As I felt the wall of snow crash into me and sweep me down the mountain like I was an autumn leaf, I would have given almost anything to take back my decision to go along with this reckless idea. When I first heard the roar, followed by a deep rumble and rushing sound, all I could do was scream. My big sister Ellie grabbed my hand and frantically told me to grab our little sister, Lydie. I desperately reached back for her, but where was she? She had been hiking just behind me, but apparently had slowed. Sawyer and Marshall Miles bounded through the deep snow to us. Sawyer, almost eighteen, hollered, “AVALANCHE! Run to the side of the ridge!” Run to the side. I had read that tip in an article a few months ago, but thinking about it seemed much more possible than actually sprinting through shin-deep snow with a mass thundering toward me.
“Where’s Lydie?” Sawyer demanded.
“I don’t know!” I cried.
Ellie and Sawyer exchanged a distressed glance, then took off together, amazingly reaching Lydie just before the snow mass roared into us.
“Swim uphill!” Marshall shouted. Swim uphill. I remembered Dad telling a story of a guy he knew from his mountaineering job being caught in an avalanche and “swimming” to stay toward the surface of the snow. I hysterically began flailing my arms and legs, certainly no Olympic stroke, but perhaps it resembled swimming enough to stay above the surface of the crashing snow. While swimming, I craned my head in every direction, trying to catch a glimpse, what I prayed would not be my last glimpse, of my dear sisters and Sawyer, but all I saw was white. Ominous, smothering white. And then black.
Black. Stifling black. Moments before, the full moon bounced enough light off the pure white snow to read a map. Now I was smothered in darkness. Was this a nightmare? I tried to roll over in my sleeping bag, but no, I wasn’t in my sleeping bag. My whole body hurt. My face felt bruised. The memory flashed into mind, almost as quickly as the avalanche had hit us. Avalanche. Lydie! Ellie! The Miles boys! What was I doing here? If I had followed my gut and refused to go on this hike, we would be safely asleep in our tent next to our parents’ tent. Our parents’ tent. Mom and Dad – oh, no! How would they cope with the news that their children had been in an avalanche? I had to get out. I would get out. God willing, I would do everything in my power to escape.
Panic surged through me. Instinctively, my body tried to thrash, tried desperately to get up, but I was stuck. The snow was packed so tightly that I could barely move my hands. Without thinking, I began to pray. At first, my plea was panicked, but gradually, I managed to calm down and really ask God for help.
Stay calm, I reminded myself again, and then mocked the thought of staying calm while drowning in snow. Stop that. Think, Marlee. Oh yeah, when buried in the snow, first determine which way is down, then dig toward the opposite direction. The snow was stiff, but not as stiff as I first thought, indicating to me that I must be near the surface. My left hand was by my mouth and I dug a small air pocket. Letting a drop of saliva onto my lip, I felt it fall down my left cheek. So gravity was left. Dig to the right. Slowly, I inched my hands to my right side and pushed snow away from my body. It took all of my strength to move the solid snow just a few inches. My breathing sped up again, partially due to fear and partially due to the workout of digging. Pausing to take a break, I wondered how long my pocket of air could provide enough oxygen. Then I heard my name. Or was that my imagination?
“Marlee!” It was definitely Marshall’s voice. I tried to scream back to him, but my voice deafeningly echoed directly back to me in my cave. I felt a surge of relief knowing at least Marshall and I were alive; I begged God that the others were, too.
Three more energy-draining scoops with my arms, and I felt my right fingertips emerge. I wiggled them and suddenly felt as free as a butterfly bursting from a cocoon.
“Marlee!” I heard him shout again.
A few more frantic scoops, and I jerked my head out of the snow. “Marsh!” I hollered. He was about forty feet away and came running to me. He looked stunned and incredibly scared as he dug his gloved fingers into the snow around my head and grabbed my shoulders. He was breathing so hard that I thought he would give himself a headache.
“I thought I was the only one who made it,” his face crumpled, and he let out a sob.
Marshall’s emotions made me feel like crying, too. I mean, I’m a girl, so if I cry, it might not actually be a big deal. But even Marshall was crying! What had we just survived?! What was ahead of us? If we didn’t make it back to camp before sunrise, our parents would be worried sick. Where were the others? Marshall said he thought he was the only one who had survived, so that meant that Lydie, Ellie and Sawyer were still missing. By now, tears were slowly sliding down my cheeks, and my nose was running. Marshall’s head was bent low, but all at once, he lifted his head, looked at me, and began scooping snow from around my body. I was lying somewhat sideways, kind of parallel to the mountain.
“Can you unbuckle your pack?” Marshall asked me. With my right hand, I reached down and numbly unclipped my backpack’s waist belt, then the sternum strap.
“Okay, I’m unbuckled, but I don’t know that I can wriggle out of the shoulder straps. Moving in this snow is like swimming in a sea of cold peanut butter.”
Marshall had scooped most of my right side free, and feeling like a stiff hippo, I heaved and sort of rolled out of my snowy cocoon, my pack still loosely on my back. My rib cage expanded dramatically, no longer confined in the dense snow. I gulped several huge breaths, just now realizing that I had been forced to take shallow breaths while buried. Buried alive. The thought made me very thankful to be out of the snow, but also very worried about the others. Marshall dropped to his knees next to me and again grabbed my shoulders. I looked back into the spot where I had been, and to my amazement it was barely below the surface. At first, when I had felt like I would never get out, I would have figured I was twenty feet down, not five inches.
“You okay?” Marshall stammered. Honestly, I felt better than he appeared, and I was afraid he was having a panic attack – just what we needed.
“Uh,” I quickly thought, tested out my limbs, stood up and successfully took two steps, “I think so. What about you?”
“Oh Marlee, you’re bleeding!” Marshall exclaimed.
“Where? Are you okay?” I demanded, his distress making me more nervous.
“Your forehead,” he pointed, and I stretched my left hand up, noticing that my arm felt stiff after being packed under the snow, but with my glove on I couldn’t feel how severe it was.
“I don’t think I’m losing much blood, so if you’re okay, I say we start searching for the rest of the group,” I said, my voice sounding more confident than I felt.
I knew that avalanche victims have to get out ASAP, so I forced my emotions out of my mind. There wasn’t time to worry and wonder. We had to find Sawyer, Ellie and Lydie. Marshall was still visibly distraught. He looked like I felt. But right now, we had to act.
