Authors: Clinton McKinzie
“Having fun?” I asked when she pulled up next to me on the top of the cliff.
She grinned widely. “Oh yeah. Not as good as dropping in on a double-overhead at the Pipe, but yeah, I’m having fun.”
My brother called the thrill “feeding the Rat.” I thought I could see a hungry little Rat stirring in her rib cage.
I’d taken off my shirt in the afternoon heat, and now she did a double-take when looking at me. She examined the wounds from my summer-long battle with Moriah.
“Jesus. What the hell happened to you?”
“This is what a serious climbing addiction will do to you.”
She stripped off her cycling jersey, which was wet with sweat, to reveal a black athletic bra. She pointed to small white stripes that scarred her back on one side from shoulder to hip.
“Coral,” she told me. “I got slammed into it during a contest on the North Shore. Surfing’s not exactly for sissies, you know.”
I tried not to stare too much. Her skin was tan and smooth. Her upper back was covered with small freckles, just like her nose and cheekbones beneath her yellow glasses.
“I can see that,” I said.
For the next two hours we barely spoke at all, and said nothing about Jonah’s case. I barely thought about it. Through her, I began reliving my own joy in climbing, remembering good days with Roberto and our father when he introduced us to the sport, seeing it all as new and thrilling again. I’d been so grimly focused on Moriah, and the real Moriah, and also my career problems, that I’d forgotten how it was to feel all that air beneath your heels, to feel a hot wind rising up from beneath you, to feel unrestrained by the laws of gravity.
I didn’t notice until late in the afternoon, as we climbed our way back toward my camp on higher and steeper walls, that it was getting cooler and that the storm clouds building around the peaks were starting to swing our way.
“We’d better call it a day,” I told her.
“One more,” she answered. “I want to see that secret project you promised to show me.”
he weather looked bad. There were thunderstorms almost every afternoon at this time of year, but usually they just danced around on the horizon, swinging close but never quite striking my little canyon. Chances were that they’d just put on a show for us, crackling and flashing in the mountains to the west. Threatening like a junkyard dog behind a fence but never doing any damage. But if the storm did come, at least the lower part of the rock was protected from rain by the enormous overhang above.
I led her to the base of the one-hundred-foot hand-size crack that was the only way to get to the cave beneath the roof. Rated 5.9 or so, the crack would be harder than anything else we’d done that afternoon. But she was a natural; I was confident she could make it, even if I had to give her a little tension. Roberto had done it just the day before without the use of his legs.
“This is going to be pure jamming,” I advised. “There’s really no edges or holds. Just slot your hand into the crack, then twist and flex to expand those two fat muscles in your palms. That’s what will hold you.”
“Are you saying I’ve got fat hands?” she asked with a sparkle in her eyes.
Nope. Her hands were small and thin and nicked and bleeding, but there wasn’t anything fat about them. Or her. I just smiled instead of answering. All I said was “Belay me.” When she nodded, I headed up. The route had become so familiar that I could have climbed it with my eyes closed.
The cave under the roof was a small hole, even smaller than the inside of my truck. The extra ropes I’d cached in the back made a little nest where I would sometimes curl up and nap between attempts on Moriah. I checked the three pitons that I’d hammered into tiny cracks on one side for a bombproof anchor and clipped into them. The wind was rising; the cave exhaled a low moan. It was getting colder, but the cave was cold even on the hottest days—it was a place that had never seen the sun. It had soothed my burning flesh after a hundred tries on the horizontal crack that began from its roof.
I turned around to check the weather but couldn’t see anything but the canyon below and the opposite wall across the river. It seemed to be getting dark, though. If I’d worn a watch, I would have checked it. But it couldn’t be past five o’clock. At least I’d get in one shot on Moriah, with an actual dynamic belay for the first time. And I’d get to show off a little.
“Come on up,” I yelled.
I adjusted my clove-hitched leash to the anchor and sat at the edge where I could peer down between my knees and watch her progress. It was amazing how fast she came up. But just by looking at her it was easy to see she was a serious athlete, accustomed to the burn of lactic acid and all the other stifled discomforts of hard-core play.
Within ten minutes she was ignoring my outstretched hand and climbing over me and into the cave. Sweat-slick skin that glided over my thigh, chest, and shoulder. Her hot breath, too, was coming fast. She smelled of sun-bronzed flesh.
The charge I felt at that moment was so strong that it had to be from the friction of the storms swirling over the canyon—not the brief touch of a lawyer’s skin. Then she was past me and hunched and panting in the back of the cave.
“You’re something,” I told her as I tied her off. “There aren’t many people who could climb something like that on their first day out.”
