Long Tom Lookout
Lauren drives until she can’t drive anymore. She pulls to the side of the road and a dust cloud rolls over the windshield and into the dark. It’s five o’clock in the morning. The headlights flood an irrigation canal black with water, a jack fence, and the beginnings of a field. The boy sleeps in the passenger seat. He’s five years old and too small to ride in the front, but Lauren is too tired to fight. He wears a bicycle helmet and her husband’s old high school letterman jacket, the letter decorated with four gold winged-foot pins. Lauren places her hand on the boy’s back to know he’s breathing, and she thinks what she’s been thinking since they left Texas—that she has no intention of being his mother.
The boy’s name is Jonah, but her husband calls him The Boy. He calls his affair with the boy’s mother The Mistake. For five years the boy was no more than a dollar amount paid in child support each month. Then last week his mother was convicted of drug possession, and Child Protective Services showed up on Lauren’s doorstep. Mr. Lyle had been contacted, the caseworker said, and he’d provided this address. Was Lauren not Mrs. Lyle, the boy’s stepmother and legal guardian? Lauren answered with a hesitant yes, and the caseworker explained in no uncertain terms that Jonah would be otherwise placed in foster care. He had nowhere else to go.
Now Lauren and the boy are in Idaho, and her husband Keller is on a skimming vessel on the Gulf of Mexico. He left Galveston six months ago to work on a commercial fishing boat out of New Orleans. In the midst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill he’s since gone to work for British Petroleum laying oil booms off the coast of Louisiana. Lauren hasn’t heard from him in weeks. She imagines Keller adrift in a rainbow of oil-slick waters, separated from his paternal responsibility by nautical miles, and she thinks, Fucking perfect: we’re both cleaning up someone else’s mess.
The last few days on the road have been an experiment in cause and effect—the boy’s inability to communicate, his self-destructive behavior, his obsession with maps. In Kansas, when Lauren pried the road atlas from the boy’s hands, he banged his head against the passenger window. That’s when she bought him the bicycle helmet. When he wet himself in the tumult of a Colorado hailstorm, she put him in Pull-Ups and he’s worn them every day since. She’s ashamed to admit that for three days the boy has eaten only french fries, that for the last three hundred miles he’s been doped up on Nyquil.
Wind buffets the truck, and the boy stirs in his sleep. Through the dark, through her own ragged reflection, Lauren can picture the barren, windswept rangeland of eastern Idaho. She can picture her younger self, too, stooping to pass through the barbed wires of a fence. Years ago, Lauren’s father brought Lauren and her sister Desiree to hike the route of the Gilmore-Pittsburgh Railroad—the ghost of a railroad, once connecting Idaho and Montana—and she thinks back to the rare find of a buried railroad tie, the smell of wet sagebrush, her father bending to touch the pink of a bitterroot flower.
That day feels so long ago she wonders if it ever happened. Nine years have passed and now she’s back with sixty-four dollars in cash, a truck in her husband’s name, and a boy that isn’t hers. Yesterday she called her mother from a pay phone in Denver—their first conversation in six years—and for once her mother had the decency not to ask any questions. Lauren studies the boy in the wake of the interior lights. He doesn’t look like her husband but then people change. Lord, do they ever change.
The Beaverheads are backlit by dawn when Lauren arrives in the town of Salmon. She drives down Main Street, the only road with a stoplight, taking in the changes. Savage Circle, the hamburger joint, is now a used-car lot. The old used-car lot is now a real estate office. The hospital is new, complete with a helicopter landing pad for Life Flights over the mountain to Missoula. She passes a Wonder Bread truck then a flatbed hauling hay bales and two barking dogs. On the hillside above town, houses begin to wake.
Lauren’s sister calls twice a year—on Lauren’s birthday and Christmas Eve—and only now does Lauren understand Desiree’s concern. Their mother has become a recluse, and the property has gone steadily downhill: warped cedar shingles, rusted wrought-iron fence, flowerbeds usurped by star thistle. The front windows are covered in plastic from last winter. Two signs hang from the front door: Fresh Eggs $3 and No Solicitors.
The boy is awake. He has sleep in his eyes, a ketchup stain on his shirt. Lauren positions the letterman jacket over his shoulders and he wears it like a cape. She nearly closes his hand in the door when he reaches back for the road atlas.
Her mother stands in the side yard, dressed in a mud-hemmed housecoat and muck boots, throwing feed to the chickens. Lauren waves, and her mother goes through the backdoor and reappears at the front. Through the grain of the screen Lauren sees a woman impossible to please—dirt-caked knuckles and a gray braid. Glasses hang from a gold chain around her neck. She raises the glasses and studies Lauren and the boy as if they’re a pair of Democrat campaigners, or worse: Mormon missionaries.
“Well now,” she says at last, “this must be the child.”
Lauren says, “Say hello, Jonah,” and the boy says, “Say hello, Jonah.”
The house smells of onions and overcooked eggs. It appears in order, but Lauren knows it’s merely clutter in a clever arrangement—stacks of old magazines, baskets of yarn and crochet needles, crystal bowls filled with bank pens and buttons and pennies. Lauren prods the boy and he steps inside but stops at the entry rug, and for the first time she and the boy share a moment: neither want to go any further.
Her mother turns on the television, and the boy’s head snaps forward. Cartoon voices cut the silence of the old house. She places a box of Cheerios on a pillow in front of the television, and the boy goes to it, sits, and digs his hand into the box.
“Dry cereal,” Lauren says. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Her mother says, “When was the last time you ate something?” She measures Lauren’s waist with the eyes of a seamstress. “You’re skinny.”
It isn’t a compliment, but Lauren says thank you. It takes everything she has, but she says what her mother wants to hear: “Thanks for having us on short notice.” And then, because it isn’t just Lauren but also the boy, she adds, “I really appreciate it.”
After breakfast they drink tea, Lauren watching her mother and her mother watching the boy. “I know what you’re thinking,” Lauren says.
“Oh? And what am I thinking?”
“That I should have left him a long time ago.”
