Christine Grant is Scottish and has worked as a scientist in North America and Europe. She is currently based in the Highlands and juggles writing with looking after her kids, dog walking and other things. 'One-Way Ticket' will be her first short story publication. She is currently working on the final edit of a novel about a girl from a traditional Highland church whose beliefs are challenged when she moves to London.
Eric took a deep breath of hot, dry air, glad to be off the bus which had jolted him awake during the overnight journey through the desert. He stuffed his ticket into a bin at the bus stop. He wouldn’t need it again; he wasn’t going back.
The box in his rucksack pressed uncomfortably into his back as he headed in what he instinctively felt to be the right direction. His shoes scuffed up dust, tickling his dry throat. He hadn't gone far before a great, rugged gash in the landscape shocked him into stopping. The earth had been ripped open, exposing hidden colours, both delicate and brilliant. Nothing had prepared him for this first view of the Grand Canyon; the best of the photos and film shots were faint images in comparison.
He approached it, slowly, timidly, even reverently and sat down a decent distance from the edge, hugging his knees to his chest. People moved past him, chattering and posing for photos, but he hardly noticed. While he stared at the colours in the canyon wall, orange, red, yellow, brown, patterned like the surface of a shell, the earth seemed to pause in its ceaseless turning.
Eric had wanted to visit the Grand Canyon since he was a small boy when his great-aunt Ethel had brought back four laminated place mats showing the Grand Canyon from different points. Until now, he had concentrated on getting here, on fulfilling this one remaining desire, not on what lay beyond.
A light touch on his arm startled him. “You want to wear a hat,” an old lady said. “The sun’s powerful strong.”
His head was beginning to throb and he was surprised and moved that someone cared what happened to him. He didn’t want to risk collapsing before he had carried out what he intended to do. He pulled a cap from the side pocket of his rucksack and rubbed sun lotion into his freckled arms.
Fear of heights kept him well away from the ragged edge as he followed the path around the rim. He no longer appreciated the beauty as he scanned the landscape, because he was looking for the right spot. It had to be an overhanging ledge. He walked fast, hiking beyond the clusters of tourists near the park entrance, until he saw a thin spar of land thrusting itself out over the canyon like the prow of a ship.
He sat down to rest. His T-shirt was damp with sweat where it had rubbed against his rucksack. Everything he owned was on his back: snacks, toiletries, a few changes of clothes and a box of memories. Most of his wardrobe had gone to a charity shop and his few possessions of any value had been sold to raise money for this trip. Even his beloved computer had been sold second hand for a fraction of what it had cost new. Everything he owned was on his back.
Nobody in England knew or cared that he was in the United States. His father had left when he was small. Eric had a feeling that it might have had something to do with him being a difficult child. He remembered times when he was so swamped by anger and fear that he hit out at anyone or anything nearby.
His mother had been overwhelmed at being left alone with him. He remembered the confusion of turning to her and feeling a tense wall of resistance. It was hard to let her hug him. One time, he overheard her talking to Aunt Ethel, “I’m trying, God knows I’ve tried, but it’s so hard. It’s like he can’t connect with me.”
Eric tried to please his mother. He immersed himself in astronomy books and filled jotters with drawings and notes. On mothers’ day he gave her a star map which he had drawn himself. She thanked him, but afterwards he heard her on the phone to Aunt Ethel, “All these stars, hundreds of them, and lettering so small I can hardly read it. He worked so hard, but it scares me. Other kids don’t do this.”
Aunt Ethel died of a heart attack when he was twelve. He didn’t have a chance to say good-bye. He looked up heart disease in the library, and discussed it endlessly with his mother. “Do you think she got pain in her jaw and arm? Would the pain have been the worst she ever felt? Why didn’t she go to the doctor to get her cholesterol checked?”
Finally his mother yelled at him. “Eric, will you just shut up. She’s dead and nothing will bring her back.”
Two years later cancer spread through his mother’s body like rot. The Macmillan nurse visited, but Eric had to do the shopping and cooking and washing. To take his mind off what was happening, he spent more time on the computer, staying up late to work on programs. He couldn’t concentrate at school and failed his exams.
After his mother’s death, he tried unsuccessfully to get a computing job. He got plenty of interviews and could answer all the technical questions. However, the interviewers usually interrupted him before he had finished.
The same thing happened when he tried to get to know people. He talked in detail about the stars or weather patterns or the logic of computing systems and they found some excuse to walk away while he was still talking.
He reached into his bag for a water bottle out of his bag and his hand brushed against drank a box which was wedged between his clothes. He couldn’t resist taking it out for a quick look. Before opening it, he glanced around to make sure that no-one was watching.