She looked at me, smiled, and looked down at her raw hands. When she’d caught her breath, she asked, “So, this is your secret?”
“My secret project. Yeah.”
I reached up and patted one side of the flaring crack that bisected the roof over our heads. I pointed out how it ran straight out for forty feet, all the way to the very lip of the overhang. The two Number 5 Camalots I’d placed were visible, carabiners dangling, the farther one almost two-thirds of the way to the lip.
She frowned, studying the inverted crack. “How can you climb that? It’s upside-down. And it’s too wide to jam with your hand, or even a fist.”
“I’ll show you. Put me on belay.”
I closed my eyes and tried to focus. But it wasn’t easy. The wind was still picking up, and I was already chilled from fifteen minutes in the cave. I should have hauled up my shirt. It was getting darker, too. And that electricity I’d felt when Brandy had crawled over me was still giving me a buzz.
I took ten deep belly breaths, stood without speaking or even looking at her, and locked my palms and elbows into the crack. Supported by them, I twisted my knees and feet and hips up into it, too. Then I began inelegantly worming, humping, and panting my way out into space. This wasn’t showing off, I belatedly realized. This must appear totally bizarre. Like a contortionist’s trick.
And I was flubbing it, barely making the jams. I’d done it alone so often that being watched was disconcerting. Despite the public flaying I’d received that morning in court, I’d also somehow lost the anger, too. It was when angry that I climbed the hardest. For the first time that summer, I didn’t feel like I had a fire in my belly.
I was almost to the first cam when it happened—the loudest
I’d ever heard, combined with a brilliant flash of light. It was as if a grenade had gone off in my head. And the rock all around me rattled as if God had smacked his fist on the top of the overhang. The rock lurched and constricted all around me. Then it opened and furiously shook me out.
I was so stunned I didn’t even feel myself falling, or slamming into the cliff nearly thirty feet below. My weight tore Brandy out of the cave, but still she managed to hold the rope locked through her belay device.
When my head finally cleared and the thousand clanging bells in my mind stopped their din, I looked up and saw her hanging, too. A splash of rain hit me. Within seconds it became a torrent. It was raining
—the wind wrapping the water under the overhang.
Shakily, I got my hands and feet into the crack to take my weight off her.
“Can you get back in the cave?” I yelled.
It was raining so hard that it was difficult to see or hear. But the rope came taut around my waist, so I was forced to climb a little higher. She must be getting back in. The blurred vision of her kicking legs disappeared. I climbed up the remaining twenty-five feet fast despite how weak I felt. I didn’t feel strong enough to stand, much less climb, but I made it.
The cave was misty with blowing water, but at least the wind-blown firehose couldn’t reach all the way inside. The wind was howling across the entrance, though. Brandy was huddled all the way in the back, on the nest of spare ropes, gripping the rope through her belay device. She was still belaying me even though her hair was plastered all across her face except for where two huge eyes stared out.
I made myself give her a big grin.
“Just a little dust-up,” I shouted. “It should blow over in a few minutes.”
She surprised me by smiling back and yelling, “It’s like a freaking hurricane!”
Outside, it was so dark it was as if the entire cliff were under water. More
could be heard tearing up and down the canyon. I’d never seen a storm like this one. I knew several climbers who’d been struck by lightning, even one who’d died high on Longs Peak, but I’d never imagined this kind of intensity.
I was starting to shiver hard. I put my hand on Brandy’s ankle and felt her shivering, too. All of our clothes were a hundred feet below and undoubtedly soaking wet. And we couldn’t reach the tent or the car—there was no way I was going to rappel out of the relative safety of the cave.
“What about Mungo?” she asked.
Mungo had always been skittish in storms. But she was half wolf—a species that had been living outdoors in storms for tens of thousands of years. I hoped she wouldn’t lose her head. I hoped she hunkered down under the Pig instead of tearing her way into my expensive tent.
“She’ll be okay. Are you freezing, too?”
I thought I could hear her teeth chattering when she nodded and said, “Yeah.”
“You can take me off belay.”
She wiped the hair out of her face. Her grin, although a little nervous, still held.
I squeezed around behind her, seating myself against the cold back wall. I fit my legs and arms around her and pulled her back. She resisted for half a second then, slowly, leaned into me. I held her tightly. Her jumping skin began to heat my chest, stomach, and thighs. I closed my eyes and imagined steam rising from between us. I could smell the remnants of sunlight on her skin.
“How long will it last?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Probably not long. I hope.”
The wind blew more mist into the cave and we squeezed together even tighter. A blast of light and a
almost as close as the first, ripped through us and nearly stole my breath.