This time it was me putting my hands on Marshall’s shoulders. Suddenly feeling like a mother hen, I prayed that it would calm him enough to think clearly. “Marsh,” I began, “we just lived through an avalanche.” He nodded and his breathing began to regulate. “Right now,” I continued, “our job is to search for the other three.” His breathing began to increase. I kept my hands firmly on his shoulders. Marshall must have had an impressive growth spurt during the year, because last summer I was about four inches taller than he. Now, standing face to face, we matched each other for height. I bet Marshall clears out their fridge weekly.
“Marshall, you and I are going to stay together, side by side, and we are going to find our siblings. You know more about rescue than I do,” I went on, thinking that delegating him a role would help him focus, “so tell me, where do you think they are?” When the words came out of my mouth, it sounded so devastating, as if they had hit, landed, and would remain until found. That’s what they call ‘search and recovery.’ I silently begged God this would be a search and rescue. I again swallowed my fear and maintained eye contact with him.
“Well,” he began matter-of-factly, “Sawyer and Ellie ran down the ridge as the avalanche hit. So I would say that we need to start searching about twenty feet lower than your location.”
I nodded, and without a word, I repositioned and buckled my pack before I noticed Marshall’s was gone. “You lost your pack?” I quietly asked.
Marshall blankly nodded. His backpack had contained one of two first aid kits. The other was in Ellie’s. “Well at least we still have gorp,” I tried to lighten the mood, referring to the “good old raisins and peanuts” in my pack. My attempt at a joke was not appreciated, so I turned and we headed down the ridge, where he figured Sawyer and my sisters were. It had probably only been two minutes since I was dug out, but every minute under the snow made the situation more serious. Like, exponentially more serious.
“Look for any sign of them,” Marshall said, “gloves, packs, headlamps,” he trailed off. Glancing in the direction he faced, I nearly whooped for joy when I saw Lydie’s glove. Together, we ran to her glove and began digging and calling her name. As I dug with my trowel, I wondered if we should spread out to increase our chances of finding her, but I sure didn’t want to be alone right now, so I stayed close to Marshall. Suddenly I scooped into a pocket similar to the one I had dug in front of my mouth, and my heart raced with renewed vigor. Two more digs, and Lydie’s beautiful, eleven-year-old face surfaced. “Lydie!” I sang, “Oh, Lydie, can you hear me? Does anything hurt?” Marshall, who had been digging a few feet downhill of me, ran to my side and began furiously digging around Lydie’s face.
Lydie’s eyes opened and she weakly smiled. I threw my arms around her head and whispered, “Thank You, God! Oh, Lydie, I love you.” When I pulled my head away from hers, I noticed that her expression was weak.
“Get her out!” shouted Marshall, “She can’t breathe! The pressure on her lungs is too much!”
I had been so happy to see Lydie’s face that I had momentarily forgotten that the rest of her was still cemented in the packed snow. Startled by Marshall’s command, I reached down Lydie’s side and wrapped my arms around her waist. Trying to do a squat, I heaved with all my might, hoping to pull Lydie up with me.
“Yeeowwww!!” she shrieked, the pain in her voice sounding authentic.
“Tell us what hurts, Lydie,” Marshall directed her.
“Leg,” she whimpered as she tried to blink away the tears that had begun gathering in her eyes and trickling down her face.
Marshall glanced at me, squinted his eyes to try to see her lower body in the semidarkness, and then looked back to me. His eyes were serious as he quietly said, “You stay by her face and calm her. Make sure she keeps breathing. I’ll work on digging out her legs.”
“Hey, Lydie, how was your ride down the slope?” I tried to sound casual, hoping my nonchalant attitude would lighten everyone’s thoughts. With the back of my glove, I gently wiped snow and tears off her eyelashes and face.
Her weak smile and sigh confirmed that she was in pain and very scared. I tilted her face to look squarely in her eyes, “Lydie,” I started, sounding more confident than I was, “God has your back. We’re here now, and we’re going to do all we can to get back to Mom and Dad.”
With that, a lone tear rolled down her cheek, which made my heart ache. Marshall winced, as if he had just now thought of our parents. As he dug deeper, I heard him gasp. Cautiously looking into the hole he was making, my throat felt like it caved in when I saw Lydie’s left leg. Her boot was at knee level, and her lower leg was twisted away from her body.
That explains her pathetic, “Yeeowwww!!” when I first tried heaving her out of the avalanche, I thought. It made me hurt just looking at her disfigured ankle.
Marshall sharply sucked in a breath, and I was afraid he would go back into panic mode. Suddenly I thought I heard Ellie’s voice, but it sounded distant, and Marshall and Lydie did not appear to have heard.
“Maybe,” I said as the thought occurred to me, “now that Lydie can breathe, we should look for Sawyer and Ellie. Lydie’s stable, but if the other two are still under the snow, we need to get them out ASAP.”
Lydie faintly nodded. “Marlee’s right, Marsh. You got me to air, so we can worry about my leg once we know Ellie and Sawyer are safe.”
Marshall did not hesitate to jump up, and though I realized I should help him find the others, it was very hard to pull myself away from my injured little sister. “Do you have any idea where they are?” I asked her.
“Ellie was holding my right arm. Sawyer-”
But she was cut off by a voice shouting, “OVER HERE!” Marshall stopped walking, and loudly said, “Where are you?”
Then, like a dream, Sawyer jogged over to us, with Ellie a few strides behind. Like they were out for a midnight run. How did they look so normal? Since they obviously weren’t buried, they must have made it to the side of the ridge before the avalanche hit. Sawyer was limping, but Ellie looked fine. I mean, scared out of her wits, but physically fine.
“Ellie! We’re here! Everybody’s accounted for now,” I informed her. “Are you okay?”
Ellie and I fiercely hugged each other, and I suddenly felt much more confident with my seventeen-year-old sister here. And she still had her backpack. The backpack with the remaining first aid kit. Phew. Marshall gave his brother a manly-type slap on the shoulder and sighed, “Boy, is it good to see you.”
“You too, Brother,” Sawyer breathed, his hands on his knees. “Wow, our first avalanche.” Was he hoping to experience more avalanches?! And my friend Braelynn Gunderson had told me I was a little weird. After a moment of taking big breaths, Sawyer stood up straight, and smiled at Marshall and me. His brow abruptly wrinkled and he leaned his head towards mine and carefully pushed my helmet up an inch or so to look at my forehead. “This looks sore, Marlee. Are you okay?”
