By Andrew Smith
Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Andrew Smith
All rights reserved.
Sixteen is too young to lose your mother, people kept telling me. She died in June, before the summer came.
* * *
I had planned to wake up earlier, at 3, so my father would, hopefully, be sleeping. But when I looked at the clock and saw 3, I told myself ten more minutes would be okay, and then ten more, and then it was 4:15 and I knew I had to hurry.
I got dressed and put on my shoes and grabbed my hat. The rest of the stuff was already packed up by Reno's saddle in the tack room. I paused outside the back door and caught the screen in my gloved hand so it wouldn't slam behind me.
It was still dark. I pushed the gap in my gloves between the fingers down to tighten them to my hands. I turned up the collar on my coat; it was probably about 40 degrees. An owl called from out in the trees somewhere. There was no moon and I had to get to Reno's stall by memory because I couldn't see the ground at my feet yet. He was excited, and made those surprised and excited horse noises like he was chuckling about a joke we were playing on someone; but the barn was far enough from the house that even if my dad were awake and had his window open, he probably wouldn't hear us.
It was almost beautiful how badly I messed things up that morning. I had planned to go south and stop at the Foreman's house and get Tommy up to come with me, but by the time I got Reno saddled, the sky was turning pale blue in the east. There'd be people up around Three Points now, so I couldn't go that way.
The night before I went to the kitchen table where the yellow legal pad kept a kind of stratified archaeological record of my family, its curling top pages rolled back over the binding to reveal the most recent evidence of life. I folded them all back over.
Dad, I fed Mom dinner and she ate a lot. She looks really good today. See you tomorrow — Love, Troy
And through and through the blue-lined pages, some in pencil, some in marker, some from him, most from me, some torn out, some just torn in half. And some, the farthest back, were in her writing, too, and I brushed my fingers across the words and felt the marks she'd left on the paper.
Dad: I'm taking Reno to camp out for a few days. You can call the Bullers' and see if Tommy is going, too. I'm going that way. Don't worry about me. I'll be back soon.
I wasn't planning on going away forever. I wasn't running away from home. I was just taking my horse out on a morning in June and I brought enough stuff with me in case I didn't come back right away.
I headed away from home north into the dark woods that covered the foothills on our upper property; past the apple orchard, Reno walking eagerly in the direction of the massive mountains above us.
Now we were alone and that was that. The moving was a lot easier than the starting.
I like how in June the day can change by 50 degrees or more; how it gets colder and colder just before sunrise; how the first light trickles like a bright fog through the trees; and how things sound and smell within that light.
By midmorning I was already sweating. I got down from my tall bay horse and took off my coat and gloves. I took a drink from my canteen and filled it again in the cold rushing water. We had been following the creek, then the river, up into the mountains. We stayed close to the water where we could, but here and there the huge slabs of granite it spilled over made it impossible to follow anything but its sound. There were big falls here, emptying into clear green pools. The pools kept plenty of trout, and I could deal with that. I had killed and cleaned other animals for food before, but I wasn't going to do that unless I really had to. I had my .22 rifle with me, but I'd always rather fish.
I wouldn't even have to do that for a while. I had some cans of tuna, some pork and beans, a small plastic box of hard boiled eggs, some crackers, and some candy bars.
I took off my hat, a black Stetson with a flattened brim, and set it down atop a rock by where Reno was sucking at the stream. It had been a Christmas gift, too big, from my mom and dad, when I was twelve and came with its brim curled tight like some kind of carnival souvenir hat. I burned my fingers working that brim over a boiling and hissing teakettle to get it where it would sit flatter. Even at twelve, I'd never wear such a hat, pointed like a TV prop. And I never wore cowboy boots, either. I wore tennis shoes in summer, and waterproof hikers in the wet and snowy months of winter. The only music I'd ever listen to on purpose was bluegrass, avoiding the stuff that was too religious, just because I liked the instruments used in it. My pants were all 501s, and I liked them loose on my waist so we always bought them big. But I didn't wear a belt, even though Gabriel's sister, Luz, gave me a nice one for my sixteenth birthday that I just kept sitting out in my room, on display like some sort of trophy, because of how beautiful I thought Luz was, and how I felt about her. And I only wore a collared shirt for school or if we went somewhere, so I was pretty much always in T-shirts, and they were pretty much always too big and dirty from something.
you disappear in those clothes that big, Troy.
