We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says.
Listen to me, Son:
You are not going to bleed to death.
Ryan is still aware enough that his father’s words come in through the edges, like sunlight on the borders of a window shade. His eyes are shut tight and his body is shaking and he is trying to hold up his left arm, to keep it elevated. We are on our way to the hospital, his father says, and Ryan’s teeth are chattering, he clenches and unclenches them, and a series of wavering colored lights—greens, indigos—plays along the surface of his closed eyelids.
On the seat beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.
The hand weighs less than a pound. The nails are trimmed and there are calluses on the tips of the fingers from guitar playing. The skin is now bluish in color.
This is about three a.m. on a Thursday morning in May in rural Michigan. Ryan doesn’t have any idea how far away the hospital might be but he repeats with his father we are on the way to the hospital we are on the way to the hospital
and he wants to believe so badly that it’s true, that it’s not just one of those things that you tell people to keep them calm. But he’s not sure. Gazing out all he can see is the night trees leaning over the road, the car pursuing its pool of headlight, and darkness, no towns, no buildings ahead, darkness, road, moon.
A few days after Lucy graduated from high school, she and
George Orson left town in the middle of the night. They were not
fugitives–not exactly–but it was true that no one knew that they
were leaving, and it was also true that no one would know where
they had gone.
They had agreed that a degree of discretion, a degree of secrecy,
was necessary. Just until they got things figured out. George Orson
was not only her boyfriend, but also her former high school history
teacher, which had complicated things back in Pompey, Ohio.
This wasn’t actually as bad as it might sound. Lucy was eighteen,
almost nineteen–a legal adult–and her parents were dead, and
she had no real friends to speak of. She had been living in their parents’
house with her older sister, Patricia, but the two of them had
never been close. Also, she had various aunts and uncles and
cousins she hardly talked to. As for George Orson, he had no connections
at all that she knew of.
And so: why not? They would make a clean break. A new life.
Still, she might have preferred to run away together to somewhere
They arrived in Nebraska after a few days of driving, and she was
sleeping, so she didn’t notice when they got off the interstate.
When she opened her eyes, they were driving along a length of
empty highway, and George Orson’s hand was resting demurely on
her thigh: a sweet habit he had, resting his palm on her leg. She
could see herself in the side mirror, her hair rippling, her sunglasses
reflecting the motionless stretches of lichen- green prairie
grass. She sat up.
“Where are we?” she said, and George Orson looked over at her.
His eyes distant and melancholy. It made her think of being a child,
a child in that old small- town family car, her father’s thick, calloused
plumber’s hands gripping the wheel and her mother in the
passenger seat with a cigarette even though she was a nurse, the
window open a crack for the smoke to trail out of, and her sister
asleep in the backseat mouth- breathing behind their father, and
Lucy also in the backseat, opening her eyes a crack, the shadows of
trees running across her face, and thinking: Where are we?
She sat up straighter, shaking this memory away.
“Almost there,” George Orson murmured, as if he were remembering
a sad thing.
And when she opened her eyes again, there was the motel. They
had parked in front of it: a tower rising up in silhouette over them.
It had taken Lucy a moment to realize that the place was supposed
to be a lighthouse. Or rather–the front of the place, the
façade, was in the shape of a lighthouse. It was a large tube- shaped
structure made of cement blocks, perhaps sixty feet high, wide at
the base and narrowing as it went upward, and painted in red and
white barber- pole stripes.
THE LIGHTHOUSE MOTEL, said a large unlit neon sign–fancy
nautical lettering, as if made of knotted ropes–and Lucy sat there
in the car, in George Orson’s Maserati, gaping.
To the right of this lighthouse structure was an L- shaped courtyard
of perhaps fifteen motel units; and to the left of it, at the very
crest of the hill, was the old house, the house where George
Orson’s parents once lived. Not exactly a mansion but formidable
out here on the open prairie, a big old Victorian two- story home
with all the trappings of a haunted house: a turret and wraparound
porch, dormers and corbeled chimneys, a gable roof and scalloped
shingles. No other houses in sight, barely any other sign of civilization,
barely anything but the enormous Nebraska sky bending over
For a moment Lucy had the notion that this was a joke, a corny
roadside attraction or amusement park. They had pulled up in the
summer twilight, and there was the forlorn lighthouse tower of the
motel with the old house silhouetted behind it, ridiculously creepy.
Lucy thought that there may as well have been a full moon and a
hoot owl in a bare tree, and George Orson let out a breath.
“So here we are,” George Orson said. He must have known how
it would look to her.
“This is it?” Lucy said, and she couldn’t keep the incredulousness
out of her voice. “Wait,” she said. “George? This is where we’re
going to live?”
“For the time being,” George Orson said. He glanced at her ruefully,
as if she disappointed him a little. “Only for the time being,
honey,” he said, and she noticed that there were some tumbleweeds
stuck in the dead hedges on one side of the motel courtyard. Tumbleweeds!
She had never seen such a thing before, except in movies
about ghost towns of the Old West, and it was hard not to be a little
“How long has it been closed?” she said. “I hope it’s not full of
“No, no,” George Orson said. “There’s a cleaning woman com-
ing out fairly regularly, so I’m sure it’s not too bad. It’s not abandoned
She could feel his eyes following her as she got out and walked
around the front of the car and up toward the red door of the
Lighthouse. Above the door it said: office. And there was another
unlit tube of neon, which said: NO VACANCY.
It had once been a fairly popular motel. That’s what George
Orson had told her as they were driving through Indiana or Iowa or
one of those states. It wasn’t exactly a resort,
he’d said, but a pretty
fancy place–“Back when there was a lake,” he’d said, and she
hadn’t quite understood what he meant.
She’d said: “It sounds romantic.” This was before she’d seen it.
She’d had an image of one of those seaside sort of places that you
read about in novels, where shy British people went and fell in love
and had epiphanies.
“No, no,” George Orson said. “Not exactly.” He had been trying
to warn her. “I wouldn’t call it romantic. Not at this point,” he said.
He explained that the lake–it was a reservoir, actually–had started
to dry up because of the drought, all the greedy farmers, he said,
they just keep watering and watering their government- subsidized
crops, and before anyone knew it, the lake was a tenth of what it
had once been. “Then all of the tourist stuff began to dry up as well,
naturally,” George Orson said. “It’s hard to do any fishing or waterskiing
or swimming on a dry lake bed.”
He had explained it well enough, but it wasn’t until she looked
down from the top of the hill that she understood.
He was serious. There wasn’t a lake anymore. There was nothing
but a bare valley–a crater that had once held water. A path led
down to the “beach,” and there was a wooden dock extending out
into an expanse of sand and high yellow prairie grass, various
scrubby plants that she imagined would eventually turn into tumbleweeds.
The remains of an old buoy lay on its side in the windblown
dirt. She could see what had once been the other side of the
lake, the opposite shore rising up about five miles or so away across
the empty basin.
Lucy turned back to watch as George Orson opened the trunk of
the car and extracted the largest of their suitcases.
“Lucy?” he said, trying to make his voice cheerful and solicitous.
She watched as he walked past the tower of the Lighthouse office
and up the cement stairs that led to the old house.
By the time the first rush of recklessness had begun to burn off,
Miles was already nearing the arctic circle. He had been driving
across Canada for days and days by that point, sleeping for a while
in the car and then waking to go on again, heading northward
along what highways he could find, a cluster of maps origamied on
the passenger seat beside him. The names of the places he passed
had become more and more fantastical–Destruction Bay, the
Great Slave Lake, Ddhaw Ghro, Tombstone Mountain–and when
he came at last upon Tsiigehtchic, he sat in his idling car in front of
the town’s welcome sign, staring at the scramble of letters as if his
eyesight might be faulty, some form of sleep- deprivation dyslexia.
But no. According to one of the map books he’d bought, “Tsiigeht -
chic” was a Gwich’in word that meant “mouth of the river of iron.”
According to the book, he had now reached the confluence of the
Mackenzie and the Arctic Red rivers.
WELCOME TO TSIIGEHTCHIC!Located on the site of a traditional Gwich’in fishing camp. In 1868
the Oblate Fathers started a mission here. By 1902 a trading post was
located here. R.C.M.P. Constable Edgar “Spike” Millen, stationed at
Tsiigehtchic was killed by the mad trapper Albert Johnson in the shootout of January 30, 1932 in the Rat River area.
The Gwich’in retain close ties to the land today. You can see net fishing year round as well as the traditional method of making dryfish and dry meat. In the winter, trappers are busy in the bush seeking
valuable fur animals.
ENJOY YOUR VISIT TO OUR COMMUNITY!