I had forgotten about my forehead until now. I gently patted the spot with my gloved hand. “I’m not sure, but we need to help Lydie.”
“Where is Lydie?” he looked around worriedly.
“Lyd’s over there, able to breathe, but her leg looks, uh,” Marshall looked at his feet, “hurt.”
Sawyer looked way more concerned when Marshall mentioned Lydie’s undiagnosed injury, so we rushed back to her location. I barely noticed the snow melting off of my helmet and running down my neck. As I worked to help scoop around Lydie’s legs, the chilly drops helped cool me as I sweated from the hard work. I was gaining a new appreciation for those construction guys who shoveled cement all last summer in our town. No wonder they were ripped.
When Ellie reached Lydie’s cove, she screamed with joy and threw her arms around Lydie’s shoulders. “Ellie!” Lydie said, “I was so worried when you let go of my arm.”
Ellie’s face wrinkled in grief at the memory. “I held on with all my strength, Lydie. I tried to pull you to the ridge, but you were literally swept away from me.” A small sob escaped.
I patted her back and whispered, “You did great to stay with her so long.” Ellie nodded and brushed away a tear. Even though Ellie can drive us bonkers, I’ve never questioned that she completely loves Lydie and me. Seeing one of us tumble tragically down a mountainside would be as much Ellie’s nightmare as ours.
“But look at your leg, Lyd,” Ellie cracked and was now all-out crying. I put my arm around her shoulders and held her for a moment while Sawyer and Marshall continued digging around Lydie’s legs.
Lydie whimpered in pain, which only made Ellie cry harder seeing that our baby sister was hurting. Marshall and Sawyer exchanged a concerned look with each other before Marshall suggested, “Maybe two of us should go for help. I mean, it looks like Lydie needs a doctor, so maybe we should set out to try to reach the ranger station. A search and rescue team will know how to safely move her.”
Everyone stopped and looked at Marshall. While what he said made perfect sense, nobody was thrilled at the idea of splitting up so soon after being reunited. And, as much as I wanted to stay with my sisters, it was plain to see that Sawyer was the leader of our group, and kind of the father figure, so I thought it would be beneficial to keep him and Ellie with Lydie. Also, I was not a fan of the idea of three girls alone in the wilderness. I would feel much better if each group had a guy, for strength and protection. “I’m feeling pretty strong,” I started, nodding toward Sawyer’s favored leg, “I could hike out with Marshall.”
Sawyer nodded thoughtfully before Ellie asked him about his leg. “It hurts, but I think it’s very minor compared to Lydie’s,” he acknowledged. Ellie nodded, concern in her eyes.
“Hey, what about the satellite messenger?” Ellie asked suddenly, reminding us all of our form of emergency communication. Cell phones aren’t reliable in the backcountry. Maybe from the peak we could get service, but not below the ridge. So that left the satellite messenger to send out basic messages.
Marshall looked down with a disgusted expression and muttered, “It was in my pack. And my pack is lost in the snow. Along with one of the first aid kits.”
“But we still have gorp,” I added cheerily, pointing to my pack. Raisins and peanuts can be pretty boring, especially by the third or fourth day of a trek, but hey, food is food.
“And we still have the first aid kit from my pack,” Ellie noted.
Sawyer’s face as he digested the news that our satellite messenger was gone conveyed feelings of sheer alarm. Not like I wasn’t alarmed too, but I tried to swallow my fear again. Tried.
Without saying, we all knew what that meant. The satellite messenger had a button that would immediately alert the local authorities that we needed help and it would provide our exact location. Bringing it along, we had planned that if an emergency happened, we could alert rescuers, who would quickly find us and send word to our parents.
And everything would have been just fine. So now what?
Ellie quietly checked her phone, but shook her head and resealed it in a plastic pouch and zipped it back in her jacket pocket.
Without the satellite messenger, we had no form of communication with anyone besides each other. And God.
“We should pray,” I proposed. The group nodded in unison, and I was going to start the prayer, but was suddenly so overcome with emotion that I couldn’t speak.
Lydie, who had mostly been silent all along, spoke up and prayed a beautiful, heartfelt prayer. She thanked God for our protection through the avalanche and asked for His divine help out of the situation. She even remembered to ask God to comfort and calm our parents as they woke up to our absence. Lydie’s prayer was so passionate that I suddenly realized she was growing into a fine young lady. Little Lydie was no longer a little girl. The realization that my baby sister was maturing into a young woman hit me almost as hard as the avalanche.
At the conclusion of Lydie’s prayer, the expressions worn by everyone else revealed that we all must have had the same thought regarding Lydie. She smiled, a bit more energetically this time, and then said, “Well, I’ll keep an eye on Ellie and Sawyer while you two go for help.”
Ahh, Lydie’s comic relief was perfectly timed, and we all let out a nervous laugh.
“You know how for years my favorite hobby was making Ellie scream?” Sawyer asked me through our webcam chat. I was surprised that he wanted to talk to me, but apparently he needed advice about Ellie. Not that I was sure what made me an expert, but hey, I was glad to hear the inside scoop on two of my favorite people. My older sister Ellie and our family friends’ son Sawyer used to be rivals, but lately they’d been getting along very well.
I couldn’t help but giggle. “You mean like the time you put worms in her water bottle? Or when you wrangled a garter snake into her hiking boot just before she tried to put on her boots?”
Sawyer laughed as he remembered, “That was golden. She was so mad at me, and the veins in her forehead bulged out so far, I thought she was going to have a stroke.” It was funny – afterward, I mean. At the time, Ellie was so furious I didn’t dare laugh. Sawyer and Marshall were laughing, even when their dad, Caleb Miles, gruffly told Sawyer to have some respect.
That’s when Sawyer said, “You’re right, Dad. I was wrong to tamper with nature. I’ll put the snake back where I found it.” Caleb looked exasperated and embarrassed, Marshall laughed again, and Ellie tossed the confused and probably dizzy snake at Sawyer and stomped off to our tent. Sawyer had matured a lot since then, but I was wondering where the conversation was going.
“Yeah, so what’s up?” I prodded.
“Before I forget,” he interjected, “if Ellie comes into the room, hang up.”
“Oh-kay. So what’s up?” Could we just get on with this?!
“Well, do you remember the first time she laughed at one of my jokes?”
