This is fiction. It was inspired by a trip I took up north recently. It’s pretty long, but it didn’t start that way. I wanted it to be a 2-3 pager, but the characters really took on a lot of life.
The Road and Evergreens
The Kancamagus runs along Swift River. People sometimes go to a particular spot on the river to slide down its smooth, rocky banks in the summertime; they call it a natural waterslide. Ed recalled countless trips down the Kancamagus with his father as he stared out the window of Anthony’s car, the road and evergreens sliding past. They always left very early in the morning, before his mother even got out of bed, a six pack of tall ones tucked away in the little Coleman cooler stashed beneath the passenger seat. Breakfast on the way at the same beat diner at dawn, sandwiches wrapped in tin foil for lunch, and then they’d pull off the highway for a short hike out to the river bank. Ed would play most of the afternoon, sliding over the cold, slick rocks. His father never did; he sat off in the shade of the evergreens and drank beer, shouting at Ed to go faster. They drove home in the fading daylight, his father smoking a pipe to hide the smell of beer on his breath. This happened maybe three or four times every summer. It was always a surprise.
Ed scanned the trees for the little dirt parking lot where they used to leave the car. Most of the Kancamagus is sheltered by towering evergreens. Anthony was driving them north, Ed in the passenger seat. In the back seat, Alice gazed sleepily out the window, behind Ed. Anthony and Alice talked sporadically, Anthony glancing back into the rearview mirror to watch Alice as she spoke. Ed wasn’t listening to their conversation. He’d been distracted by trying to find the trail that led to the natural waterslide. As Ed waited patiently for the next break in the trees, where he could see the valley spread out at the feet of the mountains, get his bearings, he thought about the smell of his father’s pipe tobacco. Through the white noise of the highway, Anthony mentioned something about Toronto. The hairs on the back of Ed’s neck stood up. Ed’s father smoked a pipe the very last time he saw him.
The previous day Anthony, Ed, and Alice stopped to hike a trail to Arethusa Falls. Six inches of snow had fallen the night before and was followed by twenty-four hours of arctic cold with big, whipping winds. The falls were stunning, frozen nearly solid, surrounded by fresh crisp snow. There was only one spot where yellowish water still poured out through a hole in the thick ice, running down over the uneven surface and collecting in a little green pool at the base. It was much warmer by the falls, the interior of the forest, they were sheltered from the wind. An ice climber left his heavy parka at the base and the three watched him climb all the way up the frozen face of Arethusa Falls with spiked boots and a pick.
Anthony and Ed knelt in the snow by the river and dipped their water bottles into a break in the ice. They all drank fresh mountain water.
On their way back, the wind came down in bursts that nipped at Ed’s face, causing frost to collect in his beard. There was a wind above that wind, too, a the great big wind that pummeled the peaks with a moaning that made Ed’s heart beat quick. Ed felt like the atmosphere opened up above his head when that big wind came in from the the north. It was so huge, it could have blown them all right off the face of the earth, right off into space.
As the wind howled, he watched Anthony and Alice plodding through the ankle deep snow ahead. Anthony was leading, walking quickly, and talking excitedly to Alice without looking back. They had met at a party six months earlier; she was from Manhattan, visiting a friend in Portland. After she met Anthony, she never went home. Her parents called the parents of her friend, but they hadn’t seen Alice since the party. Anthony’s voice was barely audible over the wind, but Alice was nodding excitedly. Ed could tell that he was up to something. Snippets of phrases made their was back to Ed, carried by the lighter breezes and cut short by abrupt bursts of pummeling, arctic winds. Ed was sure he’d heard something about Toronto then, too.
He felt anxious all night after that, wanting to bring up with Anthony what he’d overheard. He thought about asking Alice, too, but he didn’t know her that well. Over and over he thought back to the trip he’d taken down south Anthony just four years prior, when Anthony left him with no money in a shit town in Kentucky. Ed got money wired in from his parents to take a train home. Anthony went to Mexico; it had taken him a long time to forgive Anthony for that.
"We should stop at one of these scenic pull-offs." Alice said, from the back seat as they passed a rest area parking lot, speckled with a few dust covered cars.
"Yeah, yeah. Definitely."
Whatever Anthony had said about Toronto, Alice chose not to reply.
"Maybe some place where we can walk around a little bit."
They had been in the car for most of the last four days. They drove down from Portland the day after Christmas. There was still some debate about how far they were actually going. Ed agreed to go to New York, to bring Alice home, Anthony wasn’t satisfied with simply driving to New York and back. For the time being, they were wandering. First, they zig-zagged through Maine, stopping in on a few friends, sticking around long enough to get free meals before taking off again. Then there was a kid in Wakefield who owed Anthony some money. Anthony and Ed collected that money while Alice waited with a glass of chardonnay at a pub in the center of town. Anthony told her that he had to visit his grandmother in a nursing home, they only let family in. She asked which nursing home and he made up some bullshit like “Shady Heights”. Alice didn’t know the difference anyway and as far as she knew, Ed was Anthony’s cousin. The barman gave Anthony a funny look when he ordered one glass of wine. He had to go to the cellar to get it. They picked Alice up three hours later and Anthony turned the car north.
"Let’s at least enjoy ourselves while we figure out what we’re going to do." he said, coasting onto the interstate, "We’ll go to the White Mountains."
Ed shrugged and Alice agreed enthusiastically. That’s when they started toward Conway, and Arethusa. A strange dread coated Ed’s stomach; what Anthony suggested was completely contrary to their entire purpose for leaving in the first place. They were supposed to go south.
They stopped for gas somewhere just over the New Hampshire-Massachusetts state line. Alice went into the store to get them snacks and cigarettes for Anthony. When she was gone, Ed pulled Anthony aside.
"You really think this is a good idea?" Ed said.
Anthony was confused.
"Do I think what is a good idea, Ed?" he said.
Ed gazed steadily at Anthony. The bell on the pump rang, his tank was full.
"Look, it’ll be fine. We need to unwind a little, anyway."
A heavy moment of silence hung in the steely December air. The back windshield of the car was covered in a film of white, sandy dust. Anthony started to move away, and then stopped, turning back to Ed.
"I gotta get that." he said, stuttering slightly.
"I’m not going to Canada." Ed said loudly as Anthony walked away.
Anthony’s head shot around; he glared at Ed momentarily.
"Who said anything about Canada?"
Ed held his ground, but didn’t say anything. Anthony rushed at the pump, dripped several stray droplets of gasoline onto his pant leg and swore as he rattled the pump and pulled it out, jamming it back onto its cradle. When he came back toward Ed, he was walking with short, stiff steps.
"I’m not, Anthony." Ed repeated, before Anthony could say anything. "I told you that back at home."
Anthony didn’t speak, he shook his head and turned around, walking with the same stiff, quick steps back to the driver’s seat. He started the engine hard, as if to say, “Get in, or don’t.” Ed sighed, looking out at the cars rushing past on 93. The first flakes were just beginning to fall in front of the floodlights that towered over the rest area. Ed walked slowly back to the passenger seat as Alice made her way across the parking lot. Ed waved. He and Alice had met just a few nights before they all left. Alice waved back. Ed didn’t know what to tell her, he wanted to run and pick her up and keep running, hold her tight over his shoulder and outrun every car on 93, all the way back to her home, where ever that might be.
Instead, they both got in the car without a word.
"I’ll pull off at the next scenic area thing."
Anthony was looking back into the rearview mirror as he said this.
The next scenic area was almost twenty minutes away, a long stretch of parking lot with a wooden gazebo in the middle. Only the far section of the lot was plowed. Anthony pulled in slowly, sliding on the icy snow. Sun streamed in through the dusty windows. Ed took a bit longer getting out of the car. He sat for a moment and looked at the stretch of wide open valley spread out before his eyes, the white rolling up and down the craggy hills for miles and miles, dotted with massive evergreens. When he did get out of the car, he had to jog a little to catch up to Anthony and Alice. Snow crunched under his feet as he slipped and slid, almost losing his balance twice.
At the gazebo, they all looked at the plaque that told them which peak was which and how high each one was. They looked at the plaque that showed them all the different kinds of animals that they were likely to find in the forest below. Anthony made an obscene joke about one of them, Ed chuckled and Alice rolled her eyes. Then she wandered off to the far end of the parking lot, holding up a little digital camera in front of her face, squinting at the mountains. Ed picked up a big chunk of snow that he’d pried loose with the heel of his boot and tossed it over the railing into the woods below.
Anthony was standing behind him on some frozen snow with his feet together, looking down with his hands in his pockets. Ed turned around to watch him. Every few seconds Anthony would walk to a new spot on the snow and stand, with his feet together, looking down.
"What are you doing?" Ed called.
Anthony looked up as though he’d forgotten that Ed was there.
"It’s…well, come here."
Alice was walking back from taking pictures of the peaks on the southern side of the parking lot. She overheard Anthony and followed, watching over Ed’s shoulder as Anthony showed them what he was doing.
"See, I tried to jump, but…"
As he spoke, he bent his knees slowly, kind of squatting but still bent at the waist to look at this two feet placed perfectly side by side. Then Anthony jumped, but he didn’t go anywhere. When he straightened his knees, all the snow beneath his boots gave way. Rather than rising up above the ground, he sank down a couple of inches.
"It’s just not strong enough." he said.
Ed looked at him, quizzical. Alice walked up onto the slick, icy snow.
"You’re doing something. I don’t believe you." she said. "What do you do?"
Anthony demonstrated again. Ed watched with his arms folded across his chest. Wind was picking up through the valley, the afternoon was growing dim and cold. Alice tried the trick and soon enough she and Anthony were walking around in crisscrossing circles, laughing with their heads down, selecting spots where they could try to jump up off of the flimsy ice coated snow, only to be pulled back down closer to the ground below.
Alice had a spontaneous laugh, like a child’s. Ed thought of the night they’d been driving and she screamed and swore she saw a moose in the woods on the side of the road. And he thought about the smell of his father’s pipe tobacco, thought about his beer soaked voice urging him to go faster, faster through the cutting cold river water.
Ed said goodbye to Anthony and Alice just six days later. They spent New Years in a friend’s condo in Jackson, had to go all the way back down to Lowell to get the key. After a few days at the condo, with little food and too much free time, they made their way out to Burlington, Vermont and stayed over night there at a hotel, their first paid stay. By that time, Anthony and Alice were sharing a bed on a nightly basis. Ed slept in a sleeping bag at the foot of the bed. That night, Ed overheard Anthony talking quietly to Alice about crossing the border. She didn’t ask about Ed. In fact, they’d gotten her a passport before leaving Burlington. Anthony knew Ed hadn’t gotten a passport.
On January 4th, Alice and Anthony dropped Ed off at the train station where he would buy a ticket to Boston, a ticket that would cost most of the rest of the money he had. There would be no wiring his mother, this time. But Ed had an uncle in Boston that he could stay with for a few days to drum up some money, or maybe stay there and find a job. When Anthony parked, they both got out of the car. Anthony left the engine running.
"You sure you don’t want to come?" Anthony asked, halfheartedly. "We’d wait."
"Nope." Ed was firm.
"Well, okay then."
There was a brief silence broken by the sound of a train grinding to a halt, brakes hissing.
"Well, good luck." Anthony said, sticking out his hand.
Ed nodded gravely, shook Anthony’s hand slowly.
"You too, Ant." he said, "You too."
Anthony and Alice didn’t wait with Ed at the train station. Anthony left the car parked right in front of the station’s main entrance. Alice was sitting in the front passenger seat before Ed could even get his bags from the trunk. As soon as Ed had his tickets, Anthony waved a quick goodbye from across the concourse and hurried out the door, running around the front bumper of his car and sliding in.
It was snowing, again. The double sliding doors of the station’s main entrance were fogged over. As they slid slowly shut, Ed watched Anthony duck frantically into his car, his whole body leaning toward the border. Alice was in the passenger seat in sunglasses. A lifeless voice called out that his train was on schedule. The next time the doors opened, Anthony’s car was gone. Ed swore he smelled pipe tobacco.