By Erica Karnes
The winter light flooded through a worn bay window. Our mother’s sheer drapes, tucked behind an easy chair, allowed a white warmth to spill into the room. He was a fit of giggles. Bursts of high-pitched, gleeful shrieking. This was a new game. One that my sister and I, barely one and two years older than him, deemed best played without parents. An abandoned box, still somewhat intact, with stretches of tape across the bottom. Merely “moving assistance” to adults. But to us—to our tiny, bright eyes; our grabby hands and forever-scampering feet; our lower-class Midwest existences and finely tuned imaginations—to us this box was the world.
The coast was clear, and we began.
The baby of the group happily surrendered as we hoisted him in—a complicated task, given that it was as tall as myself. I worked to cut windows out of the sides, for ultimate visibility. Our sister scavenged the room for additional comforts. She swaddled him with pillows, sheets, and as final proof of her selflessness, donated her very own Blankie to the cause—curling it over his shoulders in a cape. I passed him a comic book or three, knowing that while he was too young to read, he’d surely enjoy the pictures.
Settled and comfortable, cozy and complete—when muffled giggles were all that could be heard spilling from our box-turned-car-turned-spaceship—we began our mission. Pulling full-speed along the hardwood floor, circling break-neck around the kitchen table, frantically bouncing through the tiled foyer. We paused at the top of the stairs for dramatic effect. And when he could barely breathe from his toddler belly laughs, we pulled faster. Passing at top speeds through pockets of that brilliant white light, our home’s sputtering heaters the only audible backdrop to our giddy adventures.
25 years later, our roles had reversed. I sat packed into his car, surrounded by his boxed belongings, clutching my own padding for comfort. This time, while there were still plenty of giggles, it was his game. This time, against all my controlling instincts, I was merely along for the 900-mile ride.
“Anal Adventurer!” he shrieked, fist pumping through his Subaru’s sunroof. “Best one yet!” he winked at me, nestled in the backseat, from his rear-view mirror. A smear of jelly lined his cheek, from the haphazard PB&J he slopped together at our last pit stop. “YEAAAAA!” With a couple of friendly shoulder punches, I celebrated his championship. There was only a single rule: for every passing RV, add the word “anal” at the start of its title. As we’d just dipped south of Portland, former contenders “Anal Wildcat” and “Anal Hideout” were delegated to forgotten place-getters. Still grinning, he pulled a cloth tie-die headband from the tower of rubble surrounding him, slicked back his greasy ginger curls, and slammed his foot on the accelerator. I amped up his obscure electro-hypnotic tunes as we gunned it for the mountains.
Before us stretched endless highways, undisclosed state roads, and tantalizingly illegal dirt paths, wide enough for our four-wheeler and staked with “NO TRESPASSING” signs. We had ten days, a full tank, a packed car, an outdated atlas tagged with routes of interest, and hours of face-melting dubstep at our disposal. Yet the occasion, however epic and upbeat, carried a weighty tradeoff. This Seattle-to-Oakland trek was one-way, for one of us. At the end of our figurative and literal road, I’d be flying homeward—leaving my little brother, former roommate, and eternal best friend on the fresh front stoop of his new life without me.
Despite our nearness in age, we forged two very separate, decades-long paths, wherein each of us strove silently to define our dreams and desires, before stumbling into each other within our mid twenties. Our perceptions of childhood varied significantly, as did the defense mechanisms we’d armoured ourselves with as we moved forward into adulthood. I wearily eyed stress from afar. Strove to analyze it objectively. Strategized for worst-case scenarios, played calm despite near-constant inner chaos, and wigged-out at the slightest hint of imperfection. I coped with any amount of uncertainty by trying to predict it and outsmart it, then would surrender in despair as it suffocated me. His side-step to any unwanted life shuffle was to not see it the first place. Ignorance, or rather, an ever-goofy air of naivety, was his bliss.
“STOP!!! DON’T JUMP! WAIIIIIT!” I screamed, running down the embankment. I could hardly make out his shape, something like a pre-dive praying mantis silhouetted against the late-afternoon sun. “Please don’t jump! DON’T JUMP!!!” I yelled to myself, knowing he couldn’t hear me. I sprinted to our camp, having just registered our car under the site ranger’s deadpan gaze. After two full days of driving and hiking, we were disgusting. Also, slightly lost. The obsolete atlas we’d employed as a directory for potential swimming (read: bathing) water failed to account for global warming, droughts and fires. Our last three attempts at a bath involved pulling up wearily beside an evaporated reservoir, a bone-dry imprint of a once-flourishing stream, or the signage: All Roads Closed Due To Wildfires. Exhausted, we’d pinpointed an off-the-radar camp somewhere in Southern Oregon. We circled the grounds, high-fiving victoriously. There were several available lakeside slots.
It was as I paid the impatient ranger in quarters, picked out of the greasy creases of our car seats, that he mentioned it being a slow season…due to the toxic algae…that was killing everything in surrounding lakes, and sending children to the ER with heart complications. I dumped the last handful of spare change into his open palms, before his words registered. “Wait, here? This lake?” I asked. “Ohhhhh little lady,” he grimaced. “You don’t want to go anywhere NEAR that water.” He followed my bewildered stare back to our camp, where my brother could be seen stripping, and to where I took off, shrieking.
By the time I got down to the water, he was perched on a large, flat stone. His furrowed brow and frozen stance spoke for themselves. He already saw what I was gasping to tell him. “Fuck that shit.” He shook his head, pointing at the neon-green, eerily still surface of the lake. “That ain’t right, something just ain’t right.” I started to explain what he half-knew by instinct, but could tell that his mind was somewhere else entirely.
I remember the first time we fought. I had long-since moved on from our childhood home, and due to difficult family dynamics, and unwavering narcissism, felt an overwhelming numbness at the thought of my siblings. In my self-absorbed, independent state, they were simply unsuccessful shadows of me. Irritating itches that occasionally, via voicemail or a vapid email, required scratching. For my brother and I, puberty served to slam and cement shut any hope for common ground. That was, until sometime after he himself had flown our parent’s coop.
By then I had nestled into a life and identity that I had carefully constructed. I rented a cool, shabby apartment, with cool, shabby roommates. I had a cool, aloof boyfriend, and a cool, abstract haircut. I made cool, obscure cocktails for a living, and contributed cool, alternative ideas to cool, alternative conversations with equally cool, alternative people. But there was nothing cool about my brother, nothing that I cared to remember. Which is why, when he first visited me from the opposite side of the state, asking me along to a concert, I remember that I resolved not to go.
And of course, with calculated indifference, I waited until he towered in my doorway—no longer a teenager—to announce my decision. At the time, he was too proud to admit I’d hurt his feelings. At the time, I was too proud to hear it. So, in keeping with our childhood methodology for dispute resolution, we screamed in a blind rage at each other. His face turned beet red, a large vein splitting his forehead. I met his fury by throwing various household items across my foyer, pinning the whole incident on his “immaturity.” It took me weeks to sort out what had happened that night. Months to resolve it. Years to apologize for it. And, it will likely take me a lifetime of careful, intentional steps, to avoid causing him similar pain again.
“I like the way that looks,” he mumbled to himself. We were crouched around our first legally allowed campfire in days. Somewhere after the Oregon/California border, we’d found our traveling cadence. Enough time had passed that the cares accompanying “real life” in the “real world” had melted away. Before us, a crescent moon hung low in the sky, framed in Douglas fir and jutting, distant cliffs. The quiet had reached us. Empty space had engulfed us. Daunting at first, we’d finally resigned to it. Resolved to maintain that sacred feeling of smallness, revel in its deep-rooted, resounding peace.
“It looks like worms,” he whispered. I had tossed a handful of dried pine needles onto the open flames, the kind of activity that would infect a city-struck generation with terminal boredom. Yet, under the open sky and the eyes of the gods, it guided us into a completely meditative trance; a ritual of sorts, wherein each fibrous plant-strand appeared alive and white-hot, twisting and shriveling to the heat of the hissing burn.