Um, no. It wasn’t a memory I recalled daily, but I didn’t want to say that. “Was it the time…” I let my voice trail off, hoping he would fill in the blank, which he did.
“Yeah, it was the time in Washington when we stopped for lunch and Lydie asked me if I would play grocery store with her. I wasn’t exactly daydreaming of playing grocery store when there were amazing mountains and streams to explore, but when the cutest little kid in the world asks, you’ll do almost anything.” Lydie had been a super cute little kid. Now, at twelve, she’s getting so she looks pretty more than cute, but I knew what Sawyer meant.
“So I gathered up rocks and pinecones and stuff for her to ring up,” Sawyer recalled, “and when she grabbed a particularly big leaf, she asked if I wanted my milk in a bag. I told her she could leave it in the carton. Lydie just smiled and handed me my nature purchases, but Ellie laughed. Like she really thought I made a funny joke. It wasn’t like the time Marshall watched a video on cutting hair and completely botched up mine. That time her laugh was like, ‘What were you thinking?!’ When I joked with Lydie that day, Ellie laughed like my joke actually made her happy.” Even through the laptop screen, I could see Sawyer’s face light up when he thought about Ellie smiling. And that made me smile. To be totally honest, when Ellie smiles it makes me happy too.
Now that he mentioned it, I did remember him making Ellie laugh that time in Washington. I also definitely remembered the bad haircut. I was glad his tousled, sandy-colored hair had made a strong comeback.
“Yeah, Sawyer, of course Ellie laughed. It was a really good joke.” I was getting impatient to find out what was on Sawyer’s mind.
“Hey man,” I heard another guy’s voice behind Sawyer. Great, nothing like an untimely interruption.
A well-muscled, well-dressed guy with brown skin and short, remarkably tidy dreadlocks filled the corner of the laptop screen, and Sawyer stood to talk to him. “Lowry, man,” Sawyer smiled as he shook his hand.
“Sawyer, Willow is ready to drive me to the airport. I’ll be back with Grandpa and my mom in Tennessee for two weeks and then I’m off to the Alps for my internship,” the guy said with a southern-Appalachian accent.
“JJ Lowry, I’m a little jealous of your amazing summer plans. Take tons of pictures and notes for me,” Sawyer said as they bumped knuckles. “And tell your grandpa and mom I said ‘hey.’”
“Right on, Dude,” JJ Lowry said. “And I’ll put in a good word, so you can make it into the Alps internship next year. Enjoy Montana and Ellie,” he said with a grin. Then noticing Sawyer’s computer, he quickly said, “Oh, really sorry I interrupted. Wait, that’s not Ellie!” He looked perplexed.
“It’s her sister.”
JJ cocked an eyebrow, looking confused. I tentatively waved. I felt like a fly on the wall, except a thousand miles away. He peered around Sawyer’s shoulder and waved back to me, with his left eyebrow peaked in confusion the whole time.
“I need to ask Marlee how to break the news to Ellie,” Sawyer explained, making me feel even more puzzled – and worried.
JJ’s eyes grew and his mouth made an O. Patting Sawyer’s shoulder he said, “Good luck. Keep me posted. See you in three months, Roomie.” He waved to me, and I waved back uncomfortably. Sawyer bid him farewell and turned back to me.
“Sorry, Marlee. Okay, so that day when I made Ellie laugh, something changed. I loved hearing her laugh. I loved that I made her laugh. It completely changed my attitude toward Ellie.”
“You fell in love that day?” I teased. They were about 14 or 15 that summer, so I didn’t really mean it. Not completely – I just wanted to see his reaction.
He tilted his head. “Mm, I think maybe the spark started that day. Love has to grow over time, you know?”
I just nodded. I didn’t really know from personal experience, but Mom and Dad had explained love similarly to me before.
Sawyer continued, “So the spark ignited, and from that point on, all I could think about was fanning the flames.” Coming from Sawyer, I totally pictured him lighting a campfire with that metaphor. So what news does he have to tell Ellie? Dude, hurry up! I wanted to grab his shoulders and tell him to spill it. I clutched the sides of the laptop screen.
“Go on, Sawyer.” I sounded impatient now.
“Okay,” his voice started to sound nervous, “so you probably know that Ellie applied for a wildlife vet tech program here in Idaho?” It’s all I’d heard about for two months, so I gave an affirmative nod.
“Sawyer,” a lady’s voice interrupted in the background. Sawyer rolled his eyes and quickly apologized to me before stepping back to open his dorm room door. I knew that at the Professional Outdoor Guides School, or POGS, the students spent about half their time in a dorm and half their time living and learning in the outdoors. It sounded amazing, and I was happy for Sawyer that he had the opportunity. He had found his niche in the outdoors, and I had no doubt he would be an excellent guide. But suddenly my attention was acutely focused on the attractive young woman on the screen. She looked around the same age as Sawyer and Ellie, about 18 or 19, and had curly auburn hair.
“Hey, Acadia,” Sawyer politely welcomed her, stepping directly in front of the screen. Thanks for blocking my view. He totally did that on purpose. And is she seriously named after a national park?
“I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to you, Sawyer,” Acadia purred. What’s going on here? Do you two have a deep relationship for her to talk to you like that? I was beginning to get suspicious.
“Uh, thanks for stopping by,” Sawyer replied, sounding uneasy. “I still have my Cold Water Rescue test in the morning, and then will head out for my summer of backpacking and working at the climbing gym.” That all matched what Ellie had said. But I hadn’t heard about Acadia. Could she be the news? Better not be!
“Be safe, Sawyer. No free solo climbing, and be careful when you’re bicycling across the country.” Okay, I hadn’t heard about Sawyer bicycling across the country. Maybe there was a lot of news to break to Ellie. And I didn’t like the way Acadia was hovering over him like a mother hen – or a possessive girlfriend!
“Of course,” Sawyer assured her.
“And keep posting on your blog; I can’t get enough of your stories, Sawyer.” That’s a little creepy. For his creative writing class, Sawyer was required to start a blog. I knew Ellie followed SMiles on the Trail, and I had read a few of his posts, but I don’t think Ellie would say that she couldn’t get enough of his stories. I decided I didn’t like Acadia very much. Acadia the girl, not the national park. Even though I’d never been to Acadia National Park, I’d always heard that it’s an amazing place. But this Acadia seemed like a flirt, and I sure hoped she wasn’t the news.
