My brother Jeremy and I beeped our tickets and pushed through the turnstile to the yellow line. The guy standing next to the lift was a snowboarder type, magenta cap jammed over wavy blond hair, a psychedelic design on his jacket. He nodded to us, smiling—a handsome, well-built dude. Lately, I thought, Jeremy was looking more and more like this. His jaw was no longer narrow and boyish like mine, and his eyes seemed steadier, more confident. The snowboarder type grabbed the edge of the seat as it came swinging around, steadying it for us, and somehow the machinery of the chairlift slowed the seat down dramatically as it nudged us behind the knees and we sat. Jeremy pulled the safety bar down as the ground fell away, the weight of my skis and boots tugging gently on my legs. Earlier that day, I’d brought up this essential mystery of the new “express” ski lifts: how was it that the chairlift slowed down to pick you up and then sped you to the top of the mountain at an even pace? Wouldn’t you slow down and speed up every few seconds, as the people behind you settled into their slowed-down seats? My brother and dad hadn’t seemed very interested by this. While they sat on either side of me, squishing me with their shoulders and talking about how nice the view was, I imagined some complex, physics-defying machinery at work.
Now Jeremy was sighing with relief, sitting back in the seat as the chairlift lofted us above the trees. “Everything just mellows out at this time of day,” he said. “I guess most people are sick of skiing by now.”
I was a little sick of skiing too. I was already thinking of being back in Timberline Lodge, sitting with Jeremy in front of one of the big fireplaces, hanging out and talking like we had on previous trips.
There was conversation in the seat behind us, men our parents’ age guffawing in dadlike amusement. “Hah hah hah!” Jeremy exclaimed, in his most brutal adult imitation voice. “The economy these days, am I right, Bill?”
“Oho!” I chimed in. “Don’t even get me started about Obamacare, Bob!”
When we heard their voices go silent for a few moments we started laughing. “Oh shit,” Jeremy said. “They heard us.”
“They definitely heard us.”
I was relieved that we could still joke this way. I’d been worried that Jeremy would come back from his first semester of college sophisticated, like our older brother Sam, who’d returned from Princeton grave and unsmiling, crippled by constant moral outrage, no longer a joker. I was four years younger than Jeremy—I’d been about to start eighth grade when he left for Oberlin at the end of the summer—but somehow we’d always been peers, in a certain sense. He was aware of his big-brother role but never seemed to take it too seriously. We laughed at the same kind of stuff. I think he thought I was cool for my age, since I was the one who found the flash video games we spent our nights playing together, and I turned him on to some random indie music I found on YouTube, which I guess ended up being cool. But I didn’t really care about any of it that much. Jeremy always had places to go after school, and he always came back smiling, as if still laughing at some secret joke. I’d be in my room, at my desk, clicking through stuff he’d exclaim about and say was so awesome, but to me it wasn’t ever so awesome, not unless he was there too. I wondered who or what had made him smile this way, what he’d been doing before he was with me. I never asked.
In his Junior and Senior years of high school, he took up soccer—just walked onto the varsity team, he was that kind of kid—and in the hours before he came home I always felt vaguely queasy, prickled by a new anxiety that seemed to constantly ask: how are you spending your time? This was in Lake Oswego, the rich Portland suburb where my parents had felt the need to move when my dad climbed up the ranks at Nike a year before, and the conclusion I came to was that our new property simply contained too much green. The vaulted laurel trees shading the walkway, the rolling lawns mowed and trimmed to neon perfection by a pair of Mexican landscapers once every two weeks, and then of course the whole northwest corner of Tryon Creek State Park. It seemed like a terribly bright world, designed for outspoken, social people with good luck. I preferred running through the landscapes of the video games I couldn’t seem to stop playing. I did this until the sun started to set and I began to feel guilty for spending so much time inside, the laurel leaves out my window winking with knowing light, as if sad to be without me. Then I’d go racing around on my bike, pedaling down Tryon’s bike path until I heard the roaring of cars and saw the lights of downtown glinting through the evening. Sometimes I’d pull leaves from the bushes while I went. I didn’t mind turning around without really having gone anywhere.
