Part Two: The Beginning Of The End
(Part One: Bring Us Your Vulnerable)
Not really knowing anybody in my new town, I was all alone in the woods, proudly riding my fancy new mountain bike along a series of abandoned logging roads about 10 miles from anywhere. I came around a rapidly descending turn to find myself in the tractor beam of a light green truck, the driver’s eyes as big as mine as my face hit the driver’s side window just above the USFS logo on the door before I ricocheted back over against a fallen log in the ditch on my side of the road.
I heard a series of long scrapes behind me followed by a short loud CA-LUNK before a door opened and a woman’s voice screamed, “Holy shit, are you alright?”
Uh, I have no idea yet. Give me a sec.
“Shit. Shit! You’re bleeding!”
“Shit. Shit! Don’t move!”
Wait, am I upside down? I tried to sit up.
“Shit! Shit! Stop moving!”
“Just give me,” I struggled to say, choking and coughing before I could add, “a second.” My hands went to my throat in a flurry of panic, unable to breathe.
“Shit! Shit!” she repeated, swatting my hands away. “Hold on!” My helmet had been knocked off the back of my head and she fought with me to release the strap that was cutting off my airway. When the buckle released I gasped a deep breath, sucking a mixture of warm blood and cold air into my lungs before uncontrollably coughing an impressive crimson Pollack back across her face and sage green uniform.
“Shit! Shit!” she was clearly panicked that I had an internal injury, not even noticing that she was covered in a stranger’s blood.
“Don’t worry,” I tried to calm her. “I think I just bit my tongue (and cheek, losing a couple of teeth in the process as it turned out).” I eventually got enough wind back in my lungs to start trying to untangle my legs from the wreckage of what was once my day-old bike frame.
“Shit! Jesus! Shit!” she squawked with even more gusto. She was pointing down at inside of my left leg that was quickly changing colors before our very eyes – all the way from my ankle to my groin. (A series of what would become permanent bruises and broken veins that will always serve as a reminder of the day.) She looked faint.
“Hey, is your truck okay?” I asked, trying to change the subject, “I think I’m going to need a ride to town.”
By now I should have been able to predict her response upon surveying the wreckage. The scraping noise must have been from the tree stump that began its assault by twisting her front right axle inward before jamming under the drivetrain, leaving her back wheels almost a foot off the ground.
“Shit…” she said. I almost gave up waiting for the much-anticipated repeated profanity, but she did not disappoint with a final, albeit delayed, “Shit!”
After I patched myself up enough to decide that I could walk, we came up with a plan. Throwing my wreck in the back of her truck, we grabbed her water jug and began walking/hobbling cross-country toward the nearest road. She talked for what seemed like every minute of our four-hour hobble. I got a few words in but most of my energy was spent trying not to grimace and groan with every step. (After all, I was a big strong man in the company of a uniformed woman a couple years older that me and far too beautiful to be in my company.) It was dark by the time we got to the highway, but I felt like I knew everything about her. Not just the facts and figures she shared out loud, but the secret things that made her tick.
“Shit. Shit!” she yelled as the first set of headlights ignored my bloody thumb trying to hitch a ride and sped by. Surprisingly for that time of night on that mountain road, another pair of headlights appeared on the horizon just a few minutes later. “My turn,” she said.
Without any sense of danger, she ran into the middle of the lane, arms waving willingly above her head, shouting authoritatively, “STOP YOUR VEHICLE!” It probably had something to do with her federal uniform and her blood covered face, but a nice elderly couple seemed more than happy to let us hop in the open bed of their small Ford Ranger pickup and offered to drive us to town, about 45 minutes away.
Exhausted, without a word, we sprawled ourselves flat on the cold metal truck bed and stared up at the stars passing by overhead.
“By the way, I’m Caroline,” she said.
“Shit-Shit,” I replied.
“You’ll always be Shit-Shit to me,” I explained.
It was the first time I had the pleasure of experiencing Caroline’s giggle-snort-cackle as she punched me in the shoulder hard enough that I knew instantly we’d always be friends.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she said. “It’s been nice to get to know you, I still don’t know anybody around here.” She raised her left forearm between our waists, her fingers pointing to the sky.
I was too tired to talk. “Ditto,” I said, enclosing her wrist gently in my right hand.
“That’s your name,” she asked sarcastically?
Our forearms slowly dropped to our sides as her hand slid into mine. “Ditto.” We were both asleep in seconds, hand in hand.
