The aide wouldnt say anything over the phone. Just that Mark had flipped over on the shoulder of North Line Road and had lain pinned in his cab, almost frozen by the time the paramedics found and freed him. For a long time after hanging up, she couldnt feel her fingers until she found them pressed into her cheeks. Her face was numb, as if she had been the one lying out there, in the freezing February night.
Her hands, stiff and blue, clawed the wheel as she slipped through the reservations. First the Winnebago, then the rolling Omaha. The scrub trees along the patchy road bowed under tufts of snow. Winnebago Junction, the Pow Wow grounds, the tribal court and volunteer fire department, the station where she bought her tax-free gas, the hand-painted wooden shingle reading Native Arts Gift Shop, the high schoolHome of the Indianswhere shed volunteer-tutored until despair drove her off: the scene turned away from her, hostile. On the long, empty stretch east of Rosalie, a lone male her brothers age in a too-light coat and hatGo Big Redtracked through the roadside drift. He turned and snarled as she passed, repelling the intrusion.
The suture of the centerline drew her downward into the snowy black. It made no sense: Mark, a near-professional driver, rolling off an arrow-straight country road that was as familiar to him as breathing. Driving off the road, in central Nebraskalike falling off a wooden horse. She toyed with the date: 02/20/02. Did it mean anything? Her palms butted the wheel, and the car shook. Your brother has had an accident. In fact, hed long ago taken every wrong turn you could take in life, and from the wrong lane. Telephone calls coming in at awful hours, as far back as she could remember. But never one like this.
She used the radio to keep herself awake. She tuned in to a crackpot talk-radio show about the best way to protect your pets from water-borne terrorist poisonings. All the deranged, static voices in the dark seeped into her, whispering what she was: alone on a deserted road, half a mile from her own disaster.
What a loving child Mark had been, staffing his earthworm hospital, selling his toys to stave off the farm foreclosure, throwing his eight-year-old body between their parents that hideous night nineteen years ago when Cappy took a loop of power cord to Joan. That was how she pictured her brother, as she fell headlong into the dark. The root of all his accidents: too caring by half.
Outside Grand Island, two hundred miles down from Sioux, as the day broke and the sky went peach, she glimpsed the Platte. First light glinted off its muddy brown, calming her. Something caught her eye, bobbing pearl waves flecked with red. Even she thought highway hypnosis, at first. A carpet of four-foot birds spread as far as the distant tree line. Shed seen them every spring for more than thirty years, and still the dancing mass made her jerk the wheel, almost following her brother.
Hed waited until the birds returned to spin out. Hed been a mess already, back in October, when she drove this same route for their mothers wake. Camping out with his beef-packing friends in the ninth circle of Nintendo hell, starting in on the six-packs for liquid brunch, fully loaded by the time he headed in to work on the swing shift. Traditions to protect, Rabbit; family honor. She hadnt had the will then, to talk sense to him. He wouldnt have heard her, if she had. But hed made it through the winter, even pulled himself together a little. Only for this.
Kearney rose up: the scattered outskirts, the newly extruded superstore strip, the fast-food grease trough along Second, the old main drag. The whole town suddenly struck her as a glorified I-80 exit ramp. Familiarity filled her with a weird, inappropriate calm. Home.
Excerpted from The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. Copyright © 2006 by Richard Powers. Published in October 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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