‘I’m dying,’ she said matter of factly.
‘Aren’t we all?’
As soon as I said it I wished I could take it back. I looked at her dark expression and knew it was true. She really was dying. ‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered.
The woman laughed. ‘It’s not about being sorry. We all have a beginning, and we all have an end.’
‘But is there a cure? What’s wrong?’
‘I have cancer, and it’s terminal. Ironically, a brain tumour. Imagine that, a psychologist who uses her brain all her life, with a brain tumour. There is no cure. But it’s OK, Jonathan. I’ve made peace with it. I’ve chosen to come here. And you?’
‘I flew in and just started walking. I walked for days, slept outside. That’s about it. I ended up here kinda by accident.’
The woman stood and took the canteen from my hand. ‘There are no accidents,’ she said, motioning me to follow. ‘We may think that there are, but there aren’t. You have a family?’
I walked slowly, following her towards the tree clearing where she had set up camp, and pondered the irony of her words. There are no accidents.
What the hell? I thought about my wife and daughter. Yes, I said silently. There are accidents.
‘See, I’m taking photos of that rock feature as the sun sets,’ the woman said, pointing to a distant canyon. The mountain range was wide and distinct, with tall peaks jutting high into the heavens. ‘It’s very different from the kind of work I’ve done my whole life. I’ve found my passion now. I’ve discovered my destiny. I may not have more than a few weeks to live it but that’s not important.’
‘What kind of work did you do in psychology?’
‘I helped people understand the wide capacity of their minds.’
‘My wife was a first-year neurologist,’ I said. ‘I’ve never heard that term.’
I looked down into the brown sand. ‘Was.’ I said firmly.
‘When we experience an event in our lives,’ the woman explained, ‘we record in memory two separate and unique pictorial representations—one in each brain hemisphere. The left hemisphere is responsible for logical, linear thinking. The right is more concerned with spatial relationships and personal safety.’
‘And if we consistently use the perception from only one side of the brain, our choices are limited and personal issues remain unresolved. Learning conscious control of which hemispheric image to utilize broadens the range of choices and responses available to us. Imagine being able to understand and access the brain as it was designed to be used. Accessing this second hemisphere opens doors that we didn’t even know existed.’
I shrugged. I wondered if there was some way I could change my thinking, reprogramme my brain to see the events of the past 100 days differently. If I could drive by that crossroads just one more time and see nothing instead of the image of them lying in the road taking their last breaths, maybe my life could change.
Maybe I could rewind, go back to the old job, go back to the house, back to the former friends and act like life was a series of peaks and valleys and be able to overcome the valley. Get remarried, be like the others in society who are so good at reincarnating second lives. I could have a whole new wife, a new kid, and justify it all by saying there are no accidents and reaching the understanding that it was destined to be.
I was destined to be with this new person. I was destined to bring another life into this world. Ignore that the first family ever existed and got wiped away in one moment.
Problem was, I could see none of it. I was hollow.
‘Why didn’t you jump?’ she asked.
I looked at her blankly.
‘You wanted to jump. You wanted to end it all at the overpass at that crossroads and join your little girl on the other side. You thought that would ease your pain. What stopped you?’
‘I didn’t tell you that,’ I said.
‘But it’s true.’
The crossroads seemed to be a metaphor for my life. There was a crossroads at the end of the road and I had to make a decision. Would I turn left? Or would it be right? There was nowhere else to go. I had stood there on the pavement in the days following the accident, an eggshell, crumbling. I stood at the side of the overpass and clung to the railing, vomiting in the rain. I removed my coat. Puddles seeped into my trainers, but I didn’t care. I took them off, stood barefoot in the centre of a torrential downpour and wailed. I shouted at the top of my lungs, cursing at Lacy and God and anyone who would listen, my heart emptied and replaced with rage. I don’t know how long I’d been there or how I made it out. The overpass was a short walk from the site of impact and the bottom was more than 20 feet down, into rocks below. I hadn’t told her about that moment. I hadn’t told anyone.
‘Who are you?’ I asked, feeling anger rising inside my gut. ‘Are you a psychic or something? One of those witches who can see into someone’s life?’
The woman laughed. ‘I’m not a witch,’ she said. ‘Who are you?’
The road that Lacy and Boo had been on was the kind of road that went on for centuries. Not miles, nor minutes nor hours, but it seemed as if there were no exits, no roadside diners or interruptions. Just one junction, three miles from our tiny house. Before the accident, there were times I just drove it listening to the hum of the engine, with no radio or mobile. Years ago someone had nicknamed it the forever highway because it wound through cornfields from one end of the west to the other, connecting states. It snaked up into the mountains and down to the sea. It wound through California into the flat red sands, and it wound so tightly around my family at that crossroads that day that it squeezed the life out.
Years before the accident I recall driving in the dark of night, wondering what would happen if my car broke down and how I’d make it. You’d get out to walk, in search of a petrol station. Maybe another traveller would come along and find remnants of your bones and go on, or maybe you’d be carried away by vultures.
‘Your name?’ I asked. They were the only two words I could manage.
‘Marilyn,’ she said warmly.
I glanced at her profile, noticing a small drop of sweat travelling down her throat. She had a death sentence, yet she seemed more centred than I’d ever been, as if she had a built in compass that had guided her all her life. Here she was an old woman in the middle of the desert, yet completely at home.
‘Could there be any other meaning to this?’ I said. ‘You think there’s a reason we are sitting here in the centre of this scorched earth in the middle of October, just the two of us poor pitiful souls?’
She began laughing then. She threw back her head and I laughed too, the first time since the accident. I leaned against the tree and felt sharp twines against my flesh and a rush of strength and adrenaline. It felt good to feel something. I laughed hard, pulled out of my numbness, until I began to cry. The tears fell and my body heaved with sobs.
‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ I admitted, wiping my face with my arm. ‘I don’t know what I’m seeking…’
‘Does anyone?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know…’
I had a flashback then, Boo in her car seat with a pink plastic sippy cup in the cup holder. ‘I want my bear,’ Boo said, pointing to the stuffed animal on the ground. It had tumbled out of the Explorer onto the driveway when we’d opened the door.
I should have turned back then. Should have stopped everything and seen it as a sign to halt.