He mouthed the letters, and his chapped lips kept adhering to
each other. “ T- s- i- i- g- e- h- t- c- h- i- c,”
he said, under his breath, and just then a cold thought began to unfold in the back of his mind.What am I doing?
he thought. Why am I doing this?
The drive had begun to feel more and more like a hallucination
by that point. Somewhere on the way, the sun had begun to stop rising
and setting; it appeared to move slightly to and fro across the
sky, but he couldn’t be sure. Along this part of the Dempster Highway,
a silvery white powder was scattered on the dirt road. Calcium?
The powder seemed to glow–but then again, in this queer sunlight,
so did everything: the grass and the sky and even the dirt had
a fluorescent quality, as if lit from within.
He was sitting there by the side of the road, his book open in
front of him on the steering wheel, a pile of clothes in the backseat,
and the boxes of papers and notebooks and journals and letters he
had collected over the years. He was wearing sunglasses, shivering a
little, his patchy facial hair a worn yellow- brown, the color of a coffee
stain. The CD player in his car was broken, and the radio played
only a murky blend of static and distant garbled voices. There was
no cell phone reception, of course. An air freshener in the shape of
a Christmas tree was hanging from the rearview mirror, spinning in
the breath of the defroster.
Up ahead, not too far now, was the town of Inuvik, and the wide
delta that led to the Arctic Ocean, and also–he hoped–his twin
The man said, “Above the wrist? Or below the wrist?”
The man had a sleepy, almost affectless voice, the voice you
might hear if you called a hotline for computer technical support.
He looked at Ryan’s father blandly.
“Ryan, I want you to tell your father to be reasonable,” the man
said, but Ryan didn’t really say anything because he was crying
silently. He and his father were bound to chairs at the kitchen table,
and Ryan’s father was shuddering, and his long dark hair fell in a
tent around his face. But when he looked up, he had a troublingly
stubborn look in his eyes.
The man sighed. He carefully pushed the sleeve of Ryan’s shirt
up above his elbow and placed his finger on the small rounded
bone at the edge of Ryan’s wrist. It was called the “ulnar styloid,”
Ryan remembered. Some biology class he had taken, once. He
didn’t know why that term came to him so easily.Above the wrist . . .
the man said to Ryan’s father . . . or below the
Ryan was trying to reach a disconnected state–a Zen
thought–though the truth was that the more he tried to lift his
mind out of his body, the more aware he was of the corporeal. He
could feel himself trembling. He could feel the salt water trickling
out of his nose and eyes, drying on his face. He could feel the duct
tape that held him to the kitchen chair, the strips across his bare
forearms, his chest, his calves and ankles.
He closed his eyes and tried to imagine his spirit lifting toward
the ceiling. He would drift out of the kitchen, where he and his father
were pinned to the hard- backed chairs, past the cluttered construction
of dirty dishes piled on the counter by the sink, the toaster
with a bagel still peeping up out of it; he would waft through the
archway and into the living room, where a couple of black- T- shirted
henchmen were carrying computer parts out of the bedrooms,
dragging matted tails of electrical cording and cables along behind
them. His spirit would follow them out the front door, past the
white van they were tossing stuff into, and on down his father’s
driveway, traveling the rural Michigan highway, the moonlight flickering
through the branches of trees as his spirit gained velocity, the
luminous road signs emerging out of the darkness as he swept up
like an airplane and the patterns of house lights and roads and
streams that speckled and crisscrossed the earth growing smaller.Wooooooooooooooooooo–
like a balloon with the air let out of it, a
siren, a wailing wind. Like a person screaming.
He squeezed his eyes, tightened his teeth against one another as his
left hand was grasped and tilted. He was trying to think of something
Music? A landscape, a sunset? A beautiful girl’s face?
“Dad,” he could hear himself saying, through chattering teeth.
“Dad, please be reasonable, please, please be–”
He would not think about the cutting device the man had shown
them. It was just a length of wire, a very thin razor wire, with a rubber
handle attached to each end of it.
He wouldn’t think about the way his father wouldn’t meet his
He wouldn’t think about his hand, the wire looped once around
his wrist, his hand garroted, the sharp wire tightening. Slicing
smoothly through skin and muscle. There would be a hitch, a snag,
when it reached the bone, but it would cut through that, too.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Copyright © 2009 by Dan Chaon. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.