Picture Me Gone

Mila is on a roadtrip in the USA with her father. They are trying to solve the mystery of his best friend's disappearance but Mila discovers a more important truth. Sometimes the act of searching reveals more than the final discovery can.

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Marieka is from Sweden. Gil’s mother was Portuguese- French. I need diagrams to keep track of all the nationalities in my family but I don’t mind. Mongrels are wily and healthy and don’t suffer displaced hips or premature madness.

 

My parents were over forty when they had me but I don’t think of them as old, any more than they think of me as young. We are just us.

 

The fact that Gil’s friend left home exactly when we were coming to visit is hard to understand. The police don’t believe he’s been murdered or kidnapped. I can imagine Gil wander- ing out the door and forgetting for a while to come back, but ties to Marieka and me would draw him home. Perhaps Matthew’s ties are looser.

 

Despite being best friends, Gil and Matthew haven’t seen each other in eight years. This makes the timing of his disap- pearance quite strange. Impolite, at the very least.

 

I look forward to seeing his wife and starting to under- stand what happened. Perhaps that’s why Gil decided to take me along. Did I mention that I’m good at puzzles?

 

There is no need to double-check the passports; they are zipped into the inner pocket of my bag, safe, ready to be presented at check-in. Gil has put his book down and is gazing at something inside his head.

 

Where do you think Matthew went? I ask him.

 

It takes him a few seconds to return to me. He sighs and places his hand on my knee. I don’t know, sweetheart.

 

Do you think we’ll find him?

 

He looks thoughtful and says, Matthew was a wanderer, even as a child.

 

I wait to hear what he says next about his friend, but he says nothing. Inside his  head  he is  still  talking. Whole sentences flash across his eyes. I can’t read them.

 

What? I say.

 

What, what? But he smiles.

 

What are you thinking?

 

Nothing important. About my childhood. I knew Matthew as well as I knew myself. When I think of him he still looks like a boy, even though he’s quite old.

 

He’s the same age as you I say, a little huffily.

 

Yes. He laughs, and pulls me close.

 

Here is the story from Gil’s past:

 

He and Matthew are twenty-two, hitch-hiking to France in the back of a lorry with hardly any money. Then across France to Switzerland, to climb the Lauteraarhorn. Of the two, Matthew is the serious climber. It all goes according to plan until, on the second day, the temperature begins to rise. Avalanche weather. They watch the snow and ice thunder down around them. Mist descends towards evening, wrap- ping the mountain like a cloak. They burrow in, hoping the weather will change. Around midnight, the wind picks up and the rain turns to snow.

 

I’ve tried to imagine the scene hundreds of times. The first problem – exposure; the second – altitude. In the dead of night, in the dark and cold and wind and snow, Matthew notices the first signs of sickness in his friend and insists they descend. Gil refuses. Time passes. Head pounding, dizzy and irrational, Gil shouts, pushes Matthew off him. When at last he slumps, exhausted by the effort and the thin air, all he wants is to sit down and sleep in the snow. To die.

 

Over the next eleven hours, Matthew cajoles and drags and walks and talks him down the mountain. Over and over he tells Gil that you don’t lie down in the snow. You keep going, no matter what.

 

 

They reach safety and Gil swears never to climb again.

 

And Matthew?

 

He was in love with it, says Gil.

 

He saved your life.

 

Gil nods.

 

We both fall silent, and I think, and yet.

 

And yet. Gil’s life would not have needed saving if it hadn’t been for Matthew.

 

The risk-taker and his riskee.

 

When I think of the way this trip has turned out, I wonder if we’ve been summoned for some sort of cosmic levelling, to help Matthew this time, the one who has never before required saving.

 

Perhaps we have been called in to balance the flow of energy in the universe.

 

We reach the airport. Gil picks up my bag and his, and we heave ourselves off the train. As the escalator carries us up, a text pings on to his phone.

 

My father is no good at texts, so he hands it to me and I show him: Still nothing it says, and is signed Suzanne. Matthew’s wife.

 

We look at each other.

 

Come on, he says, piling our bags on to a trolley, and off we trot for what feels like miles to the terminal. At the check-in I ask for a window seat. Gil isn’t fussy. We answer the questions about bombs and sharp objects, rummage through our carry-on bags for liquids, take our boarding passes and join the long snake through international departures. I pass the time watching other people, guessing their nationalities and relationships. American faces, I note, look unguarded. Does this make them more, or less approachable? I don’t know yet.

 

Gil buys a newspaper and a bottle of whisky from duty- free and we go to the gate. As we board the plane I’m still thinking about that night on the mountain. What does it take to half drag, half carry a disorientated man the size of Gil, hour after hour, through freezing snow and darkness?

 

He may have other faults, this friend of Gil’s, but he is not short of determination.

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