Melanie’s heart quickened when the first tower of the Mackinac Bridge came into view. This would be her seventh time over the bridge, a significant number. Seven days of the week. Seven notes in the diatonic scale. Seven letters in the Roman numeral system. The seven in the Tarot deck was the card of the chariot—the symbol of overcoming conflict and moving forward in a positive direction. Lucky number seven. She’d need luck on this trip if she hoped to move forward in a positive direction with Olivia.
She hit her sister’s upper arm with the back of her hand. “There’s the bridge!”
To her surprise, Olivia smiled. A good sign. Maybe it would all work out. It had to. Because they couldn’t go on as they had for the past ten years. Something had to change. Only time together would do it. Time with no distractions. Time in the forest. Time for Melanie to explain herself. She had seven days to make it work. Seven days was enough. Her seven-day spiritual detox program was her most popular offering on Meditations with Melanie. And nothing needed detoxing like her relationship with her sister.
“I know a bailiff who refuses to cross big bridges,” Olivia said. “He’ll drive miles out of his way to avoid it. If he were going to the UP, he’d have to drive all the way around Lake Michigan and come in through Wisconsin.”
“Why doesn’t he just use the assistance program?” Melanie said. “Someone who works for the bridge authority will drive your car across for you if you’re uncomfortable with it.”
“I guess he’s too afraid for even that. It’s weird. He can’t remember anything bad that ever happened to him on a bridge, he’s just always been scared of going over them.”
“I wonder if he’s tried hypnosis to cope with his fears.”
Olivia laughed. “No, I don’t think he’s tried hypnosis.”
“It works for a lot of people.”
“I’m sure it does.” Olivia shifted in her seat. “Man, my hip is killing me.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing. Just sore from sitting so long. It’ll be fine.”
Melanie slowed to forty-five miles per hour and pulled into the left lane. She would have preferred to drive in the right lane closer to the breathtaking expanse of blue water beneath her, but with big trucks required to go no faster than twenty and with Olivia already touchy about the time, she decided it was better to be fast than fascinated. If she got stuck behind a semi for five miles at twenty miles per hour, Olivia would probably have a stroke.
“You know, bridges are an important symbol in a lot of different belief systems,” Melanie said. “They can be about crossing over from life to death. They can be about finding connection with one another. In a Tarot deck they can symbolize spanning the gap between misery and harmony. And they work either way. So if bridge cards start showing up in readings, it doesn’t necessarily mean something bad or something good. It all depends on where your life is moving. Either we are moving toward misery or toward harmony in our lives.”
“Yeah,” Olivia said, “or they can be about the fact that we need one piece of land to connect to another piece of land so we can get a car across it.”
Melanie bit the inside of her cheek. This was not going to be easy. “How about some music?”
Olivia punched the button for the CD player. After a moment of silence, the sound of a solo acoustic guitar rang out, joined a moment later by a cello. Then a powerful female voice singing about rain and wind and absence and regret. Mel glanced over at her sister. Olivia’s eyes were closed, just the way their father’s had always been when he listened to loud music in the living room after a hectic day at work. But the face Mel saw was their mother’s. Broad forehead, sensible nose, strong jawline. Olivia had their mother’s straight brown hair and solid build. She had her no-nonsense attitude and her drive. She was in all ways fierce and formidable. The ultimate big sister.
Well, almost. The ultimate big sister wouldn’t have left when Melanie needed her most.
As the last bittersweet notes of the song rang out, the car left the metal grate of the suspension bridge and the tires hit the concrete. Melanie and Olivia reached out to turn off the CD player at the same time and shared a smile. There were some songs that just needed to ring in your ears for a while.
“I haven’t heard that since . . .” Olivia trailed off.
Melanie lowered her window to pay the toll. She handed the clerk four dollars, beat him to saying “Have a nice day,” and pulled back out into traffic. She had driven perhaps a quarter mile before she realized Olivia never finished her sentence.
“When was the last time you heard that song?” she prompted.
“Do you have other CDs in here?”
Melanie allowed the deflection. She could guess the answer. “Back of your seat.”
For the next forty-five minutes, Olivia played DJ as they drove west along the north shore of sparkling Lake Michigan. The CDs she put into the player had all once been part of their parents’ collection, parceled out between the two sisters along with the photo albums, the jewelry, the books, and some of the furniture. Melanie relaxed into the soundtrack of her childhood and entered an almost meditative space, adrift in memories of times lost.
The road continued straight, the lakeshore curved away south, and they headed into the alternating pasturelands and scrub forest of the interior. Here the trees had more color than they did in the northern reaches of the Lower Peninsula. The varied green of the pines, spruces, and firs stood out against a tapestry of yellow and orange, with the occasional red thrown in like a garnish of flame. Fields of grazing dairy cows and wide wetlands playing host to migrating geese and herons occasionally broke up the monotony of the trees. Overhead a pair of sandhill cranes flew low and slow, heading south for the cold season ahead.
It was beautiful.
“I’ve sent a bunch of people to prison up here,” Olivia said. “Not sure it’s much of a punishment.”
Melanie shook herself out of her reverie. “You look at all this gorgeous nature and that’s where your mind goes? Prison?”
She shrugged. “It just popped into my head. It’s the only connection I have to the UP.”
“No it isn’t,” Melanie said.
“I don’t like to think about that trip.”
Melanie paused, picking her next words carefully. “The trip wasn’t the problem.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I know it helps some people to talk about things like that—I know it helps you—but that’s just not me.”
“I know. It’s fine. We’ll talk about something else.”
But neither, it seemed, knew what that something else should be. They drove along in silence for a few minutes more.
“This is your turn up here,” Olivia said, looking up from the paper map on her lap and gesturing at the upcoming intersection. “Turn right.”
Melanie pointed the car north. Overhead, birds of prey soared on thermals. That, at least, was safe to talk about. “Look, a bald eagle. I see hawks and eagles all the time. Every time I leave the house, I see one. I think it must have something to do with my aura. Like they can sense a kindred spirit or something.”
Olivia leaned forward and looked out the window. “That’s a vulture.”
“What? No, it’s a bald eagle.”
“That?” she asked, pointing.
“That’s a vulture. If those are following you around, I think you may want to reexamine your aura. But I’m guessing you just see them a lot driving because roads have roadkill for them to eat.”
Melanie craned her neck to keep the bird in sight. It couldn’t be a vulture. She saw those all the time. They were eagles. Weren’t they?
“Watch the road,” Olivia snapped.
Melanie felt a stab of panic when she saw she had veered over the center line, and she overcorrected. She took a breath, let it out slowly, centered herself. Everything was okay.
“Do you want me to drive so you can look at the scenery?” Olivia said.
“No,” Melanie mumbled. How could they be vultures? Settling her eyes back on the horizon, she saw a bank of gunmetal gray approaching from the northwest. “I think it’s going to rain.”
Olivia looked up from the map again. “Yep. Let’s gas up at Seney so we don’t have to do it later in a downpour.”
“How far is it?”
“Not more than ten minutes, I should think.”
Melanie looked at the gathering storm. “I hope we make it.”
(C) Erin Bartels, Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021. Used with permission from the publisher.
Ten years ago, sisters Olivia and Melanie Greene were on a backcountry hiking trip when their parents were in a fatal car accident. Over the years, they grew apart, each coping with the loss in her own way. Olivia plunged herself into law school, work, and an atomistic view of the world–what you see is what you get, and that’s all you get. Melanie dropped out of college and developed an online life-coaching business around her cafeteria-style spirituality–a little of this, a little of that, whatever makes you happy.
Now, at Melanie’s insistence (and against Olivia’s better judgment), they are embarking on a hike in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In this remote wilderness they’ll face their deepest fears, question their most dearly held beliefs, and begin to see that perhaps the best way to move forward is the one way they had never considered.
Michigan Notable Book Award winner Erin Bartels draws from personal experience hiking backcountry trails with her sister to bring you a story about the complexities of grief, faith, and sisterhood.
About Erin Bartels
ERIN BARTELS is the award-winning author of We Hope for Better Things–a 2020 Michigan Notable Book, winner of the 2020 Star Award from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association in both the debut and general fiction categories, and a 2019 Christy Award finalist–The Words between Us–a 2020 Christy Award finalist–and All That We Carried (coming January 2021). Her short story “This Elegant Ruin” was a finalist in The Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest. Her poems have been published by The Lyric and The East Lansing Poetry Attack. A member of the Capital City Writers Association and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, she is former features editor of WFWA’s Write On! magazine and current director of the annual WFWA Writers Retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Erin lives in the beautiful, water-defined state of Michigan where she is never more than a ninety-minute drive from one of the Great Lakes or six miles from an inland lake, river, or stream. She grew up in the Bay City area waiting for freighters and sailboats at drawbridges and watching the best 4th of July fireworks displays in the nation. She spent her college and young married years in Grand Rapids feeling decidedly not-Dutch. She currently lives with her husband and son in Lansing, nestled somewhere between angry protesters on the Capitol lawn and couch-burning frat boys at Michigan State University. And yet, she claims it is really quite peaceful.