Empty Mile

CHAPTER 1

Eight years. And now I was back. Back on my street. Back in my town. The house was still two hundred yards away, but I pulled over and killed the engine. From London to San Francisco, from San Francisco to this basin-shaped valley in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the anxiety of my return had grown like some ravening tumor until now, with so little left between me and my past, I could no longer stand the tightening cage of the pickup’s cabin.

I got out and started walking. Fast along the sidewalk. Past houses I had seen a thousand times before. But it wasn’t enough. This last distance, this final minute between me and my homecoming was a pain that threatened to blow apart my soul. So I ran. I ran with my arms pumping and my head thrown back. If I had had the breath I would have screamed.

Finally, in front of the house. Finally. Panting, pushing through the low gate, running the short path to the front door, and the front door opening, opening as I approached, swinging back into the house and Stan standing there, shaking his hands and running on the spot in his excitement. My brother Stan, eight years older and bigger, but still everything I remembered.

“Johnny!”

My name leaping from him like it was alive.

“Johnny!”

In that one word, in that snapshot frame of him shaking and running in the doorway, there was everything I needed to tell me that what I had done in leaving Oakridge was irredeemably, indisputably, wrong.

He danced backwards in front of me all the way along the hall, lunging in to hug me over and over, hanging on so tight we almost fell, yelling questions a million miles an hour, faster and faster, gulping for breath until the things he wanted to say outstripped his mouth and all he could manage was “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny …” clapping his hands and smiling so hard I thought his lips would tear.

And then he stepped close and held me, hung on with his arms and pressed his forehead against the side of my neck … and in doing so tore open the memory by which I was most haunted—Stan in my room on the night I left Oakridge all those years ago, his face pressed against my chest as I hugged him goodbye, the silence drawing out around us, around my awful inability to make my leaving even slightly less catastrophic an event for him, hating the pain I was causing and hating myself because of it.

And the sound that had echoed through all my days afterwards, the only sound he had made against me—a single dreadful sob, bitten down on as soon as it was out. And as we stepped back from each other, seeing that he had forced himself not to cry so that I might not feel any worse than I already did. So that I could go and do what I had to do without the weight of his unhappiness holding me back.

Now, Stan pulled away and he was smiling.

“Hey, I want to see who’s tallest.”

We stood back-to-back and he ran the flat of his hand across his head to feel where it hit mine. He was much taller than he had been and his body, which had begun to soften in the years after his accident, had grown bulky and curved. I wanted him to be small again, to be the boy I towered over and my arms fit around, but he outweighed me now by forty pounds.

“You’re still bigger than me, Johnny, but I’m almost