The box contained a thick letter. Underneath were small parcels wrapped in pretty paper and tied with coloured ribbon. He had browsed gift shops looking for the prettiest presents he could afford. She deserved the best.
He met Bronwen when he posted an advert in the supermarket where he worked, offering to repair computers at a very reasonable price. She phoned to describe her computer troubles, her Irish voice wavering on the edge of laughter, “If I didn’t laugh, it would drive me to tears.”
When he came by that Saturday, her face was so bright and kind that he could hardly look at her. He focused on her small, silver earrings and then slid his eyes across to her face remembering that Aunt Ethel had told him to look at people when he talked to them. The smell of baking wafted through Bronwen’s sunny flat. After he had untangled the knots in her software, she gave him a cup of tea and a large slice of fruit loaf which she called brack.
Just before she left, she said, “I’m new to London. What are the best places to visit?”
“I don’t go out a lot,” Eric admitted. “The Science Museum’s well worth a visit. I could take you there. Today, perhaps.” He shuffled his feet and squeezed his hands together behind his back.
“Thanks, but I can’t. Now that the computer’s fixed, I’ll be skyping my folks in Ireland.” She said it nicely as if she really did regret not having time today.
She often dropped by the supermarket to pick up a few things on her way home from work. “How’s the computer?” he asked as he swiped her falafel salad.
“It’s working a treat.” Her face was fresh and pink and her long curly hair swung across her shoulders as she packed her bag.
The next time he saw her, she looked pale and tired. He asked her how she was twice before she answered.
“Sorry,” she said. “My dog died last night. He was old and we knew it was coming, but it still hurts.”
“What kind was it?”
“They’re clever dogs.” There was a long queue at the checkout. Eric wanted to do something to help her feel better but he didn’t know what to say. The next day he passed a shop with little porcelain figures of dogs in the window. He went in and bought a black and white collie and found a card with a cute picture of a dog on it. He wrote a note, “Your smile brightens my day. Sorry to see you sad about your doggie. I hope you feel better soon. Eric.”
The next time she bought food, he slipped the gift into her shopping bag.
A whole week went by without her dropping into the supermarket. He worried that she was still sad about the dog. Perhaps she didn’t feel like eating. He wrote another card. “You are a beautiful person. I miss you when I don’t see you just like you miss your doggie. Please look after yourself. Eric.”
He went to her house early to catch her on her way out to work. The sky was touched with the faintest touch of blue and the ground was glazed with frost. She emerged from her flat in a vivid turquoise scarf. He stepped towards her holding out his gift. She hunched her shoulders and increased her pace to walk past him, her heels clicking on the pavement.
She paused and turned slightly, giving him one precious look. “I appreciate your concern, but I can’t accept your gifts. Keep your money. You shouldn’t be buying things for me.”
She wouldn’t worry about him spending money on her if she knew his feelings. He thought of her when he scanned falafel salad through the checkout for another customer or when he sat down at his computer. Dogs reminded him of her, a turquoise folder, sunshine, flowers, a funny film on TV.
He wrote her cards and letters which he dropped them through her letter box with little gifts. He got up early to catch glimpses of her on her way to work. She walked fast, not looking to either side, and he wasn’t sure if she saw him stamping his feet with the cold beside the delivery van opposite her flat. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need to talk and he wouldn’t want to kiss or hold her any more than he would want to touch his guardian angel.
One day his boss handed him a plastic bag which had been dropped into the shop. Inside he found all his unopened gifts along with a printed note. “Stop watching me. Don’t send anything. This is your last chance before I go to the police.”
He left work making the excuse that he had a fever. At home and poured out his feelings on many sheets of notepaper. If she read this letter, she would finally understand. He bought a cute teddy bear which held a notice saying, ‘I’m sorry’. The next morning he hid behind a parked car and stepped into her path as she left her flat.
“Leave me alone.”
She tried to dodge past him, but he thrust the thick letter and the present towards her. “Just read this letter. That’s all I ask.”
She stood still, no longer trying to run away. Her hands shook and there were dark circles under her eyes, as if it was a long time since she had slept. “You’ve left me no choice. I’m going to the police to get a restraining order.”
He saw past his own neediness and was appalled. He had done this to her.
Losing his job to was nothing to the pain of knowing that he had hurt her. The image of her exhausted face stayed with him day and night. He couldn’t stop loving her, couldn’t live without seeing her, couldn’t stop himself from pouring out his heart to her on paper, but she couldn’t bear to see him. With awful clarity, he saw that there was only one solution.
