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The Compass


Chapter 1

Sometimes you must let go of the life you had planned in order to make room for the life ahead of you.

Five seconds can alter your life forever. It can change the course of your dreams and wipe out everything you’d ever hoped for. It can send you into the wilderness, in search of nothing.

Three days into the Nevada desert I felt the soles of my shoes melting. I stopped, turned one foot upside down, and examined the bottom of my sneaker. The rubber fibers seemed to be on fire, heating to higher temperatures with each step.

Waves of heat rose off of the surface of the red sands. It was miles outside of Amargosa near Death Valley, the driest place on earth. I didn’t know when I’d find nourishment, and I didn’t care.

I knew from my research in neurobiology that the brain could last several days without water. The dendrites would repair themselves; the synapses would still fire. The brain was an amazing organ with the ability to repair itself against even the worst circumstances. But if I didn’t find water soon, dehydration would set in, and my brain could lapse into confusion. I’d start seeing things, hearing things . . .

I took a step forward through an arroyo, scanning the landscape for a cactus. Inside would be gallons of water, and some species had sustained the lives of ancient Indian tribes wandering the desert for years. I walked for another five minutes until I found a craggy rock and sat down, lowering my head into the palm of my hands.

I had no plan and no desire for one. When I’d started out, I had wanted only to escape.

Before I had set out on my journey, they’d insisted on throwing a small farewell gathering for me, and, amidst the chaos, I heard something muttered from the back of the room.

“It’s almost as if his life has been divided into two sections: before the accident and after.”

It was true. I was a different man now. I felt like a cadaver divided down the middle with a Stryker saw, my breastbone cut open, exposing the organs. Like a body during an autopsy, my heart had been ripped out and placed on top of my chest for examination. The blood had ceased to flow. I was a cadaver.


I considered eating the small energy bar I had left in my backpack, but I knew that if I did there was a chance it would make things worse. My insides would tighten. Water was needed for digestion, and the food wouldn’t get through the small intestine without it.

“You okay?”

The voice startled me, and I looked up into the sun. I rubbed my eyes and swallowed hard, my throat parched and sore.

Was the process beginning?

“Here’s some water if you need it.” The voice was gruff, yet distinctly female. Through the glare I saw that she had graying hair and a creviced jaw darkened with lines. She held the slim canteen toward me. “The waters hot, but it’s better than nothing. Only a fool comes out here without a canteen.”

I took it and unscrewed the metal top, downing it.

“You lost?” she asked.

I shook my head, “No.”

“No one sane comes this far,” she said. “Must be lost. In one way or another.”

The woman wore brown shorts and a long-sleeved cotton shirt with pockets and snaps down the front and on the arms. A large black camera hung from a leather strap around her neck. She kicked at the dirt with her boots to make a small clearing, something I’d once read about in a desert manual. Experienced trail guides did it to check for scorpions and rattlers before they sat down.

“You got a name?” she asked.

I held the canteen a little longer, considered drinking, then wondered if it was all she had.

“Jonathan,” I said. “Jonathan Taylor.”

“Jonathan, do you realize that it’s 115 degrees out here?”

I said nothing and shrugged.

“You need more than a t-shirt,” she continued. “And jeans aren’t the best thing for the desert.

“I’ve got a tent over there,” she said, pointing to a small clearing of trees. She tapped the camera. “You can rest in the shade as long as you want. I’m here for a week, taking pictures.” She looked intently at my face. “You’ve got a bad wound there. You need something for it?”

I touched the left side of my jaw. It had been two months now, but the wound wouldn’t heal. I shook my head.

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” she replied.

“So why are you here?” I asked. “Why the desert? It’s pretty desolate out here, and there’s not much to see.”

“I’m a psychologist,” she said. “Former, that is. Always wanted to be a photographer, but it’s the one dream I never fulfilled. I’ve always loved the open space of the desert, and I guess you could say I’ve escaped my life to come to this place. To shoot my last photos.”

“Your last?” I looked at her curiously.

“I’m dying,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Aren’t we all?” I replied.

As soon as I said it, I wished I could take it back. I looked at her dark expression and knew it was true. She really was dying.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

The woman just laughed.

“Don’t be. It’s not about being sorry. We all have a beginning, and we all have an end.”

“But is there a cure? What’s wrong with you?”

“I have cancer, and it’s terminal,” she said flatly. “Ironically, it’s a brain tumor. Imagine that, a psychologist who uses her brain all her life, with a brain tumor. There is no cure. But it’s okay, Jonathan. I’ve made peace with it. I’ve chosen to come here.” She turned to look straight at me. “And you?”

“I flew in and just started walking. I walked for days, slept outside. That’s about it. I ended up here kinda by accident.”

She pondered that for a moment, then stood and took the canteen from my hand.

“There are no accidents,” she said, motioning me to follow. “We may think that there are, but there aren’t. You have a family?”

I stood and walked slowly, following her toward the tree clearing where she had set up camp, and pondered the irony of her words.

There are no accidents.

What the hell? I thought about my wife and daughter. Yes, I said silently. There are accidents.

“See, I’m taking photos of that rock outcropping as the sun sets,” the woman said, pointing to a distant canyon. The mountain range was wide and distinct, with tall peaks jutting high into the heavens. “It’s very different from the kind of work I’ve done my whole life. I’ve found my passion now. I’ve discovered my destiny. I may not have more than a few weeks to live it, but that’s not important.” She sounded sincere.

“What kind of work did you do in psychology?”

“Hemispheric integration.”

“Hemispheric what?”

“I helped people understand the wide capacity of their minds.”

“My wife was a first-year neurologist,” I said. “But I’ve never heard that term.”


I looked down into the brown sand.

“Was,” I said firmly.

“Well, when we experience an event in our lives,” the woman explained, “we record in our memory two separate and unique pictorial representations—one in each of the brain’s hemispheres. The left hemisphere is responsible for logical, linear thinking. The right is more concerned with spatial relationships and concepts such as personal safety.”

“And?” I replied, intrigued.

“And if we consistently use the perception from only one side of the brain, our choices are limited, and personal issues remain unresolved. Learning conscious control over which hemispheric image to utilize broadens our range of choices, and more responses become available to us. Imagine being able to understand and access the brain as it was designed to be used.

“Accessing this second hemisphere opens doors that we didn’t even know existed.”

I shrugged.

I wondered if there was some way I could change my own way of thinking, reprogram my brain to see the events of the past one hundred days entirely differently. If I could drive by that intersection just one more time and experience nothing—instead of seeing the image of them lying in the road, that last breath . . .

Maybe my life could change.

Maybe I could rewind, go back to the old job, go back to the house, back to the former friends, and act as if life were just a series of peaks and valleys. Maybe I would be able to overcome the valley. Get remarried. Be like the others in our society who are so good at reincarnating, adopting second lives.

I could have a whole new wife, a new kid, and justify it all by saying there are no accidents, and reach the understanding that it was destined to be. Feel as if I were destined to be with this new person, destined to bring another life into this world. Ignore the fact that the first family ever existed and got wiped away in a single moment.

Problem was, I could see none of it. I was hollow.

Excerpted from The Compass © Copyright 2012 by Tammy Kling and John Spencer Ellis. Reprinted with permission by Vanguard Press. All rights reserved.

The Compass
by by Tammy Kling and John Spencer Ellis

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vanguard Press
  • ISBN-10: 1593155425
  • ISBN-13: 9781593155421