After she finally left, Sawyer returned his attention to our conversation. “I’m so sorry, Marlee. It’s a busy week at POGS with students finishing up and moving out for summer.” He looked really embarrassed and I think he could tell I was unnerved by Acadia.
“Saw-yer, what news do you need to break to Ellie?” I couldn’t stand the suspense and didn’t want to endure another interruption.
“What? Did you say my name?” Ellie asked as she walked into the living room. Ugh. I immediately closed the tab with Sawyer and pretended to type on my final essay for Literature Class. “Ode to Ellie. She’s the best sister, and is rarely smelly,” I rambled when Ellie’s questioning eyes landed on my face. She looked totally unconvinced that I was actually working on an ode, but she didn’t question what I had really said before she rolled her eyes, sighed softly, and returned to the kitchen.
It looked like I’d be smothered with suspense for another week before we would be hiking with the Miles family. Maybe between our back-to-back trips with them in Colorado and then in Montana, I could corner Sawyer and get it out of him.
I yawned and shifted my parents’ SUV into Park. I cast an annoyed glance at the clock and muttered, “1:18.”
I waited about a minute, and then my long-time friend Braelynn Gunderson opened the passenger door, wordlessly sat down, and buckled the seatbelt with no ‘Thank you,’ or ‘I knew I could count on you, Marlee.’ Okay, so Braelynn and I had been really close ever since we were five and her mom unjammed the zipper on my snowsuit at the playground by our house for me. Braelynn asked to play with me, and we hit it off that day. Over the years we spent tons of time together – until six months ago.
We never exactly had a falling-out, but we had definitely drifted apart. My schedule got busier with training for the summer’s backpacking trip and hanging out with my younger sister Lydie. Braelynn found new kids to hang out with – mainly her boyfriend, Owen. I did not vote for Owen and Braelynn to get together. Lydie and I agree that he has shifty eyes and is conceited. Plus, anybody can see that he does not bring out the best in Braelynn. Since Owen takes up all Braelynn’s time these days, I feel like she doesn’t need my friendship anymore.
I was very surprised when she called me – at 1:00 am. It took me a few minutes to wake up and another few minutes to sneak outside and pray that my parents would sleep through the sound of the SUV’s engine starting. I don’t think Lydie heard me tiptoe down the stairs, and since my parents hadn’t called me yet, I doubted they had heard me leave either. This could be easy. I just needed to drop off Braelynn, go home and park my parents’ car, sneak back in, and return to the comfort of my bed. And try to forget about Braelynn – try to forget that my oldest friend ditched me for a drinking party and a boyfriend who engages in way too much PDA. Super gross.
Even though the situation irritated me like wet socks, I guess in a way I was glad she called me. Even if she wouldn’t say it, maybe it meant she knew she could count on me. I peeked at her as we turned onto the next street. She looked like she’d been crying. If it hadn’t been 1:21 a.m. I would have felt bad for her. I quietly asked if she was okay. She gave a half-shrug.
“So,” I wanted to break the weird silence. Over the years silence had been uncommon when Braelynn and I were together. “It’s good to see you again.” I tried not to sound cheesy.
Braelynn let out an angry huff and said, “My mom said to tell you hi.”
“Really?” I asked, aware of the hopeful surprise in my voice. I’ve always liked Mr. and Mrs. Gunderson. Once they let me tag along all the way to California for a week-long camp. Even though it was a lot of sitting in the minivan, I had good memories, mostly of making up goofy songs with Braelynn. The camp had been a blast, and we had shared it all together. That was six years ago, and now that I hadn’t seen her parents in months, I longed for the good old days. “That was sweet of her!”
Braelynn cut in, “Well it was like a month ago that she told me to tell you hi.”
“Oh.” I tried to hide the deflation in my voice, “Well maybe next month you can tell her I said hi back.”
Braelynn made another huff and said, “I don’t need a lecture right now, Marlee.” Ha, that was NOT a lecture, but whatever.
“Just drop me off at the corner of my street. And please don’t tell anyone about this.”
“Oh, I get it,” I said, anger rising, “We’re not friends anymore, but you can call me to sneak around and give you a ride when your jerk boyfriend gets drunk? Feel free to leave a tip in the cupholder. You’re welcome.”
“Marlee,” Braelynn hissed through gritted teeth, “I know you’re disappointed that I’ve made some mistakes lately. Just get me home, give me time to sort it out, and please don’t tell anyone about this. I’m not exactly proud of the way tonight went.”
I saw a pair of headlights approaching us in the other lane and vaguely wondered who else was out at 1:26 a.m. I wished I was still asleep. I knew my voice was snarky, but I couldn’t help it. “Not much to tell. You know you can count on me to keep this rendezvous a secret.” I was so mad that I meant it. I shouldn’t have answered her call. I wouldn’t be sneaking around like an undercover taxi driver, and she could figure out her own mess.
“Marlee, STOP!” Braelynn shrieked. Wow, let’s not overreact. I wasn’t half as rude as you.
A car’s horn blared. My mind only saw fragments of what happened next. A blur of deer hide flew at us. Headlights careened through the dark. Tires squealed. My ears filled with crashing sounds. Airbags exploded. The deer crushed the hood of the SUV and shattered the windshield mere inches from our noses. The other car melded into ours. My head slammed into the headrest, and my hands flew up to shield my face. My breath was shallow and shaky, and I whispered, “Braelynn?”
The other driver climbed through the passenger door of his crumpled car and ran over to Braelynn and me. “Are you okay?” he shouted. “I’ll call 9-1-1!”
So much for keeping this a secret.
Mrs. Gunderson came to our house the next morning and hugged me. I was exhausted and overwhelmed with guilt that I only had a headache, but Braelynn was sitting in the hospital with a concussion and a broken arm. “You’ve been a good friend to Braelynn. I’m so sorry she pulled you into her mess. You’re a natural leader, and I’ve prayed so much that she would do her part to rekindle your friendship. She needs you. She acts mad, but please go visit her at the hospital.” Then she broke down in tears. Was it my turn to hug her?
Braelynn’s parents were disappointed in her and proud of me. Talk about an awkward predicament! My parents weren’t even too upset at me for sneaking out since I actually had a good reason. I think they were just glad that I was safe, and Braelynn’s injuries weren’t any worse. They wouldn’t say it in front of the Gundersons, but I knew they were relieved that I hadn’t been at the party. Even if I was cool enough to be invited, I wouldn’t have gone. It’s not a path I want to go down.