We discussed what, for lack of a more elegant term, we’d dubbed “uhhhhh moments.” Those things or that stuff or those tiny bits and pieces that resonate, sometimes without reason. The ever-present threads that construct and connect our tangled ball of existence that, when pulled, occasionally lead back to joy, sometimes tailspin into grief, and more often than not, unravel into some amount of wavering purpose. “You know what I mean,” I grinned at him. “The uhhhhhh moments! The yeaaaah!! The thiss issss itttt. The this is where it’s at! The uhhhhh it’s so fucking good, goddamn what a fucking gift!” He cracked up, “Okay okay. The uhhhhh moments. I get it. Take it easy.” He paused. Stared at the stars for a moment. “What are my uhhhhh moments?” He took a slow drag of his hand-rolled cigarette. “When there’s laughter. And learning.” He smiled to himself. “I love when things are simplified. I love exuberant joy.” As if on cue, he burst into giggles. “But mostly, I love laughter and learning.”
Years prior to this particular trek, we’d again shared an atlas and an open-road adventure. Camping our way down to Denver, feasting on peanut butter, cheap beer and psychedelics, we’d found ourselves tripping in an especially soft patch of clover. If asked to pinpoint when a genuine friendship began forming between us—a relationship based on open dialogue, and the faintest flicker of a mutual trust, I’d follow it back to this floral, fragile pocket of time. “That cloud looks like a dragon!” he chirped. “No!” I choked out, mid-hysterics. “It’s a dog, dude. A dog wearing a hat, baking a pie, eating more mushrooms.”
We’d set up camp alongside one of Colorado’s crystalline lakes. While our hallucinating selves craved the grandest of adventures, we barely made it down the dirt path, before losing ourselves in the bright, billowing clouds above us. Nestled among various wildflowers, I worked to weave him a “birthday tiara,” in celebration of his quickly approaching twenty-second year of life. “You’re like a mischievous, impish fairy” he grinned at me, as I bestowed his curls with a daisy crown. “I’m really proud of you too,” I winked back at him. “You know,” I smiled as I began crafting my own budding tiara, “I don’t think that this is our first life together. It feels like maybe the second or third time we’ve crossed paths.” I tucked my petaled headpiece behind my ears. “I feel like we’ve been friends before. And that this time around, we lucked out as family.” He smiled to himself, squinting at the horizon. “Yeah.” We continued counting clouds, adorned in our floral headgear, until the sky smeared pink.
As per usual, I’d charged my way to the summit. What began as an “easy hike” at a “relaxed, reasonable pace” had once again, against my knowing, morphed into Operation CRUSH IT. After tuning out the majority of my surroundings, I’d lost him and his slack pace within the first half-mile. It was only at the pinnacle, breathless and arrogant, that I thought to consider his whereabouts. When, hours later, he leisurely appeared beside me, an apple in one hand and a camera in the other, I shot him my token older sister stare of disgust and disappointment.
In that specific holier-than-thou moment, I detested his apparent laziness. I saw his easily distractible self as beyond pathetic. “Where have you been?” I sighed at him, stuffing any rising compassion for his delay. He crouched down beside me, undaunted. Took a slow bite of his apple, as he absentmindedly smelled the branches of a nearby pine. “Sometimes…” he smiled, “it’s nice to touch things. Smell things. Slow down.” With that, he uncapped his camera, and disappeared into the woods.
“Dude, shit’s gonna get dark,” I lectured. “I mean it’s already happening! Pick up a paper. Fuck, have a slow stroll outside! Things are falling apart, and they’re falling apart faster than we as a species could even hope to catch up to, let alone attempt to alter or stop altogether.” We stood upon separate stones, sharing trail mix under a centuries-old display of petroglyphs. Our travels had steered us to another National Park, this one equipped with lava tubes, acres of caves, and occasional glimpses into our ancestral happenings.
The rock face before us featured a series of squiggly lines, circles, and stick-like figures, arms outstretched to the heavens. “I dunno dude,” he replied. “Just look at these paintings. People were probably grappling with the same fears, the same despair, the same hopelessness, as we are now.” He shovelled a handful of dried cranberries into his mouth. “Seeing this gives me hope.” He shrugged and began climbing out of the cave. I scrambled up after him, calling “Well sure! Okay. But I mean, if the world ends, how do you see it happening? I mean, we’re running out of water! Our resources are fucked!” He whipped out his now-emblematic tie-dye headband and called over his shoulder “nuclear brah! It’ll all go nuclear.”