After its echo faded and I could breathe evenly again, she asked a question that came out of nowhere, just like the storm.
“At the bail hearing, how come you said Jonah wasn’t a flight risk?”
“I didn’t think he was. I was under oath.”
I was speaking through a mouthful of wet hair. It tasted as good as she smelled.
“Okay,” she said, then paused, as if wondering why someone like me would be constrained by an oath. She seemed to accept it finally, but a skeptical lawyer’s mind was at work.
“But you could have said ‘I don’t know.’ That would have been justifiable, wouldn’t it? There’s no way you could know.”
“But I thought I did. I was asked for my opinion. I gave it.”
and flash of brilliant light and the whole canyon shuddered. The wind moaned louder as it ran across the cliff’s face.
She’d pulled her knees up to her chest, and my arms wrapped around them, too. I couldn’t feel her shivering anymore. I didn’t think I was, either. The way I was wrapped around her, keeping her warm, was allowing her to warm me, too. My core felt so warm that I actually felt hot.
“How about another honest opinion?” she asked. “What do you think about this storm?”
I smiled and touched my mouth against the back of her neck.
“I kind of like it.”
She arched her head back, pressing my mouth harder against her neck. My lips parted of their own volition and my teeth and tongue touched her skin. Now I could taste the sun as well as smell it. The salty tang of the ocean, too. She was a surfer girl again, an outdoor athlete. Her actually being a lawyer seemed outlandish.
My hands rose up and came together around her wet face. My thumbs fit under her jaw and my fingertips touched those prominent, freckled cheekbones. My fingers then found her lips and traced them. Her features were just as delicate and wonderful to hold as I’d imagined the first time I saw her, when I’d wanted to shock the disdain out of her by kissing her on the mouth. But now I was the one getting shocked.
Maybe I turned her head back toward me, but I think she did it herself. A new crash of lightning blew through us—so close it felt like my hair was standing on end.
Just this morning this woman had me in a fury as potent as the storm when she’d ripped me apart on the witness stand. Now she was ripping me apart again. She twisted around within my tangle of arms and legs. I peeled off the wet bra while her fingers slipped under my harness and caressed the lower ridges of my stomach. Our lips and tongues barely touched, but moved continuously and seemed impossible to separate. Her breasts were perfect handfuls, the nipples hard as pebbles in my palms.
Somehow we got the harnesses off, oblivious to the risk of the cave’s downward-slanting floor. I slid down onto my back on the ropes and she rose up over me, nipples lightly cutting my chest when I moved my hands south to pull down her tight shorts. Her matted hair, smelling of that hidden sun and sea, fell over my face as she arched her back to help my hands.
Another bolt struck. It was so close and loud it must have hit the canyon’s rim directly above us. Her flesh was goosebumped with cold and electricity. I could actually see sparks dancing over her skin. When I touched her the sparks converged on my fingertips and drove into them with a sensation of tiny pinpricks.
“Wait . . . wait,” she breathed into my mouth.
Then, “Slow . . . okay . . . okay . . . okay.”
Roberto called at ten that night.
I’d taken Brandy back to her motel, dropping her off around at the rear like she asked. My muddy wolf-dog and I had just gotten back to the canyon and zipped inside the tent when the phone started chiming. A light rain was still falling, but the thunderstorm had moved on. I was exhausted and a little bewildered by all that had happened during the day. At first I thought the caller might be Rebecca. I almost didn’t answer. But the number on the flashing screen showed a local number.
“They’re letting you use the phone this late?” I asked my brother.
“I’m a cripple,
” he answered in Spanish, chuckling. “Plus they think I’m a bit deranged. They’re treating me real nice. Real careful.”
They were right on both counts.
“I only have a minute, so let me tell you what’s going on.”
They’d booked him in the previous night, just like he’d been booked dozens of times before. His portrait was snapped and his fingerprints taken to go along with the fake name and address he gave them. It would take a week at least for them to be posted to Cheyenne and Washington, processed, and matched up to the notorious Roberto Burns. He told me he’d added to the confusion by pretending to speak only a little English—a trick I hadn’t thought of, and one he could easily pull off. Roberto had always resembled our Indio mother more than our Celtic dad. He had darker skin than me, higher cheekbones, and a slightly hooked nose. Unless someone was comparing us side by side, there was no way to see a resemblance.
He’d arrived just before lights out and was assigned a bunk in the main room. The other prisoners pretty much ignored him, except for a few illegals working on local ranches, who’d been picked up on minor charges—bullshit charges, according to Roberto—and were only being held because they couldn’t raise even a hundred bucks for bail.