Authors: Emily Colin
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THE MEMORY THIEF
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Tentative On-Sale Date: August 21, 2012
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This is an uncorrected ebook file. Please do not quote for publication until you check your copy against the finished book.
The Memory Thief
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2012 by Emily Colin
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
[Permissions acknowledgments, if any, go here.]
For Lucas, who stopped time.
And for my parents, who always believed.
When things go wrong at thirteen thousand feet, they go wrong fast. That frigid morning on the Eiger Nordwand, high in Switzerland's Bernese Alps, is no exception. German climbers call it the
âMurder Wallâfor good reason: Since the first successful expedition in 1938, at least sixty rock hounds have lost their lives here. When Ellis passes out and the fog closes in, my first thought is this: The three of us are not going to become statistics.
I've been in similar fixes before: sick teammate, bad weather, big decisions, little time. I don't lose my head. I run down my short list of options, reject all but one as too risky. In the end we rope up, I toss some slings over an outcropping that looks solid, I lower J. C. and Ellis down. I want to get off the mountain, now. This is the fastest way.
Then it happens. The cornice collapses, overloaded with snow or just unstable. Down we go, all three of us. Rocks are everywhere and I feel like I'm in a pinball game, ricocheting off the face. I jam my axe in, trying to slow our descent, but we are going too fast. Now both of them are unconscious and I know that in every way that matters, I am alone. Again and again I jam my axe. It sticks, then it rips loose. Dimly I am aware that I am in pain, that I am bleeding.
Then I see itâa crevasse, gaping below us. We are headed right for it and my heart breaks into a sprint, fueled by a fresh spate of adrenaline. I try to get my knees up, to throw my weight on my axe. We have slid at least six hundred feet and I know from experience that arresting a fall at this point is near impossible, but my other optionâgiving up, letting all three of us hurtle into that icy mawâis not a possibility. If I die, I will die fighting.
The two of them go over the edge and fear clenches me. I dig in my knees again, throw my chest hard on the axe. It bites, and we stop. Below me, the rope jerks and goes taut.
I am alive.
There's no one else on this part of the mountain, and I know what I have to do. I know it instinctively, from years of climbing and more self-rescues than I care to count. Right now, though, I don't trust myself to move. I lie on the axe, pressing it into the snow and ice, trying to catch my breath. Blood runs down my face, into my eyes, but I don't dare raise my head. Even if I could, I wouldn't be able to see a goddamn thing: I am facing up the slope, away from where they've gone. I stare down at the reddening snow and I scream for them, as loud as I can. My voice echoes off the rock, up from the crevasse, mocking me. They don't answer.
I lie there, bleeding and screaming, for what is probably about two minutes before I build the anchor, escape the belay, and make my way to the edge of the crevasse to see what has happened to my friends. But there is no way of measuring time like that. It feels like forever, and I have a lot of time to think. I think: I am alive. I think: This fucking sucks. I even pray, though to whom I'm not sure: the Catholic God of my childhood?
the mountain spirits that J. C.'s always going on about?
In the absence of a response from any or all of the above, I start thinking about Madeleine, which takes me by surprise. I think about how I would love to hold her, to breathe in her bonfire smell, to listen to her laugh. I think about her face after she caught me dicking around with Kiss Me Kate, how hurt she looked. This kind of introspection is not like me. When something's done, it's doneÂ â¦Â and it's usually done because I ended it, sorry to say.
I generally employ a conquistador's approach to matters of the flesh that would make Caesar proud: I Came, I Saw, I Seduced, followed by I Came Some More and Exited Stage Left. Relationships rarely enter into the equation, and as for loveâbitch please, as Roma is prone to say. I can get my endorphin rush somewhere else, thank you very much. But as I lie here freezing my balls off, it dawns on meâI miss Maddie. If I don't make it home from this expedition, her last memory of me will involve seeing me make out with a stranger. I'm not okay with this, I realize. Because I want to be with her. Still.
It's a dirty little four-letter word, and an even more appalling sentence. But I've come right up against it, here at the edge of the world, and I've got nowhere left to run. Holy denial, Batman. I feel this way because I love her.
I watch the blood drip off my face into the snow, I shiver, I shout their names, and all along I am thinking: I screwed up, big-time. I am slow on the emotional uptake and it has taken a near-death experience to bring me to this conclusion. I've spent so long trying not to feel, I've almost forgotten how.
The axe digs into my chest and my heart pounds against my ribs, an answering call. There's nothing to be gained from ignoring it, not out here with my friends dangling over an abyss and no help in sight. As long as I am talking to people who aren't about to answer me anytime soon, I might as well add her to the list. I close my eyes, I picture her face.
I say aloud.
Maddie, I'm sorry.
SIX YEARS LATERÂ â¦
On the surface, there's no reason for me to be concernedâat least, no more than usual. All Aidan says is “I think I'm going to try the South Face of McKinley again.”
