Descent by Tim Johnston

Tim Johnston reads an excerpt from his novel Descent, published in January by Algonquin Books.

From The Life Before


Her name was Caitlin, she was eighteen, and her own heart would sometimes wake her—flying away in that dream-race where finish lines grew farther away not nearer, where knees turned to taffy, or feet to stones. Lurching awake under the sheets, her chest squeezed in phantom arms, she’d lie there gasping, her eyes open to the dark. She’d lift her hands and press the watchface into bloom, blue as an eye in which blinked all the true data of her body, dreaming or awake: heart rate 86 bpm, body temp 37.8°C, pace (0), alt. 9,015 feet.


Alt. 9,015 feet?


She looked about the room, at the few dark furnishings shaped by a thin light in the seams of the drapes. To her left in the other bed lay her mother, a wing of blonde hair dark on the white pillow. In the adjoining room on the other side of the wall slept her father and brother. Two rooms, four beds, no discussion: she would not share a room with her fifteen-year-old brother, nor he with her.

The watchface burned again with its cool light and began to beep and she pinched it into silence. She checked her heart: still fast, but it wasn’t the dream anymore, it was the air at 9,015 feet.

The Rocky Mountains!


When she’d seen them for the first time, from the car, her heart had begun to pump and the muscles of her legs had tightened and twitched. In a few weeks she would begin college on a track scholarship, and although she had not lost a race her senior year (Courtland Undefeated! ran the headline), she knew that the girls at college would be faster and stronger, more experienced and more determined, than the girls she was used to running against, and she’d picked the mountains for no other reason.



In the bathroom she washed her face and brushed her teeth and banded her ponytail tight to her head and then stood staring into the mirror. It wasn’t vanity. She was looking to see what was in this girl’s eyes, as she would any girl, so she would know how to defeat her.

She stepped back into the room and for a moment she thought her mother was awake, watching her from the bed, but it was only the eyelids, pale and round in that dim light—a blind, unnerving effect, like the gazes of statues—and Caitlin opened the connecting door and stepped from one room into another exactly like it and shook the boy awake.


The sun was still climbing the far side of the mountains, and the town waited in a cold lake of shadow. The black bears that came down at night to raid the garbage bins and lope along the sidewalks had all gone back up. The streets were empty. No one to see the two of them passing under the traffic light, no one but them to hear the slow blink blink of its middle eye.


Caitlin was not yet running but high-stepping in a brisk pantomime of it, like a drum majorette for a parade consisting of the boy alone, wobbling along behind her on the rented bike. The boy wanted to go back for sweatshirts, but it was July, she reminded him, it would warm up.

His name was Sean but she called him Dudley, a long-ago insult which had lost its meaning. They’d come into town the day before, up from the plains on the interstate, up through Denver and then into the mountains on a swinging cliff of road that swung their hearts out into the open sky, into dizzy plungings of bottomless green, the pines so thick and small on the far slopes. Up and up they’d climbed, up to the Great Divide and then down again—down to nine thousand feet, where the resort village appeared suddenly in the high geography like a mirage. The wintry architecture of ski shops and coffeehouses at midsummer. Chairlifts hanging empty over the grassy runs. Impossible colors at this height and air like they had never breathed before.

Now, in the blue morning, they drew this air into their lungs and coughed up white clouds. The smell of pine was like Christmas. “Here we go,” Caitlin said, and she turned onto a road called Ermine and began to run in earnest, and the boy followed.





He raised the phone and said, “Hello, Sean,” and a man’s voice said, “Is this Mr. Courtland?” and Grant’s head jerked as if struck.


“Yes. Who is this?”


 At these words, the change in his body, Angela came around to see his face. He met her eyes and looked away, out the window. The man on the phone identified himself in some detail, but all Grant heard was the word sheriff.


“What’s happened?” he asked. “Where’s Sean?” There was a pain in his forearm and he looked to see the white claw fastened there. He pried at it gently.



“He’s here at the medical center in Granby, Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “He’s a tad banged up, but the doctor says he’ll be fine. I found his wallet and this phone in his—”


“What do you mean a tad—” He glanced at Angela and stopped himself. “What do you mean by that?”


“I mean it looks like he got himself in some kind of accident up there on the mountain, Mr. Courtland. I ain’t had a chance to talk to him yet, they doped him up pretty good for the . . . Well, you can talk to the doctor in a second here. But first—”


“But he’s all right,” Grant said.


“Oh, his leg’s banged up pretty good. But he was wearing that helmet. He’ll be all right. He had some good luck up there.”


“What do you mean?”


“I mean he could of laid there a lot longer, but it happened some folks come by on their bikes.”


Grant’s heart was hammering in his skull. He couldn’t think—his son lying there, up there, on the mountain, hurt—


“Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “Where are you all at?”


There was something in the man’s tone. Grant shook his head. “What do you mean?”


“Well, sir. We found your boy way up there on the mountain, on a rental bike. So I’m just wondering, sir, where you’re at.”


“Caitlin,” Angela said suddenly, and Grant’s heart leapt and he said, “Yes. Let me speak to my daughter. Let me speak to Caitlin.”


“Your daughter...?” said the other man, then was silent. In the silence was the sound of his breathing. The sound of him making an adjustment to his sheriff ’s belt. The sound of a woman’s voice paging unintelligibly down the empty hospital corridor.

When he spoke again he sounded like some other man altogether.


“Mr. Courtland,” he said, and Grant stepped toward the window as though he would walk through it. He’d taken the representations of the mountains on the resort maps, with their colorful tracery of runs and trails and lifts, as the mountains themselves—less mountains than playgrounds fashioned into the shapes of mountains by men and money. Now he saw the things themselves, so green and massive, humped one upon the other like a heaving sea.


Angela stopped him physically, her thumbs in his biceps. She raised on her toes that she might hear every word.


“Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “Your son came in alone.”

Angela shook her head.


“No,” she said, and turned away and went to the suitcases and began to dress.


When they were young, when they were naked and young in that apartment of hers above the bakery where the smell of her, and the smell of the bread, had been a glory to him, Grant had tracked her heartbeat by the little cross she wore—by the slightest, most delicate movements of the cross down in that tender pit of throat. Touched it with his finger and asked without thinking, Wasn’t it ironic, though?

Wasn’t what?

That God took your twin sister, whose name was Faith?

She turned away. She would not speak to him. Her body like stone. I’m sorry, he said. Please, Angela...please. He didn’t yet know of the other heart, the tiniest heart, beating with hers.

Now in the little motel room, his wife’s phone to his ear, he begged: Please God, please God, and the sheriff was asking him again where he was at, telling him to stay put. The boy was safe, he was sleeping. He was coming to get them, the sheriff—no more than fifteen minutes. He would take them up there himself, up the mountain. He would take them wherever they needed to go. But they wouldn’t be here when the sheriff arrived, Grant knew. They would be on the mountain, on their way up. The boy was safe. The boy was sleeping. Grant would be at the wheel and Angela would be at the maps, the way it was in the life before, the way it would be in the life to come.

Excerpted from Descent by Tim Johnston with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2014 by Tim Johnston.