Her mother takes a drink. The teacup rattles in the saucer. She’s aged in her voice and hands and both are shaky. “And now you’ve left Keller but taken his son?”
The paradox is not lost on Lauren. What she doesn’t tell her mother is that Keller was the one who did the leaving. He called the move to New Orleans a temporary separation, but as the months passed their relationship didn’t tip toward reconciliation or divorce but evaporated into a state of apathy. Keller claimed he was living with his parents, but Lauren knew it was a lie even before she arrived in New Orleans. His mother took one look at the boy, balanced on Lauren’s hip, and apologized. She said she hadn’t heard from Keller since the oil spill, and handed Lauren his forwarding address.
Lauren drove across the Mississippi River to St. Bernard Parish, to a white house with sun-faded toys in the yard, Christmas lights still hung from the gutters. A mailbox shaped like a catfish—its mouth on a hinge—stood at the curb. Keller’s truck was parked in the driveway, a new F-150 they couldn’t afford. A woman came to the door.
“No, Keller isn’t home,” she said. “He’ll be on the Gulf for another few weeks.”
It was the way the woman said home, the way she answered the door in an oversized T-shirt and a pair of men’s boxers. A phone rang somewhere in the house, and the woman excused herself. By the time she returned, Lauren had unwired the key from behind the license plate of Keller’s truck and loaded the boy and their bags inside. She hadn’t intended to steal the truck, or the boy, but she wanted to take something away from Keller. It wasn’t until she reached the Texas border—a moment of clarity after the boy dropped her cell phone in a truck stop toilet—that she realized she was truly alone. There was nothing, and no one, waiting for her in Galveston.
“I had to bring Jonah,” Lauren says. “It was this or foster care.”
The cuckoo clock chimes seven times on the hour. Lauren rubs both fists against her eyes. Her mother says, “And now what are you going to do?”
“Stay and work through the summer, if it’s all right with you. I thought I’d start by calling Daniel Walker. Is he still working for the Forest?”
“He’s married, Lauren. He has a family.”
“Good, because I need a job, not a date for the prom.”
“And I suppose you expect me to watch Jonah while you work?”
“Just until Keller gets off the Gulf. Then he can come get his son.”
They both look at the boy. The cereal box sits upended, crushed Cheerios dusting the carpet. He’s pulled the paperbacks from the bookshelf and stacked them on the floor, and now pencils across the cover of a Larry McMurtry novel. Lauren says the boy’s name, and her mother says, “He’s fine, Lauren. They’re only books.”
“They’re Dad’s books.”
“Your father isn’t alive to read them.”
“Yes, Mom, I know.”
“Mom,” the boy repeats. “Mom.”
Lauren gets up from the table and sits cross-legged on the floor. She opens the boy’s road atlas and turns the page to Texas. “Here,” she says, pointing to Houston. “Your mother is here.” She points to herself. “Lauren.”
The next morning Lauren drives to the Forest Service office to see Daniel Walker. She brings the boy along to prove a point to her mother. He’s sleepy and soft-limbed and she struggles to carry him in a pencil skirt and wedge sandals. Her fake snakeskin purse is weighted with baby wipes and Ziplocs of dry cereal, a juice box, Pull-Ups, and the boy’s road atlas. The boy wears footed pajamas, a milk mustache, and the bicycle helmet. What he lacks in normalcy, Lauren hopes to gain in Daniel’s sympathy.
When she asks for Daniel, the receptionist looks her over and says, “You’ll have to wait right here while I call him.” Lauren’s silver bangles clank as she lowers the boy and raises her sunglasses. She pretends not to notice when the boy scatters a stack of pine beetle brochures, studies her fingernails as he pushes over a cardboard Smokey the Bear.
The receptionist hangs up and gives Lauren a look, and Lauren says, “Isn’t he cute? He wants to be a wildlife biologist when he grows up.”
Daniel meets her in the lobby dressed in khaki pants, a collared shirt, and a ball cap with a red fly hooked to the bill. He’s the Wildland Fire Dispatcher for the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Lauren knows from their brief phone conversation that he’s responsible for organizing supplies and personnel for wildland fire efforts. He’s filled out through the chest and shoulders but retained the same boyish face, the same crooked gait he’s had since being thrown from a horse when they were sixteen.
They hug, and the weight of his arms feels good on her shoulders. “You’ll have to excuse Gina for the high security,” he says. “She’s new around here.”
Lauren looks behind her for the boy. He’s halfway down the hall, trying to open a locked door. “Jonah,” she says, “come and meet my old friend.” When the boy doesn’t respond, Lauren picks him up in a bear hug and carries him to Daniel’s office.
The room is small and cramped with boxes and filing cabinets. The walls are covered in maps. Daniel says, “This is more of a closet. I work out of dispatch most of the time.” He taps the boy’s helmet. “Hey, kiddo. You going for a bike ride?”
Lauren picks up a framed photo from the desk. A woman, small girl, and twin boys are dressed in matching Christmas sweaters. “Is this your family?”
“That’s Carol, my wife. Anna’s six. Evan and Oliver are eight.”
“They get that from my wife. How old is your son?”
Lauren thinks back to the year of Keller’s affair, the same year as Hurricane Katrina. She considers telling Daniel that her husband fathered a child with another woman and named his trawler after Lauren as consolation. That subsequently, the Lauren Marie sunk them into bankruptcy. She looks at the boy, standing at the wall tracing the contour lines of a topographic map with his finger. Lauren has never wanted children, but now she wants desperately to show something for the years of her marriage. “Jonah’s five,” she says. “We’ve just been so busy since he was born. You know how it is with kids.”
“And your husband? Is he here with you?”
“He’s working on the oil spill. That’s why we’re here. I thought it would be nice to spend the summer in the mountains while Keller’s away. But”—Lauren brings her hand to her brow—“nobody’s seen any money from BP yet, and our funds are a little tight. I was wondering if you knew of any, well, any summer jobs.”
Daniel takes off his ball cap and rubs his head. “I’m afraid the application period for seasonal jobs was back in February. As far as I know everything’s taken.”