Thus it started, the adventures of Shit-Shit and Ditto, connected at the hip for the better part of two years. We were both doing our best to avoid the horrors of adulthood. She was on a two year contract with the Forest Service while finishing a Ph.D focused on some intersection of geology and cosmology that I’ll never understand, and I was always amazed that’s she’d find time to study amid all of our shenanigans. The moment we got off work we’d meet at the river for kayaking, or the lake for fishing, or the mountains for hiking. She even convinced me to jump out of a perfectly good airplane to celebrate her birthday. We’d eventually finish our evenings at our favorite watering hole before wandering back to our respective homes, just two blocks apart.
Friends and family were sure that we were going to get married once we found ourselves living together for a short time. However, the truth is that we were never romantically involved, not so much as an accidental kiss – just inseparable bosom-buddies, fiercely loyal and protective of one another, albeit, the kind of relationship many couples would covet from afar.
My strongest memory (aside from our initial explosion) of our time together will likely be the night I led her to Christ, whatever that means. It was during a fall backpacking trip in the mountains, just the two of us. On a moonless night we perched ourselves high on a rocky cliff that overlooked a wandering river at the bottom of the deep canyon, the glowing edge of the Milky Way passing overhead. We spoke often of the arrogance of man, and this night in particular, Shit-Shit waxed poetic about the blatant hubris of various co-workers, bartenders, and family members who weren’t, “in constant awe of how lucky we are, just stardust, to be living at this time on this planet.”
Recognizing the opportunity to pounce on frustrations of others’ myopia, I turned the tables on her and asked if she really thought it was all an accident, just a random bunch of chemical reactions that created a planet just for her. I didn’t ask nicely, nor was I really interested in hearing an answer. I asked condescendingly, ready to preach of a Creator of the universe, her only hope of salvation, etc… In short, I took advantage of her, my best friend in the whole world, manipulating her to conform to my worldview instead of embracing her own.
By the end of the night she was a Christian in training. Following my lead to make God bigger and bigger by making herself smaller and smaller, she screamed joyfully for an echo in what she now saw as canyons of God’s magnificent creation below, “I AM NOTHING! … NOTHING … NOTHING …”
A couple of months later I waved from the driveway as she set out across the country with a Bible I had hidden in her trunk, the gold embossed letters marking the the only time I ever called her by her given name, Caroline.
I guess that memories have a way of shifting over the years. The facts remain the same, but perspectives shift. What was once my proudest moment would eventually become one of my greatest regrets years before, eventually, becoming one of my darkest hours.
As life went on, we became naturally separated by mileage, careers, and new priorities. We came to each other’s weddings and watched from afar as we raised families on opposite sides of the country. We remained close with each other’s extended families, crashing reunions like a crazy distant relative. All in all, we did our best to stay in touch, making it a point to get together anytime we were within a day’s drive.
As often happens in adulthood, it had been almost ten years since our last hugs when stars aligned to drop us both in Memphis at the same time. It was a wonderful evening that brought back the warmest memory of falling asleep holding hands in the back of the pickup truck twenty years earlier, while doing my best to ignore the shame-filled memory of atop the cliffs, shouting familiar mantras of self loathing that required of any new Christian. Regardless of the complexity of our relationship, I always knew that if my phone were to ring in the middle of the night, I’d have done anything for her, and she for me.
Two weeks later the phone did ring.
“I’m sorry to call you from her phone, Ditto. It’s Jessica.” I recognized the voice Shit-Shit’s sister immediately, though her tone made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. “I know it’s weird, but I didn’t have your number.”
“No worries,” I said. Sensing trouble, I hesitated to ask, “What’s up, Jess?”
“I just wanted to make sure you’re coming tomorrow,” she asked. “I mean, I know that it’s a long way, but I don’t know. I was just…” she was trailing off, rambling a bit.
“Come where?” I asked with no response. “Jess?”
“Oh my god,” she sighed. Her pause seemed like an eternity. “I thought, I’m so sorry. I just figured. Shit, I thought they called you?”
“Who? About what?” I asked. Assuming the worst, all I wanted to do was hang up. “Jess!”
“She’s gone, Ditto” her voice cracking. “The funeral is tomorrow. I just,” crying now, “I just wanted to make sure you were coming.”
I couldn’t see straight, “What funeral? Who’s gone?”
“It’s Carrie, Ditto. Caroline’s dead,” she attempted to clarify despite my obvious attempts of denial. “They found her body near the aspens over in the park a few days ago. They… She… I don’t… ” she stopped herself. I could tell she wanted to say more but she hadn’t been prepared to be the bearer of bad news.
“We’ll be there,” I said, hanging up the phone.
I tried to act surprised when I relayed the news to my wife, but in truth, I had been expecting the call. We packed our bags and drove through the night.
Into an ambush.