I never talked to Jeremy about any of this, or about feeling bad, of course. I liked the way we joked around, and I liked hanging out with his new soccer friends, who were all like him: upbeat, self-confident jocks who, it was safe to say, probably didn’t spend much time worrying about the greenness of their backyards. They would knock on their way past my room, which was on the first floor, just down the hall from the back door. “Come outside, man,” they’d say. “Come drink a beer with us.”
Jeremy’s girlfriend, Lisa, was different. She came from the other camp—the depressive kids who still listened to Taking Back Sunday and Sum 41. They were androgynous from a distance, with dyed hair and shapeless flannels and pale, sorrowful faces, the kind of kids who would have been the majority anywhere in Portland except Lake Oswego, where everyone’s parents were anesthesiologists or CEOs and no one was interested in acting sad. Jeremy never had Lisa over when any of his other friends were there. He and Lisa would disappear upstairs for most of the afternoon and then tromp down into the kitchen later, after our parents were asleep, and Jeremy would tap on my door so I could come out to the gazebo with them and watch as Lisa smoked an enormous amount of weed. Jeremy’s weed smoking tended to be light, something he was willing to do because his girlfriend did it, but I don’t think he really liked it the way she did, or the way I came to. Sometimes Lisa would smirk at me as she passed me the pipe or joint, as if she knew the kind of kid I really was. These looks excited me. I was young, obviously, and a hit or two was enough to make me detach and go spinning deep into myself. She had dyed violet hair and a wide, heart-shaped face that she would turn directly toward me, her lips beginning to lilt upward, as if I were just on the edge of making her laugh. Her appearance always somehow startled me, as if the image I’d held in my mind had shifted in the few days since I’d last seen her. I could never return her gaze for more than a half-moment. The conversation would move on, Lisa and Jeremy murmuring over some secret joke, and I was fine with that. After Lisa left I’d replay our little moments over and over, until eventually the image of her slipped from my mind and I fell asleep.
“What you thinking about, man?” Jeremy asked, and I realized we’d been silent for a little while. The lift was dipping through shadow that was close to full dark, though the sun had not yet set and things would be brighter once the chairlift climbed over the ridge. It seemed impossible that the trees below us could cling to ground that steep, and I wondered for a moment if people got trees wrong, mistaking them as peaceful and wise. I imagined these trees as anxious beings, their lives an agony of constant fear, gripping the stone tightly with their roots, hoping not to fall.
“Not much,” I said. “Do you think you’d want to play that game we played last year? It was that tower defense one…I don’t remember what it’s called. I was thinking of maybe playing some of that tonight.”
Jeremy tapped a finger against his ski pole. “Right…what was it, anyway? I can’t remember either.”
“We played it last year. I think around this same time of year.”
“Right,” Jeremy said. “You know, I think I actually do remember. The half-wolf enemies that could run extra fast?”
“Yeah!” I said. “We had to build that whole section of fire-archers to slow them down.”
He laughed, but not in the same way he usually did. “Fire-archer level ten!” he said, in a nasally nerd-voice. “Sometimes I do worry about us, Nathan.”
I felt a little warmth in my face and neck. “You don’t remember that?” I asked. “Clumping all the archers in the middle of the battlements?”
“No, man, I mean, it was a while ago. But we should play! We should totally play for sure. If we have time. I’m pretty beat.”
I had a plummeting feeling in my stomach that seemed to cause the ski lift to halt and bob in midair, rather than the other way around. Someone was having trouble getting on or off. One of my ski poles slipped out of my hand and slid down across my leg. It balanced for a brief moment between my knee and the safety bar, but when I snatched at it I knocked it clear of the seat entirely. It fell slowly, seeming to drift backward, struck a clump of snow from the limb of a tree and disappeared.
“God damn it,” I said.
