Fiction Issue #47

Sky
Image: “Sky,” by Marieken Cochius, graphite, pastel, ink on paper, 31×51 in., 2012

Watchtower

By Shane Inman

Right after it happened, I assumed I’d always remember the look on Ethan’s face the moment just before the ice swallowed him. But a decade was a long time and cast shadows on old memories. What was strange was that everything else in that instant remained intact, minus this crucial detail. I could picture myself perched on the snow-dusted watchtower we’d built around the trunk of a black ash. Boots resting on gray boards, crooked and young and careless in their arrangement. I was leaning on the rail and the head of a nail was digging into my forearm through the sleeve of my coat and Ethan’s name hung in white mist just there in front of me, snagged on bare winter branches for an instant. It was January, and the New England woods smelled of endings.

For a long time, I had remembered only fear in Ethan’s expression. His startled cry, wildness seizing his eyes as they fixed on mine. But when I thought of it much later, driving down old childhood roads, I thought I saw a slyness flickering across his face as the ice began to crack. A knowing half smirk, because he didn’t realize that a minute later, a passing jogger would slide across the lake on her stomach and drag him to the shore, and an ambulance would whisk him away somewhere filled with people who would think they’d saved his life when he opened his eyes. But I might only have remembered it that way because I was in town for his funeral, ten years delayed.

My parents’ house was where I had left it, how I had left it. The shrubs in the front yard, long untended, stretched their snow-laden limbs into the dirt road and rasped against my windows as I passed, and the side porch had faded to sickly pink under the now-absent gaze of summer suns, but these were details, easily discarded. Besides these, it was the same unassuming, ranch-style house that had been the center of the world for most of my life, the last house on a quiet road that saw no visitors except the mailman and the oil company. Same cold air mixed with old earth, same sense of existing in a timeless place kept wholly apart from the rest of the world. I hadn’t thought creeping up that frozen driveway would feel like coming home, but it did.

I turned off the car. A few minutes blinked by on the dashboard, and a familiar chill settled around me. I had meant to come back the year prior, or the year before that, when things could have been different. I had.

I grabbed my duffel bag and rang the doorbell. My father swung open the door.

“Ty! You made it!”

Big man, big voice, warm air rushing from the doorway. It was jarring, though, the reminder that people still called me by my nickname here. My father clapped me on the back and ushered me inside, boisterous as ever, shouting, “Arla! Ty’s home!”

I couldn’t help but notice how much grayer his hair was than when I had left.

“How were the roads?” he asked, as if I had any choice but to reply that they weren’t too bad at all. We shuffled down the hall, me dragging my heavy duffel, him trudging under the years already piling on his shoulders. Not old—never, not my father—but older.

“Great, great, glad you made it safe and sound. Now look, your room’s a bit cluttered since we’ve been using it for storage and all, but there should be plenty of space for you and your things. Meant to tidy it up before you arrived, but you know how that goes.”

I smiled in a way that I hoped said it was good to be home. “Thanks, Dad. I promise I don’t care about the clutter.”

He swung open the door to my old bedroom. Furniture was piled along the wall. Stacks of books and VHS tapes crept across the carpet, illuminated by slim bars of sunlight which squeezed through gaps in cardboard boxes piled in front of the window. I might not have recognized it if not for the smell that seeped from the carpet, the walls. Long summers and close friends and home cooking and staying up all night to watch a meteor shower out the window. If familiarity were a scent, it would smell like this.

If lost things were a scent, they would smell like this, too.

“Welcome home, Ty,” my mother said, coming down the hall and spreading her arms.

“Thanks, Mom.” I shouldered my bag and embraced her, suddenly aware that either I had grown or she had shrunk since we’d last been together.

“Oh, it’s so good to see you—and with a beard! Florida’s been good to you, looks like.”

I stepped back and shrugged, feeling a childish giddiness at how different I must seem, how much more mature. But of course I had not been alone in changing. My mother, too, had aged. Remarkable how I could have been so aware of the impact of years on myself and still think it impossible that my parents had also felt them. Her fingers were thinner now and her voice carried the hint of a rasp and for the first time, I realized she was not so far from the edge of frailty. But she still had that fierce brow and the stooping posture of a woman who had worked with her hands her whole life. Still smelled like parsley and thyme. These things were the same, at least.

