We had been talking as we walked near the edge of a cliff, catching glimpses of the Columbia River muscling its way through rocky landscape below. It was hotter in the mountains than I’d expected, and there was a steady stripe of sweat from my neck to my waist, a rim of damp on my upper lip and forehead. Carissa seemed cool as can be, walking briskly, her white flats clicking on the asphalt. I couldn’t believe she had worn a dress, a pretty one at that, as though she was attending a garden party. Well, I could believe it. She’d be perfect at a table set for tea and scones. It was just her. I wondered if she had another set of clothing in her trunk for the hike.
I was anxious to get off the walkway and tackle the trail to the waterfalls. We had waited a more than reasonable, red-hot hour. I’d shared my water bottle since she had forgotten hers. Matt and Grant had said they’d join us for a little prayer, a good work-out on the trail and refreshments. I’d packed four peanut butter sandwiches and Fuji apples and was getting hungry already. Carissa had brought trail mix just in case but the chocolate drops had started to melt all over the almonds. Still, it took a strong will to not grab the baggie with the mix from her and scarf down a couple handfuls.
She frowned and wriggled as I swatted a spider from her shoulder.
“I wish I knew why they weren’t here, Margo. I tried hard to accommodate their schedules. I know Matt worked this morning but Grant…well, he always wants to see me.” She turned to me with the smallest smile, like she was embarrassed. “It’s almost a problem.”
I shrugged. “Grant can be a nuisance but he’s okay. I think it’s all that wavy blond hair accented by baby blue eyes. He likes attention and you just give it to him.”
“Well, I didn’t say it was a bad problem. Just an inconvenience at times. But you would think the least he’d do is be here on time.” She looked around. “Just be here with me, us…”
I sat under an ancient, gargantuan tree and fanned myself with a trail map. After a big gulp of water, I handed it to Carissa but she declined, leaning back on her hands, ankles crossed. Tiny scratches crisscrossed her feet and calves. They looked mean on her ivory skin.
It was Matt, Grant’s twin, I tried not to think about. He was as much like Grant as a plum was like a pickle. Broad of shoulder and big of spirit, he had what my mother called color. Everything he did was either fun or verging on sly. Carissa said he was a scamp. I thought he was a bit like a bee, flitting flower to flower, but hopefully no pollination was going on. That would have disappointed me. But you never knew with Matt what the consequences of his choices would be. It kept it interesting as far as I was concerned.
We had all been schooled in what was important in life, what was right and wrong. Even I didn’t always know what it all meant and my uncle was a minister. If truth be told, I was inclined toward very human thoughts and doings yet I never doubted my security in the good Lord’s arms. Uncle Travis said it best: I had an understanding with God from birth. That meant I felt close to God and tried hard to live up to expectations but I had questions and ideas. If I failed anyone, so be it. God kept the door open from what I could tell. I wasn’t prone to much rugged worry.
Carissa, though, she had a fear of things, of spiders and eating too much and sneezing loud, or giggling in the middle of church. She feared not getting on the honor roll, wearing one item of clothing twice in the same week. Once she was upset she had left out the butter so it began to liquefy. I didn’t understand it and I had known her most of our lives. Still, she was a good kid. I was older by ten months and bigger so naturally I felt protective.
So when she started to fuss as time hemmed and hawed and stretched into an hour and fifteen minutes but still no boys, I took her cool hands in mine and said, “Look, let’s hit the trail. It’ll be cooler down in the trees and we can sit by the waterfall and eat. They couldn’t make it, I guess. We could try calling them, but…”
“No, let’s go.”
She smoothed back her wispy bangs and lifted her chin. I worried about her flats and told her so but she was unconcerned. We started down the incline gingerly, the gravel rolling off the dirt. I was in front and twice she grabbed me as she slipped. I hesitated. All we needed was an accident, her dress ruined, shins fully bloodied. The path soon leveled off and was beaten hard so we kept on. My t-shirt was soaked in back and my chest felt prickly. A mess is what I was, but the woods were thick with greenness and everything glowed in the afternoon light. The ferns, slugs and mushrooms, the lichen clinging to nurse logs, the breeze sweetening: I was in heaven. I fell into a pleasing rhythm and forgot to watch over Carissa.
It was a good trek into the dappled cool of the forest. As we descended towards the snaky creek and rounded a curve, waterfalls seemingly dropped from the brilliant sky, parting the rocks. They called out to us with happy music. I could see one fall mixing with another and wished I could slide right down them into the sapphire pool below.
At the bridge I turned to Carissa. She was leaning against the railing, staring into the creek.
“I came here to celebrate another day with the Lord, but nobody’s here…” she said in a near-whisper.
Really, I thought I heard her wrong. I studied her perspiring face, the corners of her downturned mouth, her chest heaving as she tried not to cry. What I saw shook me up.
“No one came.”
“I’m here, Carissa. I’m always here, if you think about it.”
She propped her chin in her hands, then squeezed her eyes tight. “Yes, but…”
“And God’s here, right under your nose. ”
“I guess. Yes, of course. Still.”
The water roared like a playful creature. I found I couldn’t hear Carissa anymore. I crossed the bridge, climbed up thirty-two railroad ties with muscles straining so hard I thought I’d have to stop, but didn’t. I had to keep going. Finally I arrived at the top platform overlooking Bridal Veil falls. My heart was banging but I felt strong, good, like I had gained stamina along the way. I stood alone but it didn’t bother me at all. Here was creation and it was amazing to behold. It hit me that I was at home, where I belonged.
When I finally turned to see if Carissa was joining me, I heard my name called. There came Matt running down the trail, just Matt, his hands waving like crazy at me. Carissa stood alone at the bridge, her mouth open, arms wide, palms up as he passed her by. It made me sad to see her there in that pretty aqua dress and dusty flats. But I guess the right time is when things happen of their own accord. That’s how God sends us a little message. At least, that’s how I see it. Carissa–she’ll find her own faith sooner or later. I’ll likely be around to offer her a hand if she wants it.