How long does it take to drive to Alaska from North Carolina? About 72 hours, but that’s only if you drive non-stop. Taking on a road trip of that magnitude probably wouldn’t occur to most people. But to me and my brother, it seemed like the perfect way to celebrate our high school graduation.
That was ten years ago. I’m 28 now. I have a life, a business, responsibilities. And yet I once again find myself making this monster of a journey, driving the full 4,343 miles in Will’s beloved Ford Ranger. And this time, I’m completely alone.
Well, not completely alone.
“I cannae believe ye roped me into this. Again,” I growl at the wooden box in my passenger seat. Because that’s all my brother is now. Dust and ashes in a box.
The truck rattles down the highway as I cross the state line into Wisconsin. I’ve been on the road for about two days now. I’m making decent time, but I’m not in any particular hurry.
Miles roll by and it’s just me on that empty road, the sky overhead covered in thick white clouds. The mark of winter is all around me, from the snow that blankets the ground to the bare branches of the trees.
For the hundredth time in the last hour, I think of Claire. I want her with me so badly. I don’t feel strong enough to do this alone. And yet I also don’t feel strong enough to be the man she deserves. I’m not sure I’ll ever be that man again.
I would give anything to speak to her now. To tell her I’m sorry. But I can’t. It seemed like a good idea, in the beginning, to leave my cell phone behind. I thought it would give me a chance to really think. To heal. Now, it seems like the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.
The memory of the last time we spoke plays through my mind on a loop, tormenting me.
“ What do you mean you’re leaving? Where are you going?”
I don’t look up at her as I continue to stuff clothes into my suitcase. “I just… I need to get away for a little while.”
From the corner of my eye I can see her standing just inside our bedroom. Her hair is down, falling loose over her shoulders and she’s still wearing her scrubs from work.
Her hand falls on my shoulder and I have to fight the urge to flinch away from her touch. “Let me come with you.”
“No, Claire,” I say, zipping my suitcase with finality. “I need tae do this alone.”
Dragging the suitcase behind me, I leave the bedroom with Claire hot on my heels.
“You’ve been doing this alone! It’s been two months and you still won’t talk to me. You won’t talk to anyone.”
I stop a few feet from the front door, frozen in place by the sadness in her voice. I would give anything to make her laugh like I used to. But I don’t know how to do that anymore.
With gentle hands, she turns me to face her. I look down into those golden brown eyes, the pools of amber that were once my sanctuary. A sanctuary I deny myself now. I’ve cut myself off from it, torn the map into pieces so I can never find it again. God, how I want to feel her warmth again. But I can’t. I just keep forcing myself into colder and colder weather and I dinna ken how to stop.
“You have so many people that love you Jamie.” Her hands cups my face. “Your parents. Jenny and Ian. Me. We just want you to be okay.”
I jerk away from her touch, feeling raw and too close to cracking. “I’m fine.”
“What do ye want from me Claire? Huh?” I bite out, lashing out angrily like I always do whenever she gets too close to breaking me open. “Do ye want me to make some big dramatic scene? Ye want me to weep in yer arms like a wee bairn?”
Her eyes go damp with tears and I want to fall at her feet and beg her not to cry for me anymore. At the same time, I’m lightened by the knowledge that she still can. That’s how my mind works these days. A bunch of thoughts and wants and needs and memories and wishes that wage war against one another within the thick walls of my skull.
Those tears stream slowly down her face. “All I want is for you to be happy again.”
“I am,” I say through gritted teeth. It’s a lie. I dinna even remember what being happy feels like.
“No, you’re not. You’re sad.” Her breath hitches and I have to look away. “You’re so, so sad Jamie and it’s breaking my heart.”
“Why are you doing this?” I roar, the fury of my grief and frustration suddenly too much to take. “Why can’t ye just let me be?”
“Because I love you!” she yells back, undaunted.
I love you. Three words that I’ve said to her a million times at least. Saying them used to be as easy as breathing. But that was a different time. Back when love was a good thing. Now I know better.
Love is a monster. Love is grief. And grief… grief is endless.
“Maybe ye should stop,” I say, softly.
It’s the first time I’ve heard her voice in four days. I blow out a long breath and close my eyes, trying to imagine what she’s doing right now. I picture her in our home, sitting at the kitchen table I built for her. She’s wearing one of my t-shirts and thick fluffy socks to keep her feet warm.
I should be there, sitting beside her, complaining about one of my employees at the brewery while she pretends to listen.
Instead, I’m at a payphone on the side of the road.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Words are hard to find, but eventually I manage. “Hi.”
At first, I’m met with only silence.
“Jamie?” she says, sounding breathless. “Is that you?”
“Aye. It’s me.”
She hesitates, but I can hear all the words she isn’t saying. She wants to bombard me with questions about my welfare and to chew me out for leaving the way I did. But she won’t, because she knows I’m hurting.
“Where are you?” she finally asks.
“North Dakota? As in Mount Rushmore? That Dakota?”
I can’t help but smirk. “I’m pretty sure that’s South Dakota but aye, ye’re in the ballpark.”
Again, she hesitates. I know she wants to demand that I come home. Or beg me to let her come here.
Instead, she asks, “What’s it like there?”
She lets out a long sigh. “Are you okay?”
No. I’m not okay. I’m sorry. “I’m trying to be.”
I search my heart for something more to say, but come up empty. I want to tell her I’m sorry. That I want to let her in. That I love her and I need her.
I want to beg her not to give up on me.
Nervous and unsure, I twirl my finger up in the phone’s cord.
“Will ye wait for me, Claire?” I ask, at last.
This time, she doesn’t hesitate at all.
I make it to Anchorage after about a week. Last time, Will and I made the whole journey by car. But that was in the middle of the summer when such a thing is possible. Now, though, it’s winter and the only way to get to Bethel is by plane.
It’s a short ride on a tiny little Cessna that looks more like a toy than anything else. We touch down just before sunset and when I see the Kuskokwim Mountains in the distance, grief hits me like an avalanche.
“You alright, man?” The pilot asks as he hands me my suitcase. Will’s box is tucked safely in my backpack.
I shrug. “I’m getting there.”
Fun fact about Bethel, Alaska: no one here has cars, so everyone takes cabs. That’s how I get from the small airport to the cabin I’m renting. The same cabin Will and I stayed in a decade ago.
Of course the cheeky bastard had to put it in his will that this was the final resting place he wanted. And of course, he had to specify that I had to be the one to bring him here.
After starting a fire in the wood stove, I go to the kitchen and remove the box from my backpack.
“Ye’re a dick. Ye know that?” I tell the box, setting it on the table. “Why would ye make me do this without ye?”
It doesn’t answer, obviously, but I hardly notice. Standing in this kitchen, it’s as though my brother is alive again. Speaking to me. The two weeks we spent here all those years ago suddenly feel like they happened yesterday.
The cabin feels to small and I need to get out. Thankfully, the one bar in town is only a ten minute walk down the street.
“Whiskey. Neat,” I say to the bartender as I settle onto one of the stools.
He looks at me, taking in my haggard appearance. “Rough day?”
With a snort, I shake my head. “Ye have no idea.”
When he slides two glasses over to me, I look up at him in question.
“Second one’s on me,” he says with a smirk.
The place is empty except for the two of us. The bartender leans up against the counter as he dries a newly washed glass, watching me curiously.
“What brings you to Alaska?”
“The white sandy beaches.”
He tilts his head, squinting at me. “Hey, wait. I know you. You’ve been here before.”
Shifting in my seat, I clear my throat. “That was a long time ago.”
“Maybe so, but I remember you. You were here with a brother weren’t you?” He looks around me. “Is he with you?”
“Nae.” I swallow. “He’s dead, actually.”
Dead. Overdosed. Lost to an addiction I had no idea he was fighting.
The bartender stops what he’s doing and looks up at me with sad, knowing eyes. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
On the walk back to my cabin, I pass by a dock on the lake. It’s the same dock Will and I sat on, skipping rocks on the water and talking about the future.
I keep waiting for it to get easier. I keep waiting for this weight on my shoulders to get lighter. But it’s just getting heavier. Day after day it gets heavier and heavier and I’m not sure how much longer I can carry it on my own.
Snow starts to fall as I stand there alone on the dock searching for answers.
“You look like shite.”