“How’s graduate school? How’s Anna?” she said, then quickly waved off my hesitation as weariness from the drive. “I know, I know, you’ve had a long trip and the last thing you want to do right now is talk to your mother. Get yourself unpacked and settled in. I’ll have plentyof questions for you after, don’t you worry.” She winked, I laughed and said I believed her, then my father clapped me on the back again and said welcome home and they left me to my old, quiet room. I dropped my bag on the bed and unzipped it, imagined myself answering my mother’s questions honestly.

Well.

Where to start? Perhaps with the fog that had settled over my future sometime during the past year. Settled then thickened to a point where I couldn’t even see my own feet, but I just kept stepping toward some unknown something which might never materialize. Or the classes for which I no longer felt anything but dread. Or Anna, my mother’s favorite of the women she’d never met, and the rage seething through her tears, the black strands of hair sticking to her cheeks like cracks in something about to fly apart, the way the apartment shrank and darkened to nothing after I asked her to leave. I put the fragmented truths in a box and tucked them away as I unpacked my things. I was here to say goodbye to Ethan again, nothing more. I’d be back in Florida soon, and then I’d sort out the rest.

My mother had draped a woven cloth across the kitchen table for dinner and topped it with a pair of scented candles. They advertised themselves as sea breeze, pink scallop shells strewn across the glass, but the smoke had the hardness of tap water. Over bowls of pasta and vegetables and wisps of steam, I gave my parents the version of my life they needed to hear, in which Anna was good, the anthropology program was everything I’d hoped for, and I couldn’t wait to get back to that fetid, moldering state. The lies were easy, and my mother’s satisfied smile was enough to justify them. Eventually, she turned the conversation to my childhood best friend.

“Do you remember when you had that awful flu? Took you out of school for almost two whole weeks, and Ethan came by every evening with his little spiral notebook to tell you what you’d missed.”

I said I did. Dusk had turned to night outside, but with the snow on everything and the moon nearly full, the world never quite got dark. It just hovered in this blue-silver haze in which everything was perfectly outlined but devoid of detail. You could make out a person from a hundred yards, but even from five feet, you wouldn’t be able to see their face. How many times had we sat just like this in my lifetime? My father at the head of the table, my mother and I across from each other. I knew every shape outside the window behind my mother’s head, the configuration of every branch, the dark shed in the uneven yard, as if everything were the same as it had always been. I felt suddenly that I should have sat elsewhere, taken my father’s chair maybe, rearranged the space so it didn’t fit so cleanly over my well-trodden memories.

“Really just a sweet boy,” my mother said.

I nodded. It didn’t seem important to mention that the notes collected in Ethan’s notebook were not class materials at all but peculiar behaviors he had observed among our classmates and teachers.

Feb 12 – Hector keeps looking out the window and smiling like he sees somebody even when no one is there.

Feb 14 – Ariel taps out a song when she thinks nobody is watching. I do not know what the song is.

Feb 15 – Mrs. Turnbull wore the same dress today that she did yesterday. She seemed embarrassed about it.

Ethan was always like that, paying very close attention to what everyone else was doing, noticing things that made no real sense to notice. In school, he’d nudge me and point these things out as he recorded them, and I had loved these strange snippets of life. At the time, I had never understood why he watched people like that. Now I wondered if he had been looking for something, as if everyone else knew the secret to living and if he’d just paid close enough attention, he could have learned it for himself.

“Always seemed so cheerful, too,” my father said. “Who could’ve known?”

“It’s a terrible thing,” my mother said, if only to fill the growing silence.

I said nothing. Words that had waited for hours and days on the fringes of my consciousness were trying to assemble themselves. Who could’ve known? Why had I come here unless I already knew the answer? Why had I driven twelve hundred miles when no one would have questioned my absence if I had stayed away? In the sanctuary of the watchtower, I heard hints of the dark, quiet things swimming in Ethan’s blood. I saw the smile on his face before he fell through the ice. But these had just been pieces. Fractions of a whole I couldn’t have been expected to see. Hell, how could I have known to look for it in the first place?

“Do you ever think about life after this place?” he had said once.