While Reno drank and rested, I climbed up the rocks along the side of the falls, which dropped about twenty feet to the pool below. From here I could look down the mountain like I was standing on a church steeple. Where the trees widened out along the rocky course of the river, it looked like a picture I had seen taken from the top of St. Peter's. In the distance I could see the break in the trees, and a thin blue slice of the lake. It was after noon when I found this place. I thought it was a good place to spend the night.
I tied a rope corral between the trees after I had unsaddled Reno.
I found a flat, soft spot of ground under a thick redwood and put my pack down against it. I spread the light sleeping bag out and brought some round rocks back from the edge of the river to build a ring for my fireplace. I walked back and forth, out and in, gathering a stack of wood and pine cones. I washed my hands in the cold rush of the water and sat down on my sleeping bag cross-legged and opened my pack. I took out what food I would eat for dinner and slung the cord-tied pillowcase of food over the branch of a redwood. The sun was already down, but that was just because of the height of the granite fingers jutting up from the mountains. The sky would still have a few good hours of light in it, but the air was already cooling, so I started a fire and ate.
It was less than a day's ride, but I had never been up this high before. I looked up through the treetops, getting darker and darker against the pale sky, at those huge smooth stone fingers. From a distance — the other side of the lake — they looked like the two fingers on a saint in one of those medieval paintings.
"I hear you. I'm right here."
I took my shoes off and made a pillow with the soft part of my pack, if there was such a part. Once I stretched out and realized I would be able to sleep in this spot, I sat back up and put some more wood on the fire. My .22 was folded in my coat alongside the open zipper of my sleeping bag.
"I'm going to sleep now so be quiet."
Reno made his laugh.
* * *
I found myself dreaming.
you disappear in those clothes that big, Troy.
We were in my old room in the house we lived in, in Guadalupe, before we moved up to the lake. I must have been four years old, but in the dream I was me, sixteen. My mom was sitting on the white chair between my bed and the door. The room seemed too small, but I think it was because I was sixteen, in my old room.
The house was laid out differently, too. My mother was looking out the window, and I was standing in front of it looking at her. But the window in my dream was really narrow and tall like the window of a church, not like the one in my house, the one we'd sit by, sometimes. I didn't look out the window, but I knew there was a dog-ear cedar fence right on the other side, and another house just beyond.
I had a brother who died in an accident. I was so small; I don't really remember him anymore, although he finds his way into my dreams. His name, unspoken, Will, was always in my head, always a question about how much his passing hurt her, made her so quiet, pushed us away from that house where I was so small.
When I sat down with her by the window, Will was between us.
My brother looked beautiful, just like he was really there, and not a memory of a ten-year-old boy who had died so many years ago.
you're a cool kid, Troy.
I'm not trying to disappear, Will. I like these clothes. I don't want to be here.
And I was crying and it felt just like I was crying; and I was thinking, Am I crying while I'm sleeping? I didn't know.
She was patting the seat, wanting me to sit next to her like I always did when I was small and she wasn't sick. But then I was sitting on the edge of her bed where I was taking care of her when she was dying, and she wouldn't eat; and I was looking out the narrow pointed window from there, over the top of the graying fence, at the house, too close, on the other side.
Then I was running. I loved to run. If our school had more than sixty-five kids in the thirteen grades, we could have a track team like they did in Holmes, and I'd have been on it. I was running across a bridge, water rushing far below. A big brown dog was chasing me, biting my legs. I lifted her up as she kept biting at me, raised her over the railing of the bridge.
I want to wake up, Mom.
I was swallowed in black, so dark I could feel it like trying to breathe in warm, thick water. Then I heard a voice, low and menacing, saying over and over, "The angel is sleeping in the woods."
I saw Gabriel Benavidez, sleeping under a tall tree. Everything was gray and dim, but I could see the glint of the little gold crucifix he always wore, burning like an ember in the fog. It was raining, but he did not move at all. And I called out, "Gabey! Gabey!"
the angel is sleeping in the woods.
* * *
I felt my face when I woke up. I wasn't crying. But in my chest it felt like I had been. I had only slept for a few minutes, but my heart was pounding like I had just run a mile. I tried to close my eyes, but they kept opening and staring, just staring.
I kept looking around, to see if someone was there, watching.
We went up the mountain.
I was so tired. I took my shoes off and tied them over Reno's saddle horn. I folded my legs back over Reno and crossed my feet to the top of his hips. I hugged my arms around his neck as he kept moving forward at a slow walk. I closed my eyes, and slept on my horse's back.
he could come down to San Diego and spend the summer with us and his cousins.