The sound of that voice sends chills down my spine. When I look up, it’s my brother standing at the end of the dock, smirking at me and looking smug as ever.
I know that this is all in my head. I know my brother isn’t really here, talking to me. But I don’t care.
“Aye, well. Whose fault is that?”
He rolls his eyes. “Ye always were a drama queen.”
“Why didn’t ye tell me, Willie?” I ask, emotion clogging my voice. “I could’ve saved ye.”
“I dinna ken. Maybe I didna want to be saved.”
“Oh, fuck that!” I roar, my voice echoing across the lake. “What about me, Will? What about Mam and Da? Jenny and her bairns? What about the people that loved you?”
“What about the people who love you?” he retorts. “What about Claire, Jamie?”
“This isna about me!”
“The hell it isn’t! Ye’re standing on frozen lake in the middle of nowhere yellin’ at a fuckin’ ghost! Meanwhile, a living, breathing woman who loves ye more than life itself is sitting at home without ye.”
I step back as the words hit me like a physical blow.
“You need to let her in, Jamie,” he says, softly.
“I dinna ken if I can.”
“Because I’m angry! Okay? I’m so goddamn angry. At you, at me. At God,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “And I’m sad. I’m so sad and sometimes I feel like I’m never gonna be anything else.”
“The man Claire fell in love with was strong! He was her rock. He was whole.” I let my head fall forward. “I’m broken now. I dinna ken how to be the man she deserves.”
“You’re still the man she fell in love with, Jamie. You’re just hurting right now.” He puts a hand on my shoulder and I swear, I can almost feel it. “Let her love you through it.”
On the walk back to the cabin, I make a new plan. In the morning, I’ll take Will’s ashes into the mountains and scatter them like he asked. Then it’s straight to the nearest phone to call Claire and tell her I’m coming home. I’ll take the next flight to Anchorage and then from there, I’ll catch a flight back to the east coast.
It’ll cost me a small fortune to have Will’s truck shipped back, but I don’t care. I need to get home. I need Claire.
When I get to the cabin I let myself in, nearly jumping out of my skin when I see someone waiting for me in the den.
“Claire?” I ask, dumbfounded and frozen in place. “What the—”
“Don’t be mad,” she says, wringing her hands. “I was going crazy worrying about you and I had to figure out where you were. Just so I could make sure you were okay. And when I talked to Jenny, she mentioned that Will wanted you to bring his ashes here and I couldn’t stand the thought of you doing that alone.”
Slowly, I start to walk towards her, so in awe of her I can’t speak.
“You paid for the reservation with our joint account so it wasn’t hard to find you. I know you wanted to be alone, and I tried to respect that but I love you so much and I couldn’t—”
When I finally reach her, I sweep her off her feet and swallow her words with a kiss.
“I love ye,” I whisper against her lips. “God, I love ye so much.”
When I finally pull back, she has tears in her eyes. “You’re not mad?”
“No.” I rest my forehead against hers. “I’m no’ mad. I was always coming back to ye. I just had to find the way.”
I close my eyes. This is the hard part. The words feel like rocks in my throat, but I force them out anyway. “I need help, Sassenach.”
Her chest hitches and tears stream down her face as she holds me closer to her.
“I’ll help you,” she says, tears clogging her voice. “I’ll do anything. But you have to let me in.”
“I ken,” I whisper, my eyes searching hers. “I’m sorry, Claire.”
“You don’t have to—”
“Aye, I do.” With a deep breath, I take her face in my hands. “I’m ashamed of the way I spoke to ye when I left.”
Her eyes go soft with love and understanding. “You were hurting.”
“That’s no excuse.” I trace the curve of her cheek with my finger. “And for the record, I want ye to love me forever.”
She smiles through a watery laugh. “Good. I was already planning to.”
The next morning, I scatter my brothers ashes on the slopes of a mountain we once hiked together. I let the tears flow as I watch the dust swirl in the wind beneath the clear blue sky.
Closing my eyes, I let out a long breath. The sunlight streams across my face and I turn towards it, seeking it’s warmth.
Only it’s not sunlight. It’s Claire’s hand on my cheek. I open my eyes to find her looking up at me.
“What are you thinking?” she asks softly.
“I’m thinking… it’s time to go home.” I take her hand and squeeze gently. “Finally.”