When he finished college and returned home, we still shared the shaky ground of strangers. Despite his giant physique, fully formed quirky personality, and array of emotional issues that all pointed to “adulthood,” I still held him in my mind as a child. One lesser than me. One in need of guidance and protection. It was only a matter of time before he moved into my apartment’s spare bedroom. Over the following months, we perfected homemade pizza. Learned to fight via passive stacks of dirty dishes. Spent late nights stoned and perched on our respective foam rollers, laughing hysterically.
“What is the deal with these salsa jars?! It’s fucking bullshit!” I growled under my breath. We’d just returned from a grueling vision quest, pitched our tent, and were set on celebrating over chips and dip. Stopped somewhere mid-California, the impending conclusion to our adventure now loomed. “The tops are too narrow! How is someone supposed to actually get salsa on their actual chip?” I raged at no one. My brother paid no attention, focused on building a fire, inflating his sleeping bag pad, and heating our Jetboil. After watching yet another unsuccessful attempt at shoveling a salsa-coated chip into my mouth, he snatched the jar from me. “All that sounds pretty frustrating,” he calmly observed, “give this a try.” He clipped off the top to his Jetboil, a wider-rimmed makeshift bowl, and poured the last dredges of salsa into it. “Here ya go bud.” He punched my shoulder.
His decision to move seemed abrupt. In retrospect I see it—his daily excursions no longer brought him the joys of spontaneity, the thrill of the unknown. “I’ve gotta go.” He pulled the words out of nowhere, one evening in our kitchen. “I don’t care where, it’s just got to be different than here.” I passed him basil and salami, watched him layer what he’d claimed was “his best pizza yet.” When a brief trip down to San Francisco combined sunshine with new prospects, he was sold. “Oakland it is!” he winked at me.
“The trick,” he whispered, his head propped awkwardly against a stone, “is finding a rock with the optimal crack for your face.” I burst into laughter, all while heeding his wisdom. We sprawled salamander-style, across flat sandstone rocks. An overnight trek into the mountains had led us to an isolated landscape of incredible splendour. Our tent sat sandwiched between giant boulders, framing a view of vast snow-capped peaks and a pristine lake stretched before us. After splashing around in its frigid waters, we crawled onto the rocks, absorbing the warmth radiating from the stone.
We didn’t speak of the future. The fact that San Francisco’s humming city lights were the next intended stop on our sibling quest was left unsaid. The weight of our parting, of the next separate chapters of our lives, of the unknowable future in all its terrible beauty, bore down on us. And yet we both wrestled for the present moment. “What are you most excited for?” I asked him, stretching my arms out to a dry patch of rock. He smiled at me, still whispering. “For the colors of California.”
Days later, during our drive to the airport, I openly sob from the passenger seat. And he lets me. “Here comes the ol’ waterworks,” he teases, squeezing my knee with his hand. I watch him fearlessly navigate through intense California traffic. He laughs to himself while he dodges near-death collisions, dances in time to the bass of his latest beloved tune. He embodies both the old and new. The innocent and the knowing. I’m unsure if he’s a young soul now trapped in the body of a man, or a centuries-old spirit revelling wholly and completely in yet another earthbound experience.
We pull over at my boarding gate and I crumble into his arms. “I love you so much” he smiles, kissing the top of my head. “Here quick!” he extends a spare arm, camera in hand. “Let’s take an airport selfie.” The picture, however ridiculous, portrays my frame-frozen self, smiling through tears, as he towers above me, blowing a giggling excuse of a kiss.
I walk towards my ticket kiosk and turn to watch him pull away. He waves from the driver’s seat, still grinning. Suddenly, we’re circling the kitchen again. Sliding through our childhoods with capes and cardboard castles. We’re circling the globe, watching clouds from under clover crowns. We’re chasing each other’s spirits, as we return back to new bodies, again and again. Laughing and learning. As I set down my suitcase to return his wave, he pulls his tie-dye headband over his curls, adjusts the EQ on his car stereo, and boldly peels out towards oncoming traffic, into that white California light.
Erica Karnes is a Seattle-based writer. By day, she freelances for various companies and clients. On her own time she tackles the occasional essay, or women-centric interview for her pet project hertrigger.wordpress.com. So far, her work has appeared in STIR Journal, Buzzfeed, The Establishment, and is forthcoming in Ozy. Sometimes she tweets @alonealass.