We were fifteen pushing sixteen, perched on our watchtower and swaddled in the forest. The incident on the ice almost three years earlier had been set aside and forgotten—just an accident that could have turned out much worse. I already had my eye on early college enrollment, someplace distant and alien that would make the memory of this cold, empty town feel like a dream from which I’d finally woken. Ethan’s futures were narrower.

“After this town or… whatever,” he said.

“Sure,” I said, stubbing out my cigarette on the wooden boards. The autumn breeze quivered with the first breath of winter and distant snow, and the overcast sky shimmered darkly on the lake. Everything smelled of earth, of damp, of old things that would outlive us both.

“I can’t see it,” Ethan said. He looked up and squinted, searching for something. His greasy blond hair was getting longer, though I guessed more from lack of attention than any stylistic choice. “Like, I try, but I don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like. My dad wants me to take over at the hardware store eventually, but then what? Just this, forever?”

I thought I knew what he meant. Thought he was echoing my own conviction that the rest of the world was waiting for me beyond this shitty, boring town. (Do children always learn to hate the place that raised them? They must.) Why did he have to speak in riddles? If he’d just spoken honestly, just given voice to what was killing him—

But I would have left anyway, wouldn’t I? Even sitting beside him, I had already left him a thousand miles behind, already prepared to forget my best friend with the rest of the town. So here I was again, in this place I had thought I could will out of existence.

“You could’ve called me if you needed someone to talk to,” I said to the blond-haired boy in the woods. Not part of the memory. New words inserting themselves. New reality forged by the vague anger I had felt from the moment I’d gotten the call from my mother, rising now like a river in a downpour. The trees trembled with a wind that wasn’t there.

“What a fucking stupid thing to do,” I said. “What a pointless, idiotic, shortsighted thing you did. Why didn’t you just call me? Or call somebody? Or ask me to stay?”

He looked at me, but I had strayed past the edge of the memory and he had no words left. Would never have those words.

I excused myself from the table before my mother could spot the ugliness tensing within me. I locked the bathroom door and leaned on the sink, stared at the face in the mirror. Brow knit, jaw set, eyes dark and red. The man looked at me with condemnation in his gaze.

“This is not on me,” I said, the other man mouthing the words as I spoke. “And I’m leaving all this shit here when I go back to Florida.” From my lips, my anger felt just. From his, it was a child’s empty defiance. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I knew the man in the mirror was still watching me. If he could have spoken, would he have said I had earned this new burden? That I owed my friend something I hadn’t understood until there was no way left to settle the debt? I opened my eyes and straightened my back, and the man in the mirror was just me again, with no face or voice of his own.

That night, I dreamt Ethan was leading me across ever-thinning ice, and every time I tried to tell him he should turn around, the words stuck in my throat and never came out. I woke with his name lodged in my throat like a bone. Gray dawn caressed the cluttered room. The funeral was to be held a little after noon, but the thought of returning to sleep—and to my dream—was out of the question. The smell of this place which had been so comforting before was now suffocating. I got up and dressed quietly. I glanced outside at the snow coating the ground, the beads of ice trickling down tree branches, the cold a whisper heard by everything. I grabbed my father’s peacoat and threw it on over my windbreaker. It hung off me like his clothes had when I was a kid, the fabric collecting in pools under my arms and hanging limp around my waist. I opened the front door and stepped into the winter.

The path was easy to find, even years after I’d used it last. We had carved our way through the trees and shrubs so often that their branches still felt the ghosts of our passing. Thicker now, older, they bent away from the trail as if to frame our boyhood selves. My breath fogged in the air and twigs rasped against my coat as I shouldered through the woods with only the crinkling snow and distant, lonely chickadees to keep me company. Dee-dee-dee,dee-dee-dee.

It had always been this quiet in the colder months. Ethan and I would weave down the path single file, rarely speaking, reverent in our childish way for the endless earth enfolding us. Once, a year before he fell through the ice, Ethan had been leading the way, his olive jacket rustling and his small breaths shallow. Then he stopped, and I bumped into him.

“Hey,” I said, rubbing my jaw. “Warn me?”

“Sorry,” he said. But he wasn’t paying attention to me. He was fixated on something on the path, and I peered around him to see what it was. A little nest, no bigger than my fist, lay upside down on the snow.

“It must have fallen out of one of these trees,” he said. He crouched down and gingerly turned it over. Too late, of course. The single white-blue egg was badly cracked and leaked translucent fluid. He picked it up so delicately and placed it back in the nest, as if it could still be saved if only he were careful enough. Then he told me to wait there and left the path for a young maple with low branches. He stood on his tiptoes and placed the nest just where one branch forked into two. After making certain it would stay put, he returned.

“Why’d you do that?” I said. “The egg was broken.”

“I know,” he said. “I know it was.”

Why that moment? Why did that moment come back to me as I pushed through the brush over a decade later. I could just as easily have recalled any of our more joyous summertime visits when the woods sang and the whole world was green. I frowned and ducked under a fallen poplar, and my breath caught because there it was, where it had always been.

The watchtower was little more than a narrow platform of pine boards nailed around an old black ash, twenty feet or so off the ground. A ladder of shaved boughs leaned against the platform, somehow still upright. The railing that had once been nailed around the perimeter of the stand now lay in rotten pieces on the forest floor, the nails having long ago pulled free of the old wood. I stood there and let the pine air scrape the sun and humidity and distance from my lungs until I had never left at all. I wished the place had changed more. Wished the whole fucking watchtower had collapsed and been devoured by the earth so I could believe the world had forgotten it was ever here. But it hadn’t. Trees have a very long memory.

I eased my foot onto the lowest rung of the ladder and tested it. The wood had softened but still felt firm, made strong by the frost spiderwebbing across its surface and filling the crevices in its grain. I grabbed the sides of the ladder and climbed. I should not have been able to reach the top or to clamber onto the platform on my hands and knees. All this had been built for a child, for someone I assumed I had left behind years ago. But there I was on the watchtower, as if the only thing that had changed was that this time, I was alone. I sat with my back against the trunk, and I could see the lake just as perfectly as ever. Crystalline expanse of untouched snow, blown away in places to reveal blue ice beneath. In the middle, there was a little island, no more than fifty feet across, at which Ethan and I had always marveled. We never tried to reach it, even after a week of teeth-aching cold which left the ice harder than the shoreline. It was too far from solid ground, from what we knew and could trust. So instead, we dreamed of what an adventurer might find there.

I saw Ethan then, sitting next to me almost fifteen years ago with his orange beanie pulled tight around his ears so his chubby face looked as round as a grapefruit. He threw a pebble as far as his little arm could muster, and it bounced off a rock on the shore and skipped on the ice a few times before coming to a rest well short of the island.

“I think,” he said, “there’s a door there.”

“A door?” I was a child again. Nine, maybe ten. Hands warm inside my mittens.

He nodded. “In the ground. And it goes somewhere different. Not like here.” He looked at me then, and I couldn’t understand why he looked so serious. We were playing pretend, weren’t we? Didn’t he think this game was fun? “It’s warm there,” he said. Not a suggestion. A statement of fact.

He aged in front of me, his clothes shrinking on his lengthening form, his chubby face thinning a little. Two years? Three? It was summer, and sunlight shimmered across the lake through the swaying green of the woods.

“Do you ever think about running away?” older Ethan asked me.

I shrugged and said, “Sometimes.” Who didn’t?

He frowned and looked like he wanted to say more but didn’t know the right words or even if he should say anything at all.

“Hey, look what I brought,” I said, reaching into my backpack. I pulled out a book, the cover blurred by time and tears in my eyes that weren’t part of the memory but somehow felt like they had been there that day. Maybe they had been there, even if it would be a lifetime before I knew the reason for them.

I swore, and no one but the trees heard me. Then I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my father’s coat and climbed back down the ladder.

We arrived at the chapel just as idle flakes of white appeared in the air, drifting and eddying like ash from a pyre. I took my mother’s arm, and we shuffled up the icy walkway. White paint flaked from the chapel’s siding, and the molding around the windows looked as if it had been gnawed away by rats, though I knew it was only time that had done it. I looked up and spotted a nest in the long-empty belfry—a large one made of sticks and roof insulation. An owl, maybe? We climbed the concrete steps, and it disappeared from view.

It was strange, seeing all those faces from the life I’d had before. The stern brow and wiry beard of Tom from the scrapyard, hunched in a lonely corner. I saw him loaning Ethan and me a fishing rod and a small tin of bait, grumbling that if we were gonna spend so much time down by the lake, we might as well get something useful out of it. Mrs. Turnbull, our old science teacher, was thinner than I remembered her being, eyes larger in her sunken features but with the same watchfulness that had always made Ethan smile.

Just as strange, though, were the faces I didn’t see. Old friends Ethan had known through me. Folks my parents knew who must have heard the news, must have felt compelled to come, yet still were absent. Had I been away that long? Had things really been changing over those years, even while the surface of this place stayed exactly the same? I smiled at those who looked my way as we entered, but my skin grew cold. My parents guided me to their customary spot among the pews, and we sat suspended for a moment in silence thick like molasses, holding us still and upright and alone. It was my father who broke it, greeting a friend whose name I couldn’t recall.

“Terrible thing,” the other man said.

“Terrible, yes,” my father replied.

I glanced around as people took their seats, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone who might take it as an invitation to stop by and ask me how I was taking the news and what I was up to these days and how long was I in town for because they’d love to have my family and me over for dinner if we had the time. In truth, I pictured myself waking up the next morning and leaving. No goodbye, just the dwindling sound of tires on a frozen dirt road. It would be best to leave before I had time to pull back another floorboard here and expose more decay beneath my memory of this town, this life. It was comforting in a sad and distant sort of way to tell myself all this would be memory again tomorrow.

The chapel wasn’t large—enough pews for forty people, maybe fifty if they got cozy. An organ sat in the far corner against eggshell walls that stretched to meet the exposed wooden beams of the ceiling. It smelled of dust and dry mold, like an old book. Maybe it was this that made me so uneasy. That I had grown up in that mustiness, and smelling it again told my brain that I was still a child and Ethan hadn’t killed himself yet. A whisper in the air that I still had years to stop him if I paid closer attention this time. The service started, and I bowed my head.

Ethan had been talkative the day of the accident, going on about a squabble he’d watched between two squirrels at his birdfeeder, the way they chittered at one another, darted back and forth around the rim. Had this also been a signal? Was he talking fast to paper over something inside? I must have known something was wrong, or at least different, but the air was bitter and already my fingers throbbed from the cold and I was beginning to regret going outside at all. So I’d climbed up to the watchtower as usual without paying him any mind. I turned around, but he wasn’t there, hadn’t climbed the ladder.

“Wait,” he said from below. He bent his legs at the knees, tensed, swiveled back and forth, either deciding or working up his nerve. “I think I can make it to the island today.”

I stared down at him from my perch. “What?”

But he was already backing away, eyeing the lake, seizing his moment.

“I think I can make it,” he said again. And he was off.

I shouted after him that it hadn’t been cold for long enough and to stop—then I just shouted to be careful because he wasn’t stopping, because he kept strolling toward the ice as if he knew with absolute certainty that it would hold his weight. I didn’t chase after him. I couldn’t say why, only that all I did was stand helpless on the platform. And then he was on the lake, one foot after the other, small bootprints in the snow. After the first few steps, I actually started to believe he could make it. Then something gave way and he looked back and gasped—or smiled or said a word I couldn’t hear—and I shouted his name and he vanished.

When it came time for me to speak, I wiped the sweat from my palms and squeezed past the elderly couple at the end of the pew, then climbed the steps to the pulpit with my smudged notecards in hand. The silence in the church was half finished. The windows quivered in the gentle wind, and the reverberation hummed over all the quiet faces.

“I’ve been gone a while,” I started. My voice was raspy, my throat dry. I cleared it and started over.

“I’ve been gone for a little while, but I had to come back when I heard. When my mother told me what happened.” Glancing at the notecards, back at the faces looking up at me or down at the floor or out the windows at the impenetrable gray. “It’s strange, being here, seeing all the things I remember but without Ethan.”

I had jotted a story on my cards. The one about the nest and that little white-blue egg—it had been playing over and over in my head since that morning. But looking at it then, I thought, what right do I have? To this story, to this memory. All those hours in the woods, on our watchtower, and I had never really listened to this boy who had needed my ear more than anything. This boy I had abandoned and forgotten as soon as it was convenient. I put the cards in my pocket and wondered if I could walk out right then. Just walk away and disappear down that dirt road like before and leