The wind rushed against my face, silencing the sounds around me. There was a moment of white noise and pure peace. Then the wind shifted, returning me to the forest and the chatter of my wife walking and talking behind me. I stared up the path towards the distant peak, standing stalwart, awaiting my return.
We walked on towards our goal.
My wife picked something out of my hair. “You’re so tall. You keep walking through the branches and getting the needles in your hair.”
I turned and my gaze fell upon the full height of the massive, ancient pine beside me. Its branches like so many arms. Its needles like so many fingers.
“You do it on purpose, don’t you?” she said. “You like the feeling?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, I guess not so much how it feels, but the connection I think, or belonging maybe. Like I’m here for a reason and the forest knows and welcomes me.”
She let out a small laugh. “Alright mother nature’s son.”
I smiled and turned and walked on. The wind continued to keep my attention, creating a choreography of motion without music, the woodland its theatre. The dance began as a fluid and natural ballet, but the wind blew and blew and the moves became violent, the branches whipping and cracking.
It was the start of winter when it’s hard to keep feelings of sadness from creeping in. The quiet of the forest turns to loneliness if you’re not careful. The few bird calls I heard were left unrequited, left behind, left alone against whatever comes with the changing season.
We passed a small deserted cabin by a lake on the way. Its windows were all boarded up like some coffin of a previous life now dead and gone. Lots of places like that now. Lots of people leaving the mountain. The stories got to them, even though no one knows if they’re true or not. It affects them still. Hearing voices in the wind, seeing shadows. I guess if the people themselves are haunted, there doesn’t need to be anything really there. They do all the haunting to themselves, the ghosts from their past clouding their mind. The only ones still here stayed because they had to. They had no choice. That’s how I felt.
This was the first time in ten years I’d been back. I felt the pull deep in the pit of my stomach telling me to bring her here. Bring her to the mountain. I had to show her. But there was something in the way the wind was blowing around, that old sad howl, that had me questioning my decision.
“I’m going to rest here a bit,” I said. “I’ll catch up.”
Her eyes narrowed on me, trying to read my face, but I gave her nothing. I said, “Go on, I’ll catch up.”
“Okay. But don’t wait too long. I want us to get to the top together.”
As I watched her hike away, a chill blew through me. I pulled my jacket tighter, but I knew it wasn’t from the cold. It was a memory from this place, but I couldn’t catch it. It swam in the depths of my mind, but it was more dense than the others, so it sank lower. It hid beneath the lighter, more pleasant ones at the surface. I thought that a moment of peace in this place, the place where it happened, would bait it to the surface, but it was a stubborn fish. It remained a vague shadow swimming back and forth below the surface. I knew it was there, but I couldn’t catch it.
I was left alone, staring at nothing, thinking about nothing.
A rapping from the cabin startled me out of my trance and I noticed the wind blowing a loose board. I went over to it and saw a shadow move past the spot between boards and I jumped back and called out in terror.
Blood rushed to my head and made me see white and I braced my collapsing body against the cabin wall. In that moment between worlds, the sound came back to me—a distant scream reverberating through the trees.
His footsteps didn’t make a sound. He came running up behind me and pounced on my shoulders. I shook from surprise. He was always doing that to me.
“Hah, did I get you?” he said.
“No! You’re so tiny…you couldn’t scare a baby cat!”
I was only trying to play off my jump, but he didn’t like that. He didn’t say anything, he just scrunched up his face, turned tail, and ran off up the path. I watched him go, his dark brown locks bouncing with every step.
After a moment, I steadied myself and blinked my eyes until a clear image returned. I moved back and saw the figure again—my own shadow. I rocked back and forth a few times, watching the trick of the light, and chuckled at myself, though my heart was still pounding.
That old cabin spooked me. Better leave it alone to rest. I looked up the path and saw the peak again, but it looked different now, glaring down at me.
I hurried onward up the trail and felt the weight of my legs as the slope steepened near the top. My eyes kept darting up at each pine I passed. As I reached the end of the path, the wind blew the fallen pine needles and they began to float around me. For a brief moment, I saw a face in the wind, its cold eyes dead set on mine.
It was gone as soon as it had formed and I was left eye-to-eye with a deer mouse on a rock looking up at me. A hawk swooped down to grab it, but its attack proved misaligned as the hawk’s talon merely knocked the mouse from the rock, pushing it off the cliff’s edge. The hawk screeched and returned to the treetops. I looked over the edge but could see no trace of the mouse. The fall must have killed it.
“Did you see the way she looked yesterday with that blue bow in her hair?” he said. “She’s gotta know she’s the prettiest girl in school.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want him to know.
We continued up the path and he—being much braver—took a shortcut by scrambling up a group of boulders, shirking the switchbacks altogether. I kept walking the path, deciding to avoid the precarious climb. He yelled to me.
“Come on! Don’t be a wuss! You think Anne wants to go out with a wuss?”
So he did know. I could feel the heat from the blood rushing to my face like the heat from the sun when it starts to make you sweat. I ignored his call and walked the path, hands in my pockets.
I had seen the bow, just like everyone else, and I hated it. I remembered Anne as my friend, as she had been, the way she was before she knew how she looked or how she affected people. The bow looked to me like a blue ribbon, crowning her the prize of the county fair, the finest rose, the sweetest pie, the cutest kitten. But she was so much more to me than that. I didn’t care what she looked like. She was nice to me, that’s what I knew, that’s what I liked. Then one day, she’s not so warm and soon she’s not talking to me at all. That’s what that bow meant to me.
I came around the curve of a switchback and saw her waiting far in the distance, leaning against a boulder just below the final peak. The last ray of sunlight passed through the trees and came to rest upon her face. She had her eyes closed and I wondered if she was thinking about me. I stood back for a moment, just wanting to watch her, not wanting to remember.
“Anne!” I called out. “Anne, I’ve caught you!”
She opened her eyes and blinked a few times, putting her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. She didn’t seem to recognize me. I waved my arms.
“Anne!” I called out again. “Anne, it’s me!”
I don’t know what came over me. I felt so silly, like my head was a great big balloon trying to float away. I started to run towards her, my arms still waving, still yelling her name. “Anne! Anne! Anne!”
A huge burst of wind came crashing down off the top of the peak as I got close to her and I lost my footing. I was right on the edge of the cliff and I wobbled there for a second trying to catch my balance. Anne looked at me and I could tell she was afraid. But was it for me or of me?
The wind blew again, a fierce gust like two hands pushing right into my chest and I started to fall. And there it was again, that same face in front of me, staring at me, hating me. And there I was, frozen in space and time, caught in the gaze of the wind and in that moment, I understood. In that moment, I remembered.
By the time I caught up to him, he was at the top, staring over the cliff’s edge. He looked like a painting, his silhouette framed in the blues and pinks of the sunset sky. He would never know how much I hated him in that moment. Wherever I struggled, he thrived. Whatever I wanted, he got. Whoever I liked, liked him. And he just stood there, not a care in the world. Not even trying to make it so.
There was a feeling in my chest, a feeling like a million fire ants fighting and biting and suffocating my heart. I got a thought in my head and it hung there for a long time as I watched him. I could prank him too, just like he pranked me. Sneak up on him this time. Step by quiet step, I moved toward him, raising my arms as I approached. I was right behind him and I yelled out and gave him a push. I never even saw his face, I just watched those brown locks float as he fell down, down, down. . . .