Lauren waves away the disappointment. “Of course, of course. I don’t know what I was thinking, bothering you at work like this.” From the corner of her eye she catches the boy reaching across Daniel’s desk. She snaps his name—“Jonah, no!”—and the boy startles, knocking over a ceramic mug. Coffee bleeds through a stack of papers, spills over the desk and onto the carpet. Lauren apologizes while digging through her purse. She kneels awkwardly in her skirt, trying to absorb the coffee with a Pull-Up.
“It’s okay,” Daniel says. “Leave it.” He takes her hand to help her up, and she feels the slightest jolt at his touch, a feeling she remembers from the summer they spent together before Daniel broke his back, the summer before her father passed. A time before she understood the power of a place to bring you down and keep you there.
Daniel pulls his hand away. Lauren says, “We should go. I’m sorry for the mess.”
She herds the boy toward the door and is halfway down the hall when Daniel calls her name. “Wait. Don’t leave yet.” He hitches up one pant leg and limps toward her, his chest heaving, Lauren senses, more from anxiety than physical strain.
“You know the lookout tower on Long Tom Mountain?” he says.
“The fire lookout?”
Daniel nods. “The job is reporting wildfires and collecting weather data. Twelve days on, two days off, and overtime in peak fire season.” He pauses. “Interested?”
Back in the lobby, the boy jangles the handles on the candy dispensers. The receptionist says, “No-no. Don’t touch that.” Lauren imagines waiting tables at the Salmon River Coffee Shop, cleaning coffee pots with ice cubes and salt, collecting fifty-cents-and-a-wink tips from old cowboys. She imagines her mother waiting up at the kitchen table night after night, and the seasick feeling of stepping back in time.
“If it gets me out of this town,” Lauren says, “then yes, I’m interested.”
Daniel laughs. “Well, it’ll get you out of town all right, about four thousand feet above town. Of course there’s no electricity or plumbing, so you’d have to haul your water from the spring and use the outhouse. But the good news is you could bring your son. The last lookout brought her kids every summer and they got on just fine up there.”
Lauren wants to say, “But I don’t know anything about being a mother.” Instead, she says, “But I don’t know anything about being a lookout.”
“You ever seen smoke in these mountains?”
“You ever sighted a rifle?”
“We can teach you the rest. Take a day to think about it and I’ll make some calls. If you can tolerate the isolation it’s not a bad way to spend the summer.”
Three days of fire lookout training: how to read a map, how to use a belt weather kit, how to deploy a fire shelter. Then: first aid and lookout safety, dispatch and communications, the seven signs of hazardous fire conditions. The instructor demonstrates how to use the Osborne Firefinder—a circular map and sighting device used by lookouts to determine the directional bearing of a fire. It’s not as simple as sighting a rifle, as Daniel suggested, and Lauren wonders what strings he had to pull.
The instructor says, “You are the eagle’s eyes.” She says, “It takes a certain kind of person to be a fire lookout. You must be quick and decisive. You must be patient and steadfast. And you must know how to be alone.” Lauren does not know if she is any of these things, but she writes down everything the woman says.
After the last day of training, the instructor hands Lauren a yellow rain slicker and a used pair of hiking boots. “Sweetheart,” she says, “you’re going to need these.”
On the drive home, Lauren stops at the place they call Island Park, a narrow strip of land that splits the river. The Salmon has overflowed its banks, and the island is flooded in places. Grown men in lifted trucks charge deep puddles, disappear behind twin walls of water. The old public swimming pool has been converted into a skate park, and teenagers gather here to smoke cigarettes and grab-ass after school. Lauren approaches, and the kids grow quiet. “Hey,” she says to one of the boys. “You smoke?” He’s hesitant to answer but reaches into his pocket, shakes a cigarette from the pack.
Nearby, the picnic tables are under water, only the tops showing, like a chain of docks. Lauren takes off her shoes and jumps from one table to the next until she reaches the raised pavilion. She sits and smokes, watches cars pass on the bridge above. Daniel has told her about the woman who raised her sons at the lookout, from infants to teenagers, summer after summer, and how the boys thrived in the wilderness. He said Lauren could bring Jonah, no problem. But Lauren has her doubts. Surely Daniel was being kind. Surely he noticed the boy’s bruised forehead, his darting eyes.
Back at her mother’s, the house is quiet. “Hello?” she calls. “I’m home.” The kitchen table is cluttered with game pieces—Monopoly money and Battleship pegs and LIFE station wagons. When Lauren left this morning her mother and the boy were playing a game of Memory. Her mother had altered the game. She left the cards face up and asked the boy to pick one. Then they went looking for the image on the card: apple, watch, fish, keys. Her mother said the word and the boy said it back.
Lauren picks up two red dice and rattles them in the cage of her hand. She doesn’t know what bothers her more—the way the boy responds to her mother, or the way her mother responds to the boy.
In the living room, Lauren finds her father’s tackle box emptied on the floor: flies, spinners, jig heads, hellgies, weights, bobbers. Rusted three-ought hooks are snagged in the carpet. She rights the box and slides the drawers into place. When she picks it up, its weightlessness feels like something being taken away.
Her father’s fishing license, in its plastic sleeve, is wedged in a top compartment. Lauren unfolds the papers and reads the handwritten dates of every steelhead he caught in the months leading up to his death. It hurts to see so many blank spaces, to know how many fish he had left to keep.
From down the hall, Lauren hears her mother’s voice. She listens outside the bathroom door. “That’s a good boy,” her mother says. “Sit very still for Grandma.”
When Lauren opens the door her mother and the boy look up at the same time. Her mother’s face is flushed; the ropes in her neck tighten. She lowers a pair of wire cutters. Lauren looks from her mother to the boy. His hand is decorated with tackle, hooks deep in the meat of his palm and fingertips. Colored fishing lures jingle and sing as he tries to get down from the counter. He doesn’t seem to register the pain, but Lauren feels it acutely in her own hands, and she stands holding them out, speechless, paralyzed.
Her mother says, “I don’t know how it happened.”
