going was treacherous, each step an invitation to turn an ankle. The farther north and the closer to Lake Superior she got—still two days in the future and nothing but a hazy purple smear smudging the horizon—the greater the risk of bad weather. She could just make out, to the very far west, beneath a slate layer of clouds, the feathery, blue-gray swirls of rain blowing south. But for her, the way ahead was nothing but blue skies: a day that promised to be crisp and picture-perfect, and something she was pretty sure her parents would’ve loved.
If only she could remember who they were.
In the beginning, there’d been smoke.
She was fifteen and an orphan by then, which was kind of sucky, although she’d had a year to get over it already. When the smoky stink persisted and there was no fire, her aunt decided Alex was having one of those post-traumatic things and shipped her off to a shrink, a complete gestapo-wannabe who probably wore black stilettos and beat her husband: Ah zo, ze smoke, zis is a repetition of your parents’ crash, yah? Only the shrink was also pretty smart and promptly shipped Alex off to Barrett, a neurosurgeon, who found the monster.
Of course, the tumor was cancerous and inoperable. So she got chemo and radiation, and her hair and eyebrows fell out. The upside: her legs and pits never needed shaving. The downside was that the antinausea drugs didn’t work—so just her luck—and she puked about every five minutes, driving the bulimics at school a little nuts because she was, like, this total pro. In between treatments, she stopped puking and her hair, rich and red as blood, grew back. A chronic headache muttered in her temples, but like Barrett said, no one ever died from pain. True, but some days you didn’t much enjoy living either. Eventually, the smell of smoke went away—but so did the smell of everything else, because the monster didn’t shrivel up but continued silently growing and munching.
What no one warned her about was that when you had no sense of smell at all, a lot of memories fizzled. Like the way the smell of a pine tree conjured a quick brain-snapshot of tinsel and Christmas lights and a glittery angel, or the spice of nutmeg and buttery cinnamon made you flash to a bright kitchen and your mother humming as she pressed pie crust into a glass dish. With no sense of smell, your memories dropped like pennies out of a ripped pocket, until the past was ashes and your parents were blanks: nothing more than the holes in Swiss cheese.
A stuttering beat, something between a lawnmower and a semiautomatic rifle, broke the silence. A moment later, she spotted the plane—a white, single-prop job—buzzing over the valley, heading north and west. Her eyes dropped to her watch: ten minutes to eight. Sucker was right on time. After four days, she decided that it was the same plane that made a twice-daily run, a little before eight every morning and about twenty minutes after four every afternoon. She could pretty much set her watch by the guy.
The buzz of the plane faded and the quiet descended again like a bell jar over the forest. The hollow thock-thock-thock of a woodpecker drifted up from the valley far below. A trio of crows grated to one another in the pines, and a hawk carved a lazy spiral against the sky.
She sipped her coffee, heard herself swallow. The coffee smelled and tasted like nothing, just hot and brown. Then, something—a soft, tan blur—moved out of the corner of her eye, off to the right. She tossed a quick glance, not expecting anything more exciting than a squirrel or maybe a chipmunk.
So the dog was, well, kind of a surprise.
Excerpted from Ashes by Ilsa J Bick. Copyright © 2011 by Ilsa J Bick.
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