CHAPTER 8: OLIVIA
I wonder how much it would cost to pay the driver to chase the night around with his headlights.
I let out a sigh that’s loud enough to elicit two scrunched brows in the rearview. I look away. The last thing I want is conversation.
I rub my eyes, tuck my wayward hair behind my ears, try to make out familiar landmarks as we pass in the approaching light of day. The tiny white church just off the main road I’d never seen a single vehicle or person outside of. A cornfield. A Circle K sign rusted and barely hanging onto the top of its metal pole. The broken window glass of the station just beyond it. Sad and neglected. More flat expanse, but fallow this time. And then, a dimly lit, wooden sign ghosting out of the early morning fog.
Tomahawk Hill. Population 2,138.
In a few minutes, the car will take us up the serpentine road that once made my heart beat with anticipation but now, thrum with dread. Would the ground bear the telltale signs of my grandfather’s fatal accident?
When I close my eyes, I can see the skid marks, the crushed wheat field, the mud dripping down the tires pressing toward the sky. It had been a blessing and a curse for him to die the same week I’d been here to celebrate his birthday, his and Therese’s anniversary.
I press my now hot forehead to the glass, close my eyes, focus on how the cool, hard surface feels against my skin. I imagine pressing various parts of my face against it, using it like a cold, wet cloth against fevered skin. The driver eyes me with suspicion as though reading my intent.
Out of nowhere, it seems, big blue bluffs appear along the left side of the taxi, forcing me to crane my neck upward and lean down into the seat to get a full view.
As a kid, I’d told my friends that my grandparents lived in the mountains. Outsiders sometimes mistook the bluffs for mountains too, but even after moving to LA, surrounded at all times by snow-capped purple mountains majesty, I thought the bluffs were humbler but just as beautiful.
When the car begins the climb up Bluff Road, I tell myself not to look, don’t look, but then I see it.
The shiny metal guardrail snaking like a roller coaster up the most dangerous part of the curve. A single, yellow sign depicting a car tilted. A single, white cross with fake flowers and who knows what else draped around it, pushed into the earth where the rail ended. Hot tears, a tightening in my chest. Indignation swells.
“Stop the car.”
“PLEASE! Stop the car, now!”
There’s an untended drive maybe five feet past the guardrail and the driver pulls into it. I launch myself out of the car, my feet catching on the overgrown grass and weeds. I look both ways before I cross the narrow road. Everything is misted with fog, but I hear no sounds from oncoming vehicles, see no lights approaching in the distance. In minutes I’m at the shabby memorial. Laminated photos of my grandfather hang around it like necklaces. Garish, bright, fake flowers. Who had done this? Who here besides my grandmother had the right?!
My canvas tennis shoes are wet with dew, the uncut grass along the side of the guardrail well past my ankles. A foot past the rail is the ditch where my grandfather had driven off the road, flipped his Jeep. I don’t look there. Instead, I focus on planting my feet on either side of the cross and pull up, relieved when the thing lifts out of the ground easily, the flowers and pictures swaying against it, the white paint crumbling in my hands. I want to pitch it into the ditch.
The road is still silent, although the commotion in my head is loud. When I slide into the waiting car, my hands clutching the cross, the driver looks at me with eyes wide. “You’re kidding,” he says, “How could you…”
When the tears had started again I don’t know, but with the pressure easing off my chest I can feel them running down my cheeks. I hold one of the pictures up in defiance. “This is my grandfather.”
He snaps his mouth shut. And for the first time in the hour we’ve been together, I realize that his eyes are warm and thoughtful. Reaching down with his right hand, he pulls a plastic trash bag out of the glove compartment. “Here.”
As I grab the bag, my hands shake. How ghoulish would it be for me to walk up to my grandmother’s house holding this in my hands? And how melodramatic was I? For the tenth time since I’d left LA, I wish that Rich or Audrey had flown with me, to be here for me, while I was here for my grandmother. Rich would never have let me do what I’d just done. He’d have pointed out how insensitive it was for me to destroy someone else’s expression of grief. He would have held my hand, made me sit tight.
My eyes meet the driver’s and I feel gratitude. “Thank you,” I say, my voice small. “I’m sorry. You must think I’m crazy and rude and…”
He waves his hand dismissively. “Ready? Or are there some other things we need to destroy along the way?”
I give him a feeble smile. “We’ll see. But I think I’m good.”
It’s like the sun has been waiting for us. As we crest the top of the road, the fog dissipates and the countryside glows like fossilized amber. To the left, a familiar wrought-iron gate, flanked by old carriage lanterns atop matching brick pillars.
“Here,” I say, eyes aglow with happiness for the first time in 48 hours, “this is it.”