I didn’t want to face Braelynn, but since Mrs. Gunderson was so gracious, I visited her in the hospital later that day. I tried to be nice, but it spiraled into a Let’s Blame Marlee Campaign. In Braelynn’s eyes the car accident was totally my fault. Right, like I planned it all with the deer. Like I would’ve been driving then and there if not for her. Besides, accidents happen. But according to Braelynn, her parents found out that she was at a drinking party because I crashed that night. I decided that my headache was more from her meanness than from the accident itself.
I didn’t get a ‘thanks for saving me from my creepy boyfriend and his drunk friends,’ just “Marlee! Were you drinking too?! I needed you, and all you accomplished was getting us in an accident! So I made a mistake and went to that party. I was fixing my mess until you crashed. Then my parents got a call from the hospital, and the blabby newspaper people showed up, and now everyone knows I was at a drinking party. No way am I calling you again. Maybe you fit in with your hiking friends, but you do not fit in with me or my friends. You’re nothing but a big embarrassment. Some leader you turned out to be.” Ouch. Did she know Mrs. Gunderson called me a natural leader? Did Braelynn purposely say that to hurt me worse? Might as well give that dagger another twist in my heart.
She acted as if she thought her parents were so dense that they would not have figured it out on their own. Anyone who knew Braelynn at all could see she’d changed a ton over the past few months – and not for the better.
She yelled at me that I needed to leave her alone. A nurse hurried in, and I walked out, biting back tears. I knew a good friend would pray for her, but I was so exasperated and hurt as I left her hospital room that I just sighed, rode my bike home, and went to bed early. Actually I was so upset that out of habit I went to Lydie’s room. Lydie and I had shared the room for years, and even though I moved into Ellie’s room, Lydie’s still feels like mine. I curled up on her bed and took comfort in the familiar view from her window. I always liked listening to the silver maple’s leaves in the breeze with the window open. It felt like home and helped me calm down, and eventually I fell asleep.
Before Ellie moved to Idaho, I also spent a lot of time with her in her tidy bedroom, but without her, it’s kind of lonely. The only reason I moved into her room with posters of inspirational quotes and a pineapple print bed skirt was because Lydie’s best friend Emma spent a lot of time at our house lately. Emma’s parents are divorcing, and she’s shaken to the core and battling resentment at her parents for throwing in the towel on their marriage. My parents say Emma is always welcome, so she’s been at our house a bunch in the last year.
And as bad as I feel for Emma, I kind of feel bad for myself, too. I know that sounds kind of selfish since I totally have it made with a loving family and fridge full of food, but what I mean is that I feel lost and unneeded. For instance, when Ellie announced that she was moving to Idaho, she presented me with her pineapple rug and lime-green bean bag chair in a mock ceremony where she inducted me as Big Sister and invited Lydie to have late-night talks with me. It was a big deal, because Ellie is a fantastic oldest sister, and she knows it. To pass the baton to me was like an inauguration. At first Lydie and I did continue the late-night sister talks, but then Emma needed her best friend’s listening ear more and more, and I was no longer needed. I like the extra space in Ellie’s old room, but it’s pretty lonely with just me and the inspirational quotes and the empty bean bag chair.
The next two weeks of the early summer passed uneventfully, but the sun didn’t look as bright as usual, and I felt like a cloud hung over me. The doctor said feeling down and extra tired was to be expected after the car accident. I was thankful that I was able to walk away physically from the accident, but Braelynn’s words crushed my spirit. Some leader you turned out to be. I could still see the fire in her face when she had hissed those demoralizing words. I hadn’t talked to her since. Mr. and Mrs. Gunderson had brought me flowers and again acted like I was a heroine. I can’t figure out why. What kind of heroine doles out concussions and broken arms?
“Please don’t give up on her,” Mr. Gunderson had said. I didn’t know what to say. Mom and Dad exchanged hugs and handshakes with Braelynn’s parents. Lydie put her arm around me and said she was glad I was okay, and that she hoped our parents could use the insurance money to get a purple SUV. I knew she was trying to lighten the mood and look on the bright side, but I lamely asked if deer avoid purple vehicles. She squeezed my shoulders and left me alone. Alone again.
The following week we started to pack for our annual summer backpacking trip with the Miles family, which would be coupled with a new kind of adventure this year. We planned to drive to Montana with Mom and Dad (in Grandpa and Grandma’s spare vehicle). Once there, we’ll meet Ellie who is on a short summer break from her super cool wildlife vet tech internship in Idaho. The Miles family will also meet us in Montana. My parents and Mr. and Mrs. Miles, whom we affectionately call Mr. Caleb and Ms. Julia, will backpack while Lydie, Ellie, and I join Sawyer and Marshall on a three-day trek with an outdoor youth program led by Ranger Douglas and Ranger Rose.
Rangers Douglas and Rose hold dear places in our hearts since they rescued us last summer from a lunatic with handcuffs. Seriously – he was crazy! After rescuing us, the rangers asked if they could interview us to supplement their lessons for a new outdoor youth program they were starting. They told us to let them know if we were ever back in the beautiful area. Since the forest is relatively close to Ellie’s wildlife vet tech program and Sawyer’s Professional Outdoor Guides School – POGS – we all agreed that it was an ideal destination. When we called to reserve our backcountry permits, the rangers asked if we would participate for the first few days of one of their groups. They even offered to give us transportation stipends, which was a strong deciding factor in the unanimous choice to backpack in Montana again.
Since I knew that Thad, the crazed guy who chased us and handcuffed Sawyer and me to a tree, was in prison, I wasn’t too concerned about returning to the same forest. The plan was to hike a full week with our families after the three-day trek with OutPro, the rangers’ youth program. I was so ready for our combined family backpacking trek. I hoped that the time in nature would lift the fog I had felt since the car accident. I was excited to hike with Ellie again and to joke with Marshall and Lydie. I even silently wondered if Sawyer would propose to Ellie on top of a mountain or some other amazing setting, so I planned to keep my camera handy at all times.
I really did look forward to the adventures, but I couldn’t relax until I got past the first 20 minutes. I was super nervous that we five had been asked to give speeches to kick-off the OutPro trek. I’ve dreaded my few experiences with public speaking, and I just wanted to be finished. But this week I decided that even giving a speech would be better than all our neighbors asking me for details of the accident everywhere I went. My speech was written, and I’d read it over the phone to Marshall who applauded. Marsh and I have been pretty good friends ever since the avalanche, and we talk often these days.
After the car accident, Marshall was a great listener. Even though he was very worried, he didn’t totally freak out like Ellie had when we called and told her. He just listened and said that Braelynn must have had brain damage to be so mean to me. I’m not sure if the thought of Braelynn having brain damage made me feel better or worse about the accident, but I knew he meant to encourage me.
Braelynn had been my first friend, other than sisters or cousins. I don’t remember meeting the Miles boys until I was six, and Braelynn and I met when we were five. Plus, during our first trip with the Miles family, Marshall spent most of the days making dirt bike engine sounds. He puttered a slow idle when we rested, and he revved obnoxiously loud when we went uphill. It was so embarrassing when we passed other hikers. Our parents laughed and said they’d love to have his energy. I plugged my ears and thought he was terribly annoying, so I didn’t think of him as a friend until the next summer when his small engine obsession had given way to a pair of camouflage walkie-talkies, which he shared with me. In the early years of our family backpacking trips, there was a lot less hiking involved since “little legs make for little hikes,” as Dad used to say, so we had more time to play at each campsite. When Marshall brought his walkie-talkies and invited me to play, we were everything from undercover agents to stage managers at a circus. It was a blast, and we played until the batteries died.
Unfortunately, for the next two summers, once the batteries died, Marshall reverted to his dirt bike engine ruckus. I begged Mom to bring extra batteries to keep the walkie-talkies going longer. Playing with Marshall was fun, but trying to ignore the revving and idling got old in a hurry. Sawyer teased Ellie relentlessly back then, so for a while I agreed with Ellie that ‘spending time with those Miles boys makes for a character-building week.’ Those were her exact words when she was eight. Fast forward to the present, and she and Sawyer are dating, so I think it’s hilarious to throw her words back at her. She usually laughs and says, “Just wait. Someday you’ll be smitten with someone too. Besides, Sawyer has obviously grown up since then.” He’s not the only one, dear Sis. I couldn’t keep a straight face. She rolled her eyes and laughed.
Some of my best childhood memories were made during our summer backpacking trips. The physical challenges of hiking together really strengthened our family, and we’ve had opportunities to see such beautiful places with each other. I was definitely craving mountain air. Plus, I hadn’t seen Ellie in person for months. Texting and webcam chats had sufficed these past months, but I was so ready to be with Ellie again.
I also knew that another reason I wanted to escape to the mountains for 10 days had to do with Braelynn. Was it cowardly of me to want to leave town and cell phone service? Or would vacationing in nature help me to be transformed by the renewing of my mind like the Bible says in Romans 12?
For years I could’ve asked Braelynn what she thought about it. When we were little, we usually sat by each other at church and attempted (unsuccessfully) to be quiet. She had a knack for drawing cartoons that made me giggle, and then we’d get “the eye” from our parents. Over the years we listened more and got scolded less. We matured and had meaningful conversations about the Bible – okay, the first half of our talks were meaningful, and then she usually steered the conversation to boys. She’s what my dad calls “hopelessly boy crazy,” and he once claimed that “a main reason we started backpacking with the Miles family was to prevent the boy crazy hullabaloo in our house. You’ll spend enough time with Sawyer and Marshall to see why you won’t want a boyfriend until you’re 35.” Mom laughed and playfully rolled her eyes. We all knew that Dad and Mr. Caleb were longtime best friends who couldn’t wait to share backpacking with their wives and young kids. But his ulterior motive made us laugh.
Anyway, Braelynn and I stayed pretty close from age five until 17. She started to act distracted and annoyed when I tried to talk to her before church, like she would rather be anywhere other than talking to me. Then a few months ago her boy craziness honed in on Owen, who is neither friend- nor parent-approved. At that time Lydie and I were getting used to life without Ellie under our roof, and Braelynn and I continued to drift apart. I hadn’t heard from her in weeks – until 1:00 in the morning right before we hit the deer. So it’s no surprise that I haven’t heard from her since I left her fuming in her hospital room.
It’s not the first time Braelynn and I have been at odds, but it’s the first time she had funneled so much anger at me. She’s always had a hard time with the “a soft answer turns away wrath” concept. I’ve known for ages that Braelynn struggled with that. In the past when she was upset with me, she was a little brash, but nothing like yelling at me to leave her hospital room. I’d never been the sole target in her line of fire, but now that I had experienced it, I felt extra sympathy for the people I had seen her lash out at over the years.
But Braelynn’s not all bad. Once when I was sleeping over at her house, her cousin’s tennis team was scrambling to find people willing to help with a fundraiser car wash. I did not volunteer. I was voluntold. The idea was fun – get soapy and wet on a hot summer day – but I was unprepared. I only had a thin white t-shirt, and after scrubbing two cars my shirt was transparent enough that I prayed nobody from church would support the tennis team that day. Without a single embarrassing remark, Braelynn texted her mom who brought me a swimsuit and a dark shirt. Braelynn was awesome then, and there have been many times like that over the years.
Like right after Ellie left home, I was really lonely, and Braelynn invited herself over to cheer me up. She spent the night and we made popcorn and orange smoothies. We danced to our favorite tunes from when we were about 12. They sound corny to us now, but we laughed until our sides ached. Later when I decided to move into Ellie’s room to give Lydie more space, Braelynn brought over cute bedroom accessories and helped make Ellie’s room feel like mine. But all that was before Owen and his arrogant friends trapped Braelynn in their web of unsavory activities.
I was foolish to think that going to get her from the party would build a bridge and repair our friendship. It was unrealistically hopeful of me to think our old friendship could just be dusted off. I needed to come to terms with that, but it was hard to do. My oldest friend was no longer a friend. She pretty much hated me. And frankly, she had changed so much that I didn’t like her very much anymore either. Lydie tried to cheer me up with a braided dandelion crown and a note that said, “Sisters are forever.” It did make me smile, and it warmed my heart. But I was bummed when the dandelions wilted, and the dewdrops smudged the note. At least God is forever.
The week before we departed for Montana, I spent a lot of time reading my Bible. My sisters and I had been going through Bible verses about the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Whenever we can arrange it, Lydie and I call Ellie on speakerphone and have a discussion. It was Mom’s idea to help us stay close even with Ellie living in Idaho, and it was actually cool.
This week I was finding scriptures for goodness, but I was struggling to fully understand what was good. Mr. and Mrs. Gunderson told me I was a good friend to Braelynn, but was I? Was sending her a ‘miss you – we should catch up soon’ text every few weeks good enough? Was it good of me to sneak out to pick her up? I’d been rude to her and had ignored her ever since she kicked me out of her hospital room. I wanted to be good, except that in this case, I didn’t know what constituted goodness. One afternoon I just needed to let my mind chill, so I closed my Bible after a few minutes of reading and headed to our piano in the living room.
I had just begun playing when Marshall’s name popped up on my phone. I smiled and answered the video call. “Hey Marlee!” Marshall said with a grin.
“Hey! How are you?”
Marshall nodded, “I’m good. Does your head feel any better?”
“Thankfully it’s a ton better.” The week-long headache after the accident was finally fading.
“You still seem down though,” Marshall observed with concern. How can he tell?
I gave a half-smile. “I guess I am, but I’m trying to be positive.” Trying to be positive about losing my oldest friend.
“I know what to do. When we’re together next week I’ll let you beat me at arm-wrestling,” he said with a grin.
I laughed and said, “I do not need another scar on my face, but thanks.” Last summer I totally embarrassed us both when I fell into a rock while we arm-wrestled.
“Your facial scars are cool! You have awesome stories for them.” He must remember when Sawyer encouraged me by saying that scars are tattoos with better stories.
“You’re just saying that because you were there when I got both of them!” I teased.
“Can you blame me?” he chuckled.
“So what’s up?” I was glad he called but wondered if there was a specific reason. The thought that maybe he had called just to say ‘hey’ gave me a tiny flutter in my stomach.
“I see you’re already at your piano, and Flynn’s here,” he panned his phone’s camera across The Band Room in his house to the drumset in the corner. Flynn gave a tap on the cymbal to greet me.
“Hey Flynn,” I called.
The screen went back to Marshall’s face, and he said, “We’re working on a new song idea. Can you play something in E major? Here’s the rhythm we’re working with.” I listened to his strum pattern on his electric guitar and nodded, but only halfway knowingly. I had resumed piano and violin lessons, but I knew that Marshall’s musical abilities outshone mine. He was either really nice about that fact, or he actually thought I know more than I do. At least I knew E major – four sharps, and I knew that some of my favorite songs were in that key. It’s a lively key and would sound perfect with Marshall’s strum pattern – if I didn’t mess it up, that is.
The rhythm wasn’t too tricky this time, so I managed to play a few chords that mostly aligned with what he played. It was always fun to watch Marshall play his guitar because his face lit up when he made music, and he looked super cool at it. We played for a few minutes, and Marshall nodded thoughtfully, wrote something down, and then said, “Let’s try that again from the top. Count us off, Flynn!”
I heard Flynn’s drumsticks crack out four beats and we all began. This was how our remote jam sessions usually went. We’d had a few opportunities to play together in person, and of course that was even more fun, but this was pretty great, too. Marshall and Flynn had a variety of songs they had written. Some were thought-provoking, a few were sentimental, and some, like this one, were just plain fun.
It was an upbeat ditty about lemon-lime, but Marshall made it a play on words. It tells about two characters named Lem and Lime. They compliment each other in funny ways, like mustard and relish and franks and beans. In one verse, Lem battles heartburn, so Lime tells the chilies that their battle must adjourn so they don’t wind up in the urn. The lyrics were silly enough to make me laugh and laugh some more, and it was the most fun I’d had in ages. Before I knew it an hour had flown by and my parents said it was time to come to the supper table. Good thing it wasn’t my night to cook!
“Thanks for your help, Marlee,” Marshall said. “Flynn and I will work on chords a little more and get back to you. Let me know if you come up with better rhymes than what we’ve got. You’re our lyrics girl.”
“Sounds good,” I said, suddenly feeling disappointed that maybe I was just a band member in Marshall’s eyes. But on the other hand, it was kind of cool to think that I was an honorary member of Marshall’s band. Our lyrics girl.
“Uh, hey, don’t go yet,” Marshall murmured, stepping out of The Band Room.
“Here it comes!” I heard Flynn cheer. Here what comes?
I could see that Marshall stopped walking in the hallway by their kitchen. He looked back at me. He visibly swallowed and then said, “Uh, I’ve been praying that you feel better. You know, with your headache and the Braelynn Fallout.” It warmed my heart that he had prayed for me, and I was amused by the term Braelynn Fallout. Maybe he’d write a song about it.
“Thank you,” I smiled.
He nodded and then quickly said, “And I’m really excited to see you next week. Don’t tell Flynn, but you’re pretty much my best friend, and I can’t wait for another adventure together.”
“I heard that!” Flynn’s voice called in the background.
I raised my eyebrows and said, “Seriously? Thank you!” Braelynn acted like nobody wanted to be my friend anymore. Was Marshall really excited to see me? Did he not think I was a loser? He looked a little confused by my response, so I said, “I mean, cool. Um, I mean, it’ll be super good to see you, too.” I meant it, but I don’t know why it was so hard for me to say it – probably because I had never said anything like that to Marshall.
We smiled again and said our good-byes. I ended the call and caught Lydie’s eye, and I felt my cheeks blush. “Well wasn’t that sweet?” she teased.
“Aren’t you excited?” Why does my voice sound defensive? Get a grip, Marlee.
She giggled. “Seriously Marlee, it wasn’t that long ago that you were teasing Ellie about Sawyer, and now look at them! You like Marshall, don’t you?” she asked with a hopeful lilt in her voice.
“Um, I really don’t know right now,” I said. “I’m so stressed about Braelynn and the car accident and packing for almost two weeks on trail.” It was true. I mean, even before Braelynn ditched me for her new friends, Marshall and I were pretty close. I didn’t know if he liked me as more than a friend anyway. I might just be the lyrics girl. And between talking to the police and the insurance adjuster and my post-accident doctor appointments and packing, I was having a hard time squeezing in bike rides with Lydie, much less thinking about anything or anyone else. Marshall hadn’t exactly filled my mind. But at times like this, when my stomach fluttered, well…I bit my lip. Admit it, Girl. No way. Why would he like me back? After all, I’m a big embarrassment.
But supper was ready, and a lengthy to-do list was waiting for me. If I could just get my upcoming speech finished, I could truly look forward to 10 days of hiking with my family and best friends – that is, my only friends.