Thirty minutes later, Lauren sits in a hospital room. They’ve given the boy a local anesthetic, a tetanus shot, and a small dose of Ativan, and she watches his face begin to soften. The doctor comes in and adjusts a light over the bed. He explains the process. For some he’ll insert a needle to lift the skin away from the barb and pull the hook free. For others, he’ll have to push the hook through the skin, cut the barb, and back the flank out.
Lauren lowers her eyes to the floor. She counts as the doctor drops each retrieved hook into a metal pan with a clink. Nine times, nine hooks.
Afterward the doctor says, “Try not to blame yourself.” He hands Lauren a white bag with antibiotic ointment, extra bandages, and children’s Tylenol. He says the boy will be fine, and he pats her on the back, as if she too is a child who needs comforting.
It’s dark when Lauren begins packing for Long Tom Lookout. She goes to the garage for a lantern and sleeping bags but finds herself sitting on the cool concrete, breathing in the smell of oil and grass clippings. The last time she stood in this garage was the last time she saw her father. She helped him spool his fishing reel by holding a pencil through the spool’s center while he reeled in the line. They were, in those moments, so gently tethered by the glint of the monofilament strung between them.
On her way back inside, arms full of camping gear, Lauren passes her mother on the porch swing. “Can you open the door?” she says, and her mother says, “I just talked to Keller. He didn’t even know you were here.”
“What? You called him?”
“I had to. To tell him about Jonah’s accident.”
“Shit,” Lauren says. “Did he want to talk to me?”
“He said to call when you get back to Texas.”
“I’m not going back to Texas. Did you tell him that?”
Her mother brings a tissue to her nose, and Lauren realizes she’s crying. “Keller’s not upset about the accident, and he’s not mad at you for leaving with Jonah.”
“He’s not mad at me?” Lauren drops everything on the porch. The lantern rolls down the steps, breaks when it hits the sidewalk. “CPS dumped his kid on my doorstep. What was I supposed to do? Sit around changing diapers while he fucked some woman?”
Her mother stands and opens the door. “I don’t know what’s going on between you two,” she says, “but running away isn’t going to fix it.”
The screen slams shut. Lauren collects the pieces of broken lantern, sits on the steps with the shards of glass in her hands. What did Keller see in the boy’s mother? Or the woman who answered the door in New Orleans? What do they have that she doesn’t? She hears the woman say, “No, Keller isn’t home.” She remembers the woman standing barefoot in the yard. “Who do you think you are?” the woman shouted, and Lauren called back, “We’re the same fucking person, you and me. Exactly the same.”
Lauren doesn’t tell her mother good night. She doesn’t say a word. At first light, she and the boy are in the truck, headed for Long Tom Mountain.
The road to Colson Creek follows the Salmon River like a smoke plume. Lauren takes the corners fast, and the boxes in the truck bed slide from side to side. The boy closes his eyes. Pavement turns to dirt. The canyon narrows. The river runs wide and passive in sunlit stretches, then fast and bawdy with whitewater rapids. High-water season, and there are none of the usual rafters, no fishermen lining the banks. A sandhill crane bends to drink, pauses, raises its head. They pass the skeletons of mining cabins, a rusted cable car, the remains of the Moose Creek dredge. The tires hammer over washboards.
When they stop at the Shoup Store—a log cabin that serves as a restaurant and convenience store—the boy gets out and vomits on his shoes. The cashier takes one look at him and says the bathroom is for paying customers only. Lauren counts three dollars in nickels and dimes from the glove box and buys the boy a huckleberry milkshake, cleans him up in the bathroom with the cashier scowling behind the counter.
Twenty minutes later the boy vomits huckleberry milkshake in the passenger seat. Lauren stops again. A three-hour drive becomes four. At Colson Creek they leave the river and head up the mountain. Dust glints and flits about their heads like a million gold-winged gnats. She’s long ago lost the battle of the seatbelts, and the boy rides wide-eyed and shirtless, both hands on the dashboard. Daniel has warned her about the condition of the road, and now she thinks “road” is a bit of a stretch; it rides like a goddamn creek bottom. Twice she stops to roll boulders from the road, watches them crash through the sagebrush below. Twice she stops to wait for bighorn sheep, slow to move, and unafraid.
Finally the truck crests a rise half a mile from the summit of Long Tom Mountain. The lookout tower stands on a rocky knob like a marooned boat, a relic of the past. The sixteen-by-sixteen-foot cab is a glass box perched atop a ten-foot concrete base. Lauren knows from the training course that four lookout towers have been built and rebuilt here since 1923, staffed every summer since. Yesterday Daniel called in a favor, and a forest ranger de-winterized the cab—replaced the battery in the fixed weather station, stacked a cord of wood, turned on the propane, and removed the shutters. Lightning rods rise from every corner of the roof. The windows gleam with sunlight.
Lauren gets out and takes a deep breath. After nine years in Texas it feels like she’s emerged from the depths of a lake. She surveys the land with a hand drawn over her brow and has the sensation of driving through a long, dark tunnel and coming out the other side. From here she can see six national forests and deep into the two million acres of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness: towering granite gorges, slopes of sagebrush, dense pine and fir forest. And below, the confluence of two wild rivers, like a millenniums-old handshake, negotiating a path to the Pacific.
“What do you think, Jonah?” she says. “Home sweet home?”
Lauren begins the tedious task of keeping the boy in her sights while unpacking the truck. The boy’s hair is windblown into a cowlick; his left-hand bandage is soiled. He strips naked and runs between the lookout and the outhouse wearing only a pair of white sneakers, and Lauren thinks, Why the hell not? For an instant she is struck by the boy’s freedom, not just childhood but also the unknown workings of his mind, the strange and quarantined world he lives in. Maybe, she thinks, we’re not all that different. We both exist in an isolation of our own making.
The lookout is furnished with a propane refrigerator and cook stove, a wood burning stove, a long counter and a single bed. In the middle of the room, on a table of its own, sits the Osborne Firefinder and a pair of binoculars. Last year’s calendar hangs on the wall, a black X drawn through every day in September. Lauren searches the cupboards and finds first aid and snakebite kits, maps, log books, cloud charts, mousetraps, birdseed, batteries, bug spray, an alarm clock, a single stainless steel wine glass, The Firefighter’s Handbook, and a dog-eared copy of A River Runs Through It.