We're sitting at the kitchen table, me with a cup of coffee, him with a bottle of Gatorade. Gabriel is in his room down the hall, building something with his Legos. He'd gotten a big box of them for his fourth birthday, a mixed lot that J. C. scored on eBay. That was over six months ago, but they can still absorb his attention for hours.
Sunlight plays on the wood table, and Aidan runs one finger through it, tracing a rainbow of colors. It's an ordinary day, but still I feel a frisson of fear ripple down my spine. “Isn't that the route you tried last year? When you had to turn back?”
“Yeah, we were trying to do a new variation of the Cassin Ridge, and the weather turned on us. It's been bugging me ever since.” There's a pad of paper on the table, and he begins doodling something on it as he speaksâa face, it looks like.
“The one that's got that place called the Valley of Death?”
He looks up at me, his blond hair falling into his eyes. He needs a haircut, for sure. “That's the one. What's got into you, Maddie?”
“I don't think you should go.” I've never said this to him before, and his eyes widen with surprise before they narrow in puzzlement.
“What are you talking about? Why not?”
“I have a bad feeling about this one. I don't know why, but I do.”
“Don't be silly. It's an awesome climb. That was just freaky last year, about the weather. It shouldn't happen again. We got as far as the bergschrund with no problemâwhat?” he says, in response to the exasperated face I'm making over the rim of my coffee cup.
“You know I have no idea what you're talking about,” I say. “English, please.”
He rolls his eyes at me. “A bergschrund is a big crevasse near the head of a glacier. German for âmountain crevice,' if you really want to know.”
“I don't need the etymology, Aidan. Just the significance.”
“âSchrunds can be a real pain in the ass,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest. “In the winter, they're not such a big deal to traverse. In the summer, you've got snowmelt, so they're these big gaping holes.”
“I just know there's a point in here somewhere.”
is, what happened last year wasn't a technical issue. We got across the âschrund just fine. It was after that that the crappy weather set in.” He unfolds himself and goes back to drawing.
In the dream, as in real life, my stomach twists. “I wish you wouldn't go. Can't you do something else? Go to Chile, or Spain, or, I don't know, China. Anywhere else.”
“Relax, honey. You're getting all worked up over nothing.”
“I'm not,” I say, and even as the words leave my mouth I know that it's the truth. “I'm telling you, Aidan, I have a bad feeling about this.”
“What, are you psychic now?” His tone is light, but I can tell that irritation lurks beneath.
“I've never asked you not to do something. I'm asking you now.”
When he lifts his head this time, his mouth is set in a straight, obstinate line. “Don't be ridiculous.”
I look down at my coffee, my stomach churning. “I'm not,” I say again, my voice as stubborn as his.
“Yeah,” he says. “You are.” And he gets up from the table, spinning the drawing around to face me. Seen from one angle, there is his face. I look again, and there's the mountain, rising snow-covered against a cloudless sky. I stare at the picture he's drawn, watching the image shift from one form to the next. “Don't go,” I say in a whisper, but it is too late; the front door slams behind him, and I hear the Jeep's engine rev as he peels out of the driveway.
We fight about the Mount McKinley trip for two months, a record. I argue with him, I yell, I plead. At night I wake from dreams where Aidan goes tumbling off the mountain, crashing to the bottom of a valley and landing, lifeless, in a heap. I dream that he is crushed by falling rock, that his Cessna goes down before he even reaches the glacier, that he steps on a weak snow bridge and goes hurtling into the depths of a crevasse. Then I wake up, my heart pounding in triple time, and look over at Aidan sleeping beside me, peaceful and still.
I say into the darkness of our room.
Don't leave me.
Where this premonition of disaster has come from, I can't say, but it sticks. Aidan tries everything he can think of to make me change my mind, to “see sense,” as he puts it. He listens to all of my doomsday scenarios and then, one by one, tells me why they're nothing to worry about. He teases me that we've changed places, that usually he's the irrational one and I'm the one calming him down. He makes jokes (“Denali? De nada, baby”), he makes J. C. come and talk to me. He gives me books about successful ascents of the mountain, emails me websites. When none of this does any good, he screams and threatens and throws things. He begs. And finally he retreats into a stony, stubborn silence, from which he only emerges to say, “I'm going and that's the end of it.”
The night before he leaves in May, I lie in bed waiting for him to join me, and when he doesn't, I get up to look for him. He's sitting in the living room, in the dark. I can make out the dim shape of a glass on the coffee table in front of him, next to his lighter and a pack of American Spirits. He smells like whisky.
I sit down on the couch next to him. “Hey.”
“Maddie,” he says, and his voice is rough. He is crying, I realize with some horror. “What's happening to us?” he says. His voice breaks on the last word.
I move closer, wrap my arms around him. He is shaking, like he was six years ago when he came to tell me that he loved me, that Jim Ellis had died on the Eiger Nordwand and he blamed himself. “I can't lose you,” he says. “I can't. I don't know what I would do. Tell me I'm not losing you, baby. Please.”