The pastel-coloured parcels looked pale and silly under the deep blue desert sky. They didn’t seem to belong here beside the bright colours of the rocks. He fingered the thick letter in which he called her his angel and begged forgiveness for what he had done. He would leave it where the police would find it. They would send it on and she would finally realise that she had meant everything to him.
He was glad of his hat as he made his way back along the rim of the canyon. The sun was now high in the sky. A girl in sports clothes loped past him like a shy gazelle. He drank his last dribble of water. He had a few dollars left, enough to buy more water and a last present for her.
Postcards and native American goods made of wood and beads and feathers hung in rows outside the shop. The miniature leather moccasin he picked up smelt like something dead and rotting. He put it back and picked up a bottle of water from the fridge inside. Among the rows of souvenirs, he spotted a mouse mat with a view of the Grand Canyon at sunset. It seemed appropriate. His final present would remind her of the way they had first met.
He gazed through the window to the deep orange and ochre and red colours on the far side of the canyon. The garish photo was pitifully inadequate. Even if Bronwen wanted this gift, he could not share this moment with her.
The mouse mat reminded him of Aunt Ethel. She had taken the time to play with him and listen to him. Her large handbag always contained snap cards and packs of toffee. He decided to buy the gift for himself.
The lady behind the cash desk was talking on the phone. He placed the mouse mat on the desk and cleared his throat to get her attention. Even though she lowered her voice and took a step back he caught a bit of her conversation.
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. When can you fix it? Wednesday next week. How do you expect me to run this place without a computer?”
She glanced over her shoulder and Eric remembered Aunt Ethel’s voice, “Don’t crowd people out, Eric. Sometimes they need a bit of space.”
He took a few steps back and stood behind a rack of postcards until the lady at the desk put the phone down with a sigh.
He approached the cash desk. “I wasn’t listening on purpose, but I couldn’t help overhearing. I fix computers. It’s what I’m good at. I could maybe fix yours.”
Her face was surprisingly young-looking considering her white bobbed hair. “You’ve come here all the way from England, and you tell me that you have nothing better to do but fix my computer.”
“Right now I don’t,” Eric said. “It’s too hot to go outside.”
She laughed, even though he hadn’t meant it as a joke, and he spent the rest of the afternoon at a desk beside the counter, sipping coke and getting her computer back in order. In the anguish of the last few months, he had forgotten the pleasure of becoming totally absorbed in a problem. When he finished, she offered him a roll of notes.
“I don't need anything.” He held his hands up in protest.
“Get yourself a nice dinner.” Her eyes flickered over him. “You look like you need it. I’ve got a big delivery due in this week and I might need some help. Drop by in the morning and we'll talk.”
Eric left the shop with money in his pocket and the knowledge that someone expected him to have a tomorrow.
He ordered steak and chips in a restaurant with large, comfortable seats.
The waitress’s eyes were large and owl-like behind her big glasses. “You want steak and potato chips?”
“Yes, potato pieces dipped in oil and deep fried.”
“Do you mean French fries?”
Eric clapped his hand to his forehead. “I forgot it’s a different language here.” She laughed and he found himself laughing too.
He returned to the park after finishing his meal. He hiked past couples lingering hand in hand, enjoying the sunset until he reached the lip of land he had picked out earlier. The sinking sun turned the canyon into a bowl of pink and red and gold.. He sat down, took out his nail scissors and cut the letters he had written to Bronwen into tiny pieces. They filled the box like confetti.
After the brightest stars appeared, a faint glow remained in the sky, like the dying embers of a fire. The moon had not yet risen and the dark of the land and the darkness of the abyss were almost indistinguishable. Both pulled him. He was like an electronic signal approaching a logic gate, unsure whether the result would be TRUE or FALSE, ON or OFF, ONE or ZERO.
Clutching the box, he slithered forward on his stomach, feeling the dust with his free hand until he reached over the edge, grasping air. He took a deep breath and pushed. He held his breath, waiting between darkness and silence. A faint sound rang out. It could have been the box hitting the bottom of the gorge, or the clatter of a night animal.
He breathed out. Relief tingled through his limbs. He had got through the gate and the answer was LIFE, TRUE, ON, ONE.
He turned carefully around and groped his way back, heart beating hard, until he felt a slight incline and the leathery leaves of a plant. Curling up, he fell into a sleep so deep it was almost unconsciousness. When he awoke, the first light showed him that he lay only a few feet away from the edge. He carefully shuffled back, sick at the thought that he could have slipped off in his sleep, and never lived through this moment. From a safe spot, he watched the canyon reflect rose-pink shades and smoky greys back to the pale dawn sky.
His rucksack felt much lighter as he walked back to the town.