Late that afternoon, after everything has been cleaned and their belongings put away, Lauren and the boy eat grilled cheese sandwiches and baked beans while dark clouds push up the Salmon River corridor. The boy looks from side to side as Lauren closes the windows. The trees sway and creak; the birdfeeder tips, spilling arcs of seed. The temperature drops ten degrees in ten minutes. Lauren doesn’t want to miss her first radio transaction with dispatch, and, with some reluctance, unpacks the belt weather kit and ventures outside in a yellow slicker to take the weather statistics.
Inside, the boy sits in a cardboard box, hands over his ears. Lightning dances on distant ridge tops. Thunder rumbles overhead. Lauren comes in with a small spiral notebook in her hand, rainwater dripping from her fingers and nose.
She goes to the radio. “Dispatch. Long Tom Lookout.
For a time, there is nothing. Then: “Long Tom. Dispatch.”
Daniel’s voice is a small comfort. She reads the statistics slowly: wind speed and direction, precipitation, air temperature, relative humidity, Haines Index. There is a moment, after she finishes, when neither speak. The radio sizzles with static.
“Dispatch. Long Tom,” Daniel says. “Do you copy?”
“Long Tom. Affirmative.”
“Everything okay, Long Tom?”
“We’ve got a storm blowing in.”
“Copy that. Is there lightning?”
“Is it close?”
“It’s getting closer.”
“You know what to do. Turn off the propane and get off the radio.”
Lauren takes a deep breath to keep from crying.
Daniel says, “You’re going to be all right, Long Tom.”
She wishes he would say her name. Rain lashes the windows. The boy begins to whimper. “Copy,” she says. “Clear.”
All night thunderstorms pass overhead, one after another, like the ghosts of a recurring dream. Lauren wakes after midnight to the air charged with electricity, her hair on end, something like a whisper at the nape of her neck. The forest shudders into view, collapses into darkness. The boy is jolted awake by thunder. Lauren holds him on one hip, whispers one-potato-two under her breath. She knows to account one mile for every five seconds between flash and thunder, knows it’s getting closer. She thinks of the story the instructor told in training, how lightning once struck a chimney, coursed down the flue, jumped through the damper, and killed a lookout in his sleep.
Lauren extinguishes the lantern, turns off the propane, and drags the glass-insulated stool to the center of the room. She sits with her feet on the bottom rung, the boy on her lap. Together they wait. It is the waiting, she knows, that will kill her in the end. The hours upon hours of contemplation, of looking out the window for smoke, her thoughts knitting back to Keller. She is 8,000 feet above sea level and has never felt so alone. She thinks back to their last night together, and how, when he touched her hip beneath the sheets, she said, “How can you want to be with me when I am so far away?”
All at once the room fills with white light and the simultaneous boom of a thunderclap—the sound of an enormous whip being snapped—and she knows the lookout has been hit by lightning. The boy screams, and Lauren screams. He wants nothing more than to escape, and she wants nothing more than to let him go. She places her hands over his ears and forces him to stay put through the worst of it.
“We’re okay,” she sings, her voice shaking.
The days press forward. Cloudbursts blow out the road and cut new creek channels. Wildflowers bloom without worry. Lauren checks in with dispatch and Stormy Peak Lookout twice a day. She suffers headaches from eyestrain, struggles to stay awake through the long northern days. It is a slow start to the fire season. Some days she listens to radio traffic if only to hear a voice that isn’t hers, or the echo of the boy, who has taken to repeating her every word. At night, coyotes call from ridge to ridge. The sky is a graveyard of lights. She tells the boy there is a star for every ship lost at sea.
Three times a week Lauren ties one end of a rope around the boy’s waist, the other around her own, and like two mountain climbers they make their way to the spring and back. It’s a three-mile roundtrip with Lauren hauling buckets of water, and the boy tugging as he runs ahead. They bathe from a bucket of spring water warmed on the stove. So intent is the boy on examining the flecks of pyrite that shimmer and shift that he tips headfirst into the bucket, comes out spitting like a cat. Lauren stops shaving her legs, then her armpits. She wears sunscreen instead of makeup, pulls her hair into a ball cap, longs for a manicure, a grocery store, air conditioning.
Five days in a row they see the same domestic goat roping up the trail, a Nubian goat with a golden coat and a bell around its neck. It climbs the stairs of the lookout, rattles along the catwalk, bleating at the windows. Lauren radios dispatch, and they ask the few residents along the river if anyone has lost a pet. No one claims the goat. When at last the goat wanders off, the boy says only goat for two days. How about some lunch, Jonah? Goat. Are you tired, Jonah? Goat. Finally, they go out looking for the goat. Lauren tethers it to a twenty-foot rope and it mows everything from balsamroot to cheatgrass to Canada thistle around the lookout’s perimeter. The boy feeds it snowberries from the palm of his hand.
In the evenings, the boy studies the road atlas, turning the pages, state after state, the way another child might study a picture book. Lauren takes his finger and traces their route from Texas to Idaho by way of Louisiana. She draws a little boat in the Gulf of Mexico. That night the boy begins tracing roadways in the atlas. He pencils over Interstate 80, from Cheyenne to Rock Springs, the road now a silver river on the map. He lays propped on his elbows, his hand curiously steady. His hair is fine and fair as a dandelion gone to seed, so unlike her husband’s, which is thick and dark. And yet they resemble each other in many ways—the boy’s dominant left hand, his cleft chin, the apples of his cheeks. Lauren reaches down and touches him on the head.
Other days are a fight. The boy resists eye contact and any recognition of Lauren’s presence, her voice. He empties a bag of rice on the floor, feeds their cache of chocolate bars to the goat. He has taken to collecting rocks—nothing special by her eye, but to the boy they are gems—and arranging them into winding paths across the floor. If, and when, Lauren disrupts his roadway of rocks, the boy beats his head against the floor. He will take any map she leaves within reach. He will refuse to eat for no discernable reason. She must keep one eye on the horizon, one eye on the boy. She comes back from the outhouse and finds him flying the fire shelter like a kite. It catches in an updraft, snags in a pine bough, glinting like a $300 Christmas ornament.