“Poleless skiing time,” Jeremy said. “Nothing you can’t handle. I mean, seriously, how many people actually use their poles when they ski?”
“I can’t believe I just dropped it. Dad’ll be pissed.”
He laughed. “Nah. He’s not gonna give a shit. You have any idea what he’s making right now? You can get some kick-ass new ones, it’s a good excuse. You should try to hit one of the columns.”
“With the other ski pole!”
“I can’t reach it.”
“No, I mean like, throw it! Like a spear, or whatever. Like one of your fire-archers. If you’re gonna get a new pair anyway, right?”
The chairlift chugged into motion, tilting us back a little as we climbed over the ridge. For a brief moment, I saw the distant Timberline Lodge, its windows beginning to glow in the dusk. When the next support column resolved out of the flurrying snow I aimed my other ski pole at it. It missed, basically, but the handle of it touched the steel column on its way past, producing a low tung that vibrated in the air for a few moments.
“Hell yeah,” Jeremy said.
“A hit! A fine hit!” I said, quoting Treebeard, but Jeremy just laughed, didn’t say anything else about The Lord of the Rings movies, like he might have a year ago.
When he left for college at the end of August it became even harder to know what to do with my time. I started hanging out around the middle school with the aspiring stoners, not because I particularly liked them but because I couldn’t bear the idea of returning to our big, empty house, having another conversation with my parents about my day. The long end to summer made me anxious, the Portland wind and rain refusing to arrive even as the yellowing trees headed toward orange and red and frost bit into the air. I went on my bike rides anyway, the wind stinging my face and hands, the leafless claws of trees reaching out from either side. I cut the bike rides only a little shorter than usual, wheels crunching the soil and fallen leaves on the side of the path as I U-turned.
Sometimes when I came back from these expeditions Lisa would be in the living room, talking with my mom. Lisa was going to Lane Community College and still living at home with her parents, but she and Jeremy had decided to stay together, to Skype once a week and see each other on the breaks. It surprised me that she and my mom could have any kind of relationship. My mom had dyed blonde hair and had gotten fake breasts shortly after we moved to Lake Oswego. She wanted to fit in too, I guess. But she and Lisa seemed amused rather than put off by the drastic differences between them. I’d come back to find them having a glass of wine in the living room (“Don’t tell your parents!”), my mom sharing stories of her “misspent youth” and Lisa murmuring about what she called the “high school caste system.” My mother seemed fascinated by Lisa’s theories, despite the fact that she had been at the top of this caste system in her own time, and probably would have treated girls like Lisa ruthlessly. I’d cross quickly from my room to the kitchen, too shy to interrupt them, and sometimes Lisa would glance toward me a little. I was so bad at making eye contact by then that I understood her better as a kind of peripheral blur, like something that was too bright to look at.
Snow battered my cheeks and nose as we approached the top of the peak, and I pulled my half-frozen ski mask out of my pocket, balancing my helmet and goggles carefully between my knees, and put it on. Jeremy hadn’t said anything more. I felt a pulse of exhaustion, gentle but insistent—we’d been skiing all day—and thought of our room back in Timberline Lodge. Once we returned to Portland it would be Christmas, and in the short weeks after he’d have other things to do, friends to see, and then he’d go back to school. Winter break already seemed almost over. I knew that time never truly moved quickly or slowly, but sometimes I had the feeling I could make it hitch and stall if I wished in exactly the right way, the rush of everything suddenly slowing the way the chairlift did. But my life always slipped back into gear, swept me forward while I wasn’t paying attention.
“Are you and Lisa going to hang out when we get back?” I asked. “She hasn’t been over to talk to Mom in a while.”
“Lisa? Oh, we split up. I guess I didn’t say that. We couldn’t do the long distance, you know? Bunch of people warned me about that, but did I listen?” Jeremy seemed vaguely amused by this already, though it couldn’t have happened long ago. The chairlift swung us around to the drop off and I let my skis slide through the snow, pushing free with my hands, since I didn’t have my poles. “Oh, okay,” I said.
