“Turnagain” by Jamey Bradbury (excerpt)

At the Resurrection Pass trailhead Easley wraps the girl’s sleeping bag in plastic and straps it to his own pack, then tucks some energy bars into the pocket of her smaller pack and hooks a water bottle to the shoulder strap with a carabiner. The girl sits on the tailgate of Angasan’s truck and nods her head as Travers shows her how to tighten the bindings on her snowshoes. She stands and follows Travers, mimicking his wide strides. Easley shoulder his pack. It is Travers, not the girl, who steps on his own shoe and goes tumbling to the ground. The girl offers her hand but when Travers reaches out for it, she snatches it away, laughing. He tosses a handful of snow at her.

Angasan comes over, shaking his head. “Girls and boys.”

“Pete’s not exactly a boy.”

“They’re all boys, ’til they’re not,” says Angasan. “I’ve got a brother about Pete’s age. He don’t know whether to wipe his ass or wind his watch.”

Travers stands and the girl brushes snow from his shoulders.

“Come on,” Easley says.

They climb the first small hill, Angasan first, then Travers, then the girl. Easley brings up the rear. As on past hikes, there is little talking. All around, the trees are covered in hoarfrost. The slender birches bow under the weight of the ice encasing their branches, low arcs bent over the trail so that Easley has to duck under them. It is a rare cloudless winter day. The sun is at its highest point and light glints off the ice hanging in the trees and off the ice on the bridges over the first and second creeks. Easley puts a hand out to steady the girl and says, “Don’t slip.” Snow crunches under their snowshoes and the rushing sound of the creek is behind them, and then there is only the muted silence of snow all around. It is like cotton in his ears, a not-sound that is nevertheless loud. It fills him up. He exhales, and the condensation of his breath freezes instantly. His beard is white with frozen breath, and the ruff of his hood is white. He is sweating under his layers. He puts one foot forth, pulls the other from the snow, eases into the rhythm, the wide, slow gait, the push and pull of his walking sticks.

A willow ptarmigan calls out. A strange, solitary bark.

He thinks to tell the girl what the sound is. What kind of bird it is that makes it. Her hood is pulled up, and when he calls out to her, she does not hear.

Why can’t she be more like the bent arcs and the silencing snow and the willow ptarmigan? he thinks. These are things he understands. These are things he can explain. Unlike the long, tender years he spent apart from her, like a slow-healing bruise, like a deep wound that must be left untouched, lest it open up again. He thinks of her steady gaze, the way she read the menu at the café and wanted to know how often he frequented the place. The way she scanned the shelves in his den and the cabinet meant for liquor; he keeps books there, no bottles. It’s cold enough to turn his eyelashes into sharp, brittle needles, but he burns with embarrassment and anger: He has apologized. He shouldn’t have to explain.

The Trout Lake cabin smells of wood fires and wet wool socks. They drop their packs inside, peel their hats from their heads, flex their numb fingers inside their gloves. Angasan and Travers go back out immediately to gather wood, while Easley crouches before the stove and uses what is already there to start a fire. When the first small kindling ignites and crackles, the girl comes near and holds her hands out for warmth. Droplets of melted snow cling to her eyelashes and to the ends of her hair. Easley’s knees begin to ache from kneeling in front of the stove. He wants to stand and stretch, work out the kinks in his back. The girl is huddled close to him, almost touching, soaking up the warmth of the fire. He stays where he is. At the airport, waiting for her to come through the terminal exit, he’d planned his greeting. The words he should say, the way he would hug her, how he would enjoy the feel of her in his arms after these years apart. But when she stood in front of him, finally, taller and thinner, the freckles he remembered now faded, he’d awkwardly raised one hand, as if he expected her to shake it.

Angasan and Travers return with armfuls of wood, Travers’s brown hair sticking up in whorls, his clean-shaven cheeks ruddy. They set about to making dinner. Easley stands over the stove stirring noodles in a pot. The girl situates herself at Travers’s side, and the two of them chop garlic and carrots and peppers, her arm bumping his as she maneuvers the her knife. He pokes her with an elbow. Soon they are jostling each other.

Easley thinks of the knives in their hands and says, “Careful.”

Travers brings the vegetables over to the pot and dumps them in.

“You got sisters?” Easley asks him.

“Nope,” says Travers. He lowers his voice. “Lots of giggly little cousins who love attention, though. You know how girls are.”

Easley watches the noodles grow limp in the boiling water.

After dinner they light candles and lanterns and the cabin fills with the shadows of the four of them playing cards. The girl has never played poker. She counts her pennies and nickels before she places them in the middle of the table. In the candlelight, her face looks soft, unblemished. She looks both older and younger than she is. Easley folds his hand and watches her play, the unintentional recklessness of it. She bids, and he glances at her cards. “You sure you want to do that?” he whispers, but it’s too late: All her coins are in the pot, and Travers lays down his full house, sweeps away everything she’s bet.

When stars pepper the sky, they decide to walk down the short path from the cabin’s door to Trout Lake. It is frozen solid. After her first tentative steps, the girl skates across the surface in her boots. The men walk across the lake, and beneath their weight the ice thrums and groans. The girl finds a chunk of hard, crusted snow and gives it a kick. She follows it, catches up to it, maneuvers it between her feet. Head down, concentrating. She slips past the men where they stand.

Angasan and Travers are passing a flask back and forth. When Travers offers it to him, Easley shakes his head.
Even under the layers of coat and sweater and fleece, she is slender and lithe as a sapling.

“You going to see that girl again while you’re in town?” Angasan asks.

“Which one?” Travers say.

“That blonde. The one from the college.”

“Oh, her.”

“Thought you two were getting serious.”

“So did she,” Travers says, and Easley can hear the grin in his voice.

The girl rolls her foot under the ball of ice, tosses it into the air, and kicks it before it lands, fires it into the snow-covered brush edging the lake. She is just an outline in the dark.

When Travers and Angasan head back to the cabin, Easley is sure the girl will follow them. But she stays behind. She glides back and forth on the ice. Slides to a stop and stands nearby. She tilts her head back and so does Easley, and they look at the sky, which is cold and clear, and full of stars. He wishes he knew something about the stars, constellations. It is a clear enough night for the northern lights to come out, and he searches for them, the eerie green glow, the blue vapors like a ghostly veil across the sky. There is nothing. The girl looks up, and he looks at her, her face, shining in the moonlight, her eyes, also shining, under the stars, the canopy of sky, and all around them is the snow, white and unmarred and reflecting the moonlight.

He reaches out. His hand finds the ribbon holding back the long hair. He tugs it. Her hair cascades across her shoulders, down her back, silky and fine.

She spins around. She says, “Don’t.”

(Fall 2011)