Then it’s July, bordering on hot after so many days of rain, the sun drawing slats of light across the concrete floor. Crickets sing, welcoming the heat. The boy sleeps red-faced and sweating, both arms above his head. Daniel arrives in a white Forest Service truck, a cloud of dust winding up the road. Lauren puts on deodorant and a clean shirt and helps him unload a roll of woven wire, a dozen lodgepole fence posts, and two bales of hay. “I figure I better get a pen built for that goat,” he says. “I don’t want to scare you, but I’ve seen what a wolf can do to a calf. Believe me, it ain’t pretty.”
He holds up a paper bag. “My wife made me bring these. I don’t know if Jonah needs clothes, but I tried to take out everything pink.”
Lauren says, “He does, thank you. And thank Carol for thinking of us.”
They walk to the east side of the lookout where the goat works a sunflower between its teeth, root and all. The sky is stained lavender and coral and soon it will be dusk. Daniel reaches into his pocket, hands her a piece of folded paper. “It’s from your mother,” he says. “If you need to go home, I can send up a replacement.”
Lauren reads the message once, then a second time. Her mother explains in perfect cursive that Keller is coming for the boy. Lauren looks across the valley and wonders if she didn’t have the boy, would Keller come for her? She remembers an afternoon they spent on South Padre Island when she and Keller were newlyweds. A surf fisherman had hooked a seagull by mistake. The more the gull fought, the more it became entangled in the line, and soon the flock had moved down the beach without it. Eventually, the fisherman cut his line. The gull lifted, flew a few feet, and crashed back into the water. It carried on like that until Lauren couldn’t watch anymore.
She asks Daniel, “Did you read this?”
He looks at his shoes. “We’ve all got our troubles.”
On the third of July, Lauren and the boy leave Long Tom Mountain for town. Lauren’s sister Desiree and brother-in-law Ted and their four children are visiting from Coeur d’Alene. They’re all camped in the backyard as Ted does something he calls grilling but smells a lot like burning. They’ve mowed a clearing in the grass, and the children have laid out a slat of plywood and an arsenal of illegal fireworks they picked up in Missoula. The two older boys light firecrackers in the chicken coop, cover their ears and run.
Desiree is eight months pregnant. She has named her children after places she has never been: Branson, Lincoln, Trenton, and Madison. Lauren suggests Houston as a joke, and Desiree says it with different middle names: “Houston Lee? Houston Hope? Houston Marie?” No one says Keller’s name, but Ted puts an extra burger on the grill. The women share looks of anticipation, simultaneously turning when a car door slams.
After dinner the children scatter, playing a game of hide-and-seek. The yard backs up to a calm stretch of river, but to either side the property is littered with junk cars, tires, broken bee boxes, a shed, and the chicken coop. They are waiting for true dark, for fireworks to pop and explode over Old Dump Hill. Desiree props her swollen feet on a stump. Lauren’s mother brings out a transistor radio and tunes in the only station in town, and they listen to songs with “America” in the title. Ted struggles with the campfire, eventually dousing logs with lighter fluid and throwing in a match.
Desiree raises a hand to the flames, says, “Lordy, Ted. You trying to burn the place down?”
The boy darts across the yard in a red sweatshirt with Rodeo Princess spelled in rhinestone studs, a hand-me-down from Daniel’s daughter. Lauren knows he isn’t playing along so much as hiding from the other children, and she’s surprised when Madison, Desiree’s youngest, takes him by the hand. They crawl into an old drift boat, Lauren’s father’s boat, now overgrown with skeletonweed. Their small heads peek over the bow, and in that moment Lauren’s life carries the semblance of normalcy. A calm before the storm, she thinks. Before she loses Keller to the boy, and the boy to Keller.
No, she thinks, they were never mine in the first place.
Ted retrieves a beer from the cooler and hands it to Lauren. “So your mother tells us you’ve been working at a lookout tower. Long John—”
“Long Tom,” Lauren says. “It was named after a miner that drowned.”
Desiree shudders. “I think I drowned in a previous life. That’s why I’m scared of water. Ted doesn’t believe in past lives, do you, Ted?”
“It’s fire that scares me,” Ted says. “Burning to death.”
“Actually,” Lauren says, “the miner’s real name was Joe Lockland. They packed his body upriver and ordered a coffin from town, but when it arrived it was too short.”
“A child’s coffin?” Desiree says. “Oh, that’s the worst. Remember the time we caught all those baby moles and put them in a shoebox and they died in the night? Remember, Lauren? And Daddy held a funeral in the backyard. Oh, bless his heart.”
“No, not a child’s coffin. It’s just that Tom was too long.”
“Long Tom,” Ted says. He looks to Desiree. “Get it, honey?”
“I get it,” Desiree says. “Why wouldn’t I get it?”
Lauren makes slits of her eyes. It’s after nine o’clock and twilight lingers. She scans the yard, searching for the boy’s red sweatshirt. The children are hiding. It’s eerily quiet. She thinks it’s too late for them to play so close to the river.
Ted says, “So what’d they do with the body?”
Lauren stands, both hands on her hips. “They cut the tendons under the dead man’s knees, bent his calves over his thighs, and nailed the coffin shut.”
Desiree gasps. Their mother says, “That’s a terrible story. Just awful.”
Lauren doesn’t see the boy anywhere. She walks into the yard. Trenton and Madison appear from behind a pile of tractor tires. Trenton holds Madison’s hands behind her back like a caught criminal. The other two boys wait for the game to begin again. Lauren nearly yells when she says, “Where’s Jonah?”
The children look at Lauren and then each other. Madison points. “He’s in the tires,” she says. “He won! Jonah won the game!”
The adults clap and cheer. The boy runs out from behind the tires, keeps running across the yard, and Lauren chases after him, pretending he’s too fast.