My father's sister talked, after the funeral, as though I was a foreign visitor who couldn't speak English. The food was all laid out in neat little circles on long tables. Flowers were brought in after the ceremony. Guests went from plate to plate, from arrangement to arrangement, reading the cards, no doubt measuring their own generosity against others'.
And I was sitting between Luz and her brother then.
let's go outside and get our horses.
do you want to?
I don't think he wants you to come with us, Troy.
Gabe was pointing to my father. And in that dream Luz and I were standing in a zoo, looking into the cages, all empty. Only one cage held horses, but it was so full, the horses tried to push their heads out through the bars.
I know what to get you for your next birthday, Troy. A belt. Either that or you're going to have to start eating dinner at my house more often.
I loved being at her house, even if I was afraid of her mother and her father, and why did he give me that horse?
aren't you going to eat, Troy? You disappear in clothes that big.
Then I was looking out that tall, cold window again. Past rows of graying dog-ear cedar fences that turned into headstones, growing into the gables of barns, then mountains rising up. Transforming again, the rocks became two fingers of an illuminated Christ, holding a cigarette that glowed orange and exploded into the galloping fire that leapt along the ridgetops of the dark rolling hills outside the car window as my parents drove home from the hospital the night my brother died; and me, feeling like we couldn't just drive home and leave him there, like we had forgotten something and needed to turn around and get it. I was only four years old then, but the thing I remember most about that night was seeing those flames, the orange slashes of fire, zigzagging like a rattlesnake, like Tommy's crooked smile. It was all I could see in that horrible silence, the blackness of the hills against the dimmer blackness of the sky, and the pulsing, racing fire that ran toward our house, pushed by the warm, dry winds of autumn. And the orange fire became the galloping horses: Reno, riderless, in front; Luz on her paint, Doats; and Gabriel on his silver buckskin, Dusty; and Tom on the angry and arthritic Arrow, trying to keep up, laughing wildly as the hills fell away, crumbling beneath them.
the angel is sleeping in the woods.
* * *
I jerked my hands up, to brace myself for some kind of collision. I saw stars in a black sky. I was flat on my back, lying in tall grass, shoeless. My head ached. I felt for my hat, gone. I pulled my hand back from my hair. It smelled of blood. Reno stood beside me, his nose down in the grass by my head, sniffing at me.
And I stared up at the sky, remembering the time I'd fallen from Reno as Tommy, Gabriel, and Luz watched.
damn, Stotts. Whoever taught you to ride a horse?
I don't think I learned so much about riding as falling off from this one.
are you hurt, Troy?
he's too big. I think he's too big for you, Troy. I'm going to make my daddy trade you for another one.
no, Luz, don't. I'm okay.
And she was picking up my hat, brushing it off. She knelt beside me and combed my hair back over my eyebrow with her fingers, cooling my skin, healing me. I thought it was the most perfect moment I had ever lived, and I felt Tom and Gabe's envy on me.
I'm okay, Luz. Look, he wants me to get back on.
Stottsy, that look means he's not tired of trying to kill you is all.
And Gabe laughed.
How long had I slept, or been knocked out? I was sweating on my back where I had been lying. I sat up, and pulled my knees into my chest. I stood, feebly.
I could see the blackness of the treetops cutting a jagged border around a dim sky. The sun was already rising in the east. I leaned against Reno, brushing off the bottoms of my socks, one at a time, and putting my shoes on. I wondered if I had had enough, if I should head down the mountain now and go back home.
Reno blew air through his lips.
"I'm okay, bud." I uncapped my canteen and poured a little water on my hair. I wiped it with my bare hand. Not too much blood, not much of a cut, but a good-sized lump.
"Where's my hat?" Reno nudged my chest with his nose as if trying to answer me.
"I'll tell you what. When I find it, if it's right side up, we'll go home. If it's upside down, we'll keep going up."
It was about ten feet away. Upside down.
I ate my last candy bar, giving the final bite to Reno. I wasn't tired anymore, and although my head stung a bit when I replaced my hat, I was feeling pretty good as we set off following the ridgeline as it rose to the north. Reno was eager to ride, as well.
We rode higher into the mountains until it was nearly noon, stopping once in a while to take a drink or to allow Reno to graze a bit as I just stared and thought. We had followed the stream as much as possible, and as it forked smaller and smaller, kept along those feeder streams coming from the east. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith. Copyright © 2008 Andrew Smith. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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