The directory sign was barely visible, but we were able to find a run that looped along the face of the mountain, and the little informational blurb promised it would take us back to Timberline Lodge and the night skiing area. I thought the snow was falling pretty hard, but the two middle-aged guys behind us seemed unconcerned, shooting past us into the flurry, talking happily in their loud, earnest voices. The run was more like a wide trail, just steep enough to slide on. There was no sunset, just a sudden dimming of everything, the shapes of the tree trunks gray against the lighter gray of the snow, the wind biting through my mask. My brother’s red jacket lost its color as he drifted further ahead of me and loomed back out of the flurry, vivid and startling, whenever I gained on him. I thought it was strange that he had broken up with Lisa. I wanted to point out that it didn’t exactly make sense to break up because of the distance, since they’d both be in Portland for the next few weeks, but it seemed too late to say anything more. Instead, I ended up thinking about something I’d been replaying in my head for a while.
When it happened it was still September, still basically summer. I’d forgone my bike ride that afternoon and stayed jammed in front of the computer instead, playing video games until my parents called me down for dinner and then rushing back up the stairs to keep gaming afterward, the pixelated expanses of Middle Earth exerting a magnetic pull. I didn’t even look at the leaves of the laurel trees, though I could tell they were fluttering at me, glinting in the glow of streetlights. The knock on my window made a cold sweat break out under my clothes. It was Lisa. My eyes were fried from the screen time and the outlines of her face and flannel seemed to pulse along with the distant details of the backyard. There must have been something in my expression before I jumped up from my desk to let her in, because she gave me a little shrug, as if I’d asked her a question.
I opened the back door. “Hey, Lisa,” I whispered. “What’s up?”
She looked a little sheepish. “I was just in the area, walking back from this party, and…Jesus, I’m a bad influence, I know, but I’ve got some weed if you want to smoke it.”
“Sure,” I said, and we sat in a weird kind of silence in the gazebo while Lisa produced a pipe and a Ziploc baggie wadded around a handful of bud. She exhaled deeply as she packed the bowl. She was wearing black tights that had torn just above her tennis shoe, and I found myself looking at that little shard of pale skin.
“Long day?” I ventured to ask.
She shook her head. “Long everything,” she said. “Long day, long month, long year. Long life.”
I wasn’t really sure what to do with this comment, and I’m sure I made it worse by sitting there like an idiot, momentarily muted with self-consciousness. Why was she here? The question nipped at me, but I pushed it aside for the moment. I was happy to be with her.
“It’s weird, this weather,” I offered. “I’m not used to it staying this nice for this long.”
“Global warming, pal,” she said. “You want autumn, though? Real Portland autumn? Be careful what you wish for. I mean, I get that you’re an emo kid at heart and everything, but the rain even wears on me after a while.”
After I’d taken a few more hits I found myself saying some pretty ludicrous stuff, things I haven’t said to anyone else. “I guess I wish there was another season between now and autumn,” I said. “Like, an extra season that’s not…” I could feel the marijuana at its work, my thoughts tugging at their mooring, detaching, out of gear. “A season where everything goes purple,” I said, over the course of what seemed like an immense amount of time. “Everything. The trees, the ferns, the grass. Everything the same, but everything turned to a different shade of purple. And we get like, you know, a few months of that, and then all the trees go through their normal shit for autumn….” I trailed off, seized by an awareness of what I was actually saying, and realized Lisa was giggling uncontrollably, doubled over in the deck chair.
“Shh!” I said. “You’ll wake up my parents.”
“No, no, I’m not laughing at you. It’s just so great. This season. It would be so great.” Lisa reached for her baggie and loaded another bowl. “You know what this season of yours needs? A name. Right? A two syllable name.”
“Why two syllables?”
“Well.” She looked at me like it was obvious. “I mean, all the seasons have two syllables, right? Think about it: Winter. Summer. Autumn. I mean, I guess fall technically doesn’t, if you want to get picky, but fall is such a lame name for a season, you know? I feel like no one really takes it seriously. As a name. Some lazy fucker obviously just thought, hey, this is the season when all the leaves fall.”