After everyone has gone to bed, Lauren turns on the television for any news about skimming vessels off the coast of Louisiana. It’s Day 73 of the Deepwater Horizon disaster: over 140 million gallons of crude oil along 423 miles of coastline. Clean-up workers in Louisiana have reported symptoms from exposure to oil chemicals. CNN loops images of ruined beaches. There’s a message drawn in the sand: Spill, baby, spill. Last week a charter boat captain in Alabama put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Lauren begins to worry. Four days ago Hurricane Alex forced boats to port in the Gulf of Mexico. Four days ago Keller called Lauren’s mother, but nobody’s heard from him since. For the first time Lauren admits that leaving Keller wasn’t so much about leaving, but wanting him to acknowledge her absence, and now she feels like a child. She doesn’t know if Keller is traveling by car, or by plane and then by car. The closest airports—Idaho Falls and Missoula—are both three hours away. Her mother gets up for a glass of water and says what Lauren is thinking: “What if something happened?”
Lauren steals a pack of cigarettes from Ted’s coat pocket, smokes pacing the dark garage. She raises the glowing ember to her father’s ghost, says, “Would you look at us now?” Then she does what she promised herself she wouldn’t do. She calls Keller.
His voice sounds small and faraway. “Where are you?” she asks.
“Laurie?” A pause. He clears his throat. “I’m in New Orleans. Where are you?”
Lauren cups her hand around the phone and yells in a whisper: “I’m in Idaho at my goddamned mother’s with your son, which you know perfectly well.”
She can hear Keller breathing, wheezing. He discharges the inhaler, takes a deep breath. His asthma has worsened over the years and it’s easier to imagine him on the deck of a trawler clutching his chest than as a high school athlete setting pole vault records. “Are you okay?” she says. “My mother said you were coming.”
“I said I would try, and I am. They’ve got us working fourteen-hour days. Someone has to pay the rent while you’re on vacation.”
“Vacation? Is that what you think this is?”
“No one told you to go to Idaho. I mean, really, what were you thinking?”
Keller’s voice fluctuates with his movements, and she imagines him stepping into his jeans. She wonders how many women have seen him do this. Sometimes he touches her in a familiar way, other times as if he’s trying to please another woman. Lauren doesn’t know if this other woman is a younger version of herself—the person he still believes her to be—or someone she’s never met.
“I drove to New Orleans, Keller.”
“I know. Margot said some crazed woman took off in my truck. You’re lucky she didn’t call the police and report it stolen.”
“Is that her name? Margot?”
“She’s Doug’s wife. Doug and I work together. I rent the guest bedroom.”
“Do you really expect me to believe that?”
“Come on, Laurie. Don’t do this.”
“I thought you were staying with your parents. Why would you lie to me? Why did that woman—Margot—look at me like I was the other woman?”
“Christ,” Keller says. “Is that what this is about?”
Lauren slumps against the counter. She doesn’t know what to believe.
“Hello? Laurie? When are you coming back?”
“I’m not coming back. Come get your son.”
Lauren hangs up the phone. Her mother appears at the end of the hallway. Lauren says, “He’s not coming.” She gathers the sleeping boy in her arms and carries him to the truck. Her mother follows in her housecoat and slippers, asking Lauren to leave Jonah.
“What if Keller comes for him?” she says. “What am I supposed to tell him?”
Lauren starts the engine. “Tell him he can come to me.”
“But Lauren,” her mother says, “this isn’t about you.”
By mid-July, temperatures in the Salmon River Canyon break one hundred. Beetle-infested trees turn new shades of red, ribbons of rust amongst the dense green. Noxious weeds carry their seeds easily on the wind. A Forest Service helicopter flies over Cache Bar drainage dropping purple streamers in honor of two fallen firefighters. The lookout at Stormy Peak complains of yellow jackets; Lauren complains of horseflies. They talk, always, of weather. It’s the closest thing Lauren has had to a friendship in a long time.
For two days lightning storms ignite a series of spot fires, and for two days Lauren paces the windows with binoculars, glassing for phantom fires—sleeping fires that creep across the forest floor, waiting for a gust of wind or a snag of fuel. She stands at the Osborne Firefinder and looks through the vertical slot of the front sight, targets smoke in the cross hairs of the rear sight. Of the fires she reports, four still burn: the Spring Fire, the Bighorn Fire, and two smaller fires near the Corn Creek Boat Launch.
Lauren’s head aches; her hands tremble. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and she hasn’t looked in a mirror in two days. On the counter beside her a cup of coffee grows cold. She goes to the stove to heat more water, finds the kettle already near boil. These are the twenty-hour days Daniel has warned her about.
The boy goes to the door, as he has all day, and turns the locked handle. Lauren lowers the binoculars. “I know, buddy. We can’t go out just yet.” She tries to sit him down with the road atlas only to find he’s penciled across all fifty states. She thumbs the pages quickly, like a flipbook, and sees an endless maze, a web of confusion.
That evening, Lauren straightens a wire clothes hanger and she and the boy roast marshmallows over the propane flame. Afterward, the boy lets the goat lick his sticky hands. They sit outside on a sleeping bag with the wind at their backs. Lauren has taken the four track pins from Keller’s letterman jacket and attached them to the boy’s sweatshirt, and the boy sits with his head bowed, examining the gold.
It’s a cool night made warmer by the sight of the Bighorn Fire. From this distance the two-hundred-foot flames make the ponderosa appear as small as matchsticks, the flames extinguishable with the pinch of a finger. Steep terrain and high winds have kept firefighters out of the Bighorn Crags, and there’s nothing to do but watch it burn.
In Lauren’s pocket is a message from her mother, already a week old: Keller says please come home. The paper has worn soft between her fingers. This is something she’s learned: nothing is safe, nothing is sacred. There is always another fire on another mountain. The boy closes his eyes. Wind shifts through the trees like the sound of cars passing, and it’s easy to believe she’s back in Galveston, she and Keller together with so much undone between them.
Lauren sleeps without dreams. And when she wakes, the boy is gone.
The sun is not yet over the ridge, the sky gritty with smoke. Lauren staggers to the edge of the bluff and peers into the rocky depths, hoping to see, and hoping not to see, the boy’s red sweatshirt. She finds the goat pen open, the goat gone. The outhouse is empty; the storage unit is locked. The front door to the lookout squeaks on its hinges. She turns over a cardboard box, searches under the bed. She runs down the dirt road, cups her hands around her mouth and yells the boy’s name in every direction.
Finally, she radios dispatch. “He’s gone,” she says. “I’ve lost him.”
Forty minutes later a Forest Service helicopter begins a search pattern around the lookout. Canyon winds surge up the draw and the helicopter tips, then rights itself again. Watching from the catwalk, her neck craned, Lauren feels on the verge of fainting. It is dangerous country, as steep as it is rugged, with nowhere to go but down. She thinks of Keller, of the boy’s mother, her own mother, and she leans over the railing and vomits.
Daniel arrives with the deputy sheriff, two officers and two tracking dogs. The deputy explains that the dogs are trained to sniff out drugs and cadavers. Lauren holds her knees at the sound of cadavers. The officers let themselves into the lookout and begin organizing a search grid. A red suburban of Search and Rescue workers arrives with a trailer of ATVs and medical equipment. Behind them: a caravan of volunteers in their own vehicles. One of the volunteers looks to be the same age as Lauren. Their eyes meet, and Lauren sees what the woman sees—tangle of blonde hair, swollen eyes, quivering jaw. She says to Lauren, “Why don’t we go inside and talk, okay?”
Lauren tells her the boy is wearing a red sweatshirt, denim overalls, and a pair of white sneakers with heels that light up when he steps down. She tells her about the goat’s golden coloring, its bell. She spells Keller’s name, the boy’s mother’s name, and the name of the caseworker in Texas. She feels a pain in her ribs when she says, “We fell asleep outside.” The woman asks what time, and Lauren says, “After dinner, but before dark.” She tries to explain the boy’s behavior by showing the woman the road atlas. The woman nods and writes everything down. It looks so small on the page.
They search until nightfall. The moon glows red behind a haze of smoke. Search and Rescue teams rotate shifts. Forest Service trucks come and go. Wildland firefighters arrive with packs on their backs, ready to search at dawn. Someone has brought up a gas generator, and it rumbles outside, two floodlights illuminating a path. On the patch of grass where Lauren and the boy last slept, rescue workers set up pup tents.
A dozen people occupy the lookout. Lauren doesn’t know where to sit or what to do with her hands. Styrofoam coffee cups litter the counter. Maps are unfolded on the bed and taped to the windows. The area left to cover appears an infinite number of acres. The deputy tries to comfort Lauren by saying a five-year-old boy can only get so far. “He’d never make it to the river,” he says, and Lauren cups her face in her hands.
Daniel unwraps a granola bar, says, “Eat something. It’ll help.”
Her voice is raw and tight. “I can’t call Keller,” she says. “I can’t.”
“We already contacted him. He’s on his way.”
That night Lauren sleeps in the back of Daniel’s truck, parked beside the lookout with the tailgate lowered. She slips in and out of dreams, sees a beach lined with gulls, hears the beating of a hundred wings: helicopters, truck engines, window hinges, the kettle screaming, doors closing, the boy’s laugh like a whisper. She opens her eyes. Over a two-way radio, someone refers to the boy as Lauren’s son.
At the start of the second day, Search and Rescue workers meet outside the lookout to reevaluate their plan. Lauren cannot bear to listen. She knows they found the goat eating sunflowers on Long Tom Creek. She knows they found the boy’s red sweatshirt on the trail to the spring. Lauren knows after twelve hours, the chances of recovering the boy begin to diminish. No one says as much, but she knows they are searching for a body.
Daniel asks everyone in the lookout to leave, holds the door as they file out. He turns down the volume on the radio, pours Lauren a cup of coffee. He says, “I’m sorry, Lauren,” and she says, “Don’t say that. Don’t make me hate you for saying that.”
He sits beside her on the bed, holds out his hand. Resting in the center of his palm is a single winged-foot pin. “I thought you might want this,” he says. “It was on the sweatshirt we found.”
Lauren looks away. To touch it feels like acceptance—of her mistakes, and of the boy’s fate, which she so easily took into her own hands. He places the pin on the bed between them, and Lauren knows it will always be between them, that after today she’ll have to bury this place, and this part of herself, all over again.
Daniel stands and faces the window, his silhouette a mountain among mountains. He says in a whisper,“Where are you, Jonah?”
In the corner of the windowpane, Lauren sees the boy’s tiny handprints. She remembers holding the binoculars to his face, and how, when she lowered them, he put both hands to the pane, eyes roving the mountainside as if to say, “Something very fascinating is happening here.” Sometimes he looked at Lauren the same way, would reach out and touch her face, and she wondered what he saw that she couldn’t—the fabric of her thoughts, circuitry of her nerves, blood coursing the chambers of her heart.
Lauren goes to the window and rips down the search maps. Daniel holds up his hand in protest. “Don’t—,” he starts but falls silent. She empties a drawer on the floor and picks through the mess for a roll of tape. On her hands and knees she reaches under the bed for the boy’s road atlas and pulls it toward her. She tears out the pages, state after state, the paper thudding against the spiral binding like tires on a rumble strip, a car veering from its path, and she doesn’t stop until she reaches Texas, sees the little boat she drew for the boy in the Gulf of Mexico. A moment of hesitation, and then she tears it out too, the paper leafing to the floor.
Lauren adheres the first road map to the window and sunlight bleeds through the paper. The room dims one map at a time until she’s covered every pane. She turns in a circle, following the boy’s pencil from Alabama to Wyoming. The darkened lines resemble the electrocardiograms of a thousand heartbeats, the tributaries of a thousand rivers. It is as beautiful as it is haunting. There’s a particular logic to the boy’s work, a complex network of intersecting routes, and yet, even now, he remains a mystery to Lauren. She thinks, He is only a child. She thinks, This is as close as I will ever be to him again.