Now I am crying, too. My tears mingle with his as we hold each other. “You could never lose me,” I say. “I'm the one who's going to lose you. I know it, Aidan. I know I am.”
He presses his face against mine. “I'm not going anywhere. I'll be back, honey. You'll see. I'll be back and everything will be fine.”
“You can't know that. Look at what happened to Jim.”
“To Ellis?” he says, sounding puzzled. “What's McKinley got to do with that? The Nordwand was a freaky set of circumstances, a whole bunch of bad stuff piling up at once. Ellis was sick. That cornice was shit. And then J. C. got knocked out. You know all this.”
I don't know why I've got the Eiger expedition on my mind. Maybe it's the feel of Aidan's body trembling, the wetness of his tears. I don't think I've seen him cry since that day, not even when Gabriel was born, and it unsettles me. “All three of you could have died in the crevasse on that stupid mountain, not just him,” I say, and shiver.
“But we didn't,” he says, pulling away and wiping his eyes. I hear the familiar stubbornness line his voice. “I lost Ellis, true. I haven't forgiven myself for that. But I did the best I could. I built an anchor. I got us out of there. And I came back to you.” He runs his hand through his hair. “It was a horrible thing, Maddie. But it also made me realize how I feel about you, after that stupidity with Kate. Those extremesâthey're part of why I love what I do. I guess it's my version of a spiritual experience.”
I roll my eyes, borrowing his bad habit. He sighs.
“Look, honey, there's a lot of guys who would be happy working a nine-to-five, or whose church is inside four walls rather than halfway up a cliff. But you didn't marry one of those guys. You married me.”
“I know that,” I say in a small voice.
“Are you sorry?” he says, turning his face to me. His cheeks are streaked with tears. He looks miserable, which is so uncharacteristic that it makes me start crying again.
“What kind of question is that?” I say, blinking my eyes so I can see him clearly.
“A real one,” he says. “Answer it, please.”
“No,” I say without hesitation. “Of course I'm not. I love you for who you are. There's no one else I'd want to be with.”
Relief flashes across his face. He stretches his arms up to the ceiling, brings one down around my shoulders. “Okay, then,” he says, like everything is settled.
“But Aidan, what if something like that happens again and you're not so lucky?”
His arm is still around my shoulders, and I can feel the tension seep back into it. He drums his fingers on the back of the couch. “If it does, then it does. That's why we get emergency training, so that we'll know how to handle tough situations. Skill and experience count for a lot up there. And I just happen to have a considerable amount of both. As do Roma and J. C. and Jesse.” He wiggles his eyebrows at me, runs his free hand along my thigh.
I know he's trying to make light of this, to make me smile, but it doesn't work this time. “You can't control the weather,” I say. “You can't tell the mountain what to do.”
Aidan gives up on being charming and folds his arms over his chest. “Jesus, Maddie. Let it go, would you please? I'm getting on a plane tomorrow morning. I don't want to leave like this.”
“So don't leave,” I say.
“You know I have to,” he says. “Don't make it worse.”
I shake my head, and he takes my face between his hands and holds me still. “Have faith. You remember when I told you that, the first time?”
“I remember everything,” I say, and it has the flavor of prophecy, like soon memories will be all I have.
“Have I ever let you down?”
“No, Aidan, butâ”
“And I won't. Why can't you believe me?” He strokes my hair. His blue eyes are wet, the lashes matted. “Listen,” he says. “I swear I'll come back to you, all right? I promise I will come home.”
I know this is supposed to make me feel better, but it has the opposite effect, like he's shaking a fist in the face of fate. “You can't make a promise like that, Aidan,” I say, my voice uneasy. What I really want to say is,
Take it back.
He holds his fingers to my lips, shushing me. “Don't worry, Maddie, okay? Don't worry, honey. Don't worry.” His mouth takes the place of his fingers, and he kisses me like he is pouring out everything he wants to say, like he is trying to leave part of himself here with me. “I love you,” he says. He says it again and again. “You're my life,” he says, kissing my neck, my breasts, my face. “You and Gabe are all I've got. I can't lose you. Do you hear me?”
“Tell me it's going to be all right, then.”
“No,” I say. “I can't tell you that.”
He gives a long, frustrated sigh. “Then tell me you love me, at least. Say it now so I can hear.”
“I love you,” I tell him. “I love you more than you know.”
He grins at me through his tears. I can see it in the light that filters in from the street, from the headlights of passing cars. “Not as much as I love you.” It is an old joke between us. “But I can deal with that.”
“No,” he says. “I'm not.” And then he kisses me again, and he is making love to me there on the couch in the dark, both of us still crying. There is a desperate edge to the way we come together, each of us afraid that we are going to lose the otherâhim to the mountain, me to whatever mysterious forces drive couples apart. Remember this, I tell myself as he arches over me, as I rise to meet him. Remember.