“Wait—but what about spring?”
This sent us both into giggles, Lisa doubled over again, the pale stripe of her scalp shining through the part in her hair. For once I wasn’t afraid to really look at her, the wide, ingenuous curve of her cheeks, her eyes disappearing with mirth. She seemed so happy, and I was proud to have made her laugh so much, though really she’d just been making herself laugh, amused by the eager, klutzy movement of her own thoughts. It must be nice, I thought, to enjoy what you were thinking about. But I had a bad feeling. Her happiness seemed fragile, and the thought of my brother with her suddenly made me cringe with fear. What would he do to her? How would he leave her, when it was time? He didn’t understand, I thought, not really, and neither did she. I wanted to put my arms around her and cover her cheeks and forehead with little kisses, though I’d never done any such thing in my life. I imagined this so vividly that somehow she must have understood it—she flinched upright, as if shaking something away, and looked at her phone. “Holy crap!” she said, raising her eyebrows comically. “Later than I thought. Time for you to get to bed, young man.”
“Right, yeah,” I said. “We’ve been out here a while.”
We stood facing each other for a few seconds, while the time in which I could have said whatever it was I wanted to say to her went by. She hooked her purse over her shoulder. “Well,” she said. “See you later, I guess.”
I was looking at some of the silhouetted trees, straining to see their full shapes through the snow, when my left ski sank into a hidden groove and I lost my balance. It popped off and I staggered, skidding on a single ski for a few ridiculous moments before falling onto my side. I blinked. I wasn’t sure how I’d managed to fall on nearly flat ground, but there it was. I had to trudge back up the slope for the other ski.
I hadn’t made much progress down the mountain but the snow already seemed thinner than before, which disappointed me. The trees and trail were coming back into focus, nothing dangerous, just needles too caked with snow to stir in the slowing wind. I always hated when people went on and on about the natural beauty here. To me it was blandness and silence, a monotone sky, screensaver vistas filled with nothing. Even the trees seemed somehow black and white, though I could plainly see the green in the needles. I imagined flurries, biting winds, air too cold to breathe. Real danger. “Jeremy!” I would have cried out, just a few years before. “Help me! I can’t see!”
I clicked my boots back into their bindings and continued down the slow decline. Timberline Lodge came into sight, and finally the long looping trail merged with a course that headed straight down. None of it felt quite right. Big floodlights turned the snow penny-colored, and I was startled by the sound of voices and the shapes of bundled night-skiers veering down the slope. It seemed like I’d been alone for a long time. Jeremy was standing a little ways down, looking out toward the lodge. I wondered what on earth he was thinking about. When I got close I cut my skis hard to the side and sent a wave of snow at him.
“You little bastard,” he said, turning around. “I wait here ten minutes and this is how you repay me?”
“That’s right,” I said. “You were a sitting duck. You’d be a terrible night watchman.”
We’d had a conversation during the summer about how the plot of every fantasy book or movie seemed to hinge on the night watchmen being terrible at their jobs, inevitably oblivious to any attack, but he didn’t seem to remember, and he didn’t seem too happy about the snow all over his jacket.
“What were you doing back there, anyway? Talking to the trees?”
“Talking to the Ents,” I said. “Making sure they’re winning against the fire-archers.”
He laughed a little. “Let’s get back to the lodge so we can play that game,” he said, and I felt a bloom of happy embarrassment, the familiar realization that I’d been sad for no real reason, had been taking things too seriously.
“Sounds good,” I said, and followed him down the final slope, leaning forward and narrowing the space between my skis just like he did. I let myself fly until the air howled and my legs shuddered and the snowflakes seemed to race right through me. It felt good to move so fast. Already I was feeling relieved, cringing a little at the way I’d been brooding. Things were fine, I thought, all fine. There was no point in worrying about any of it.
© Myles Buchanan
[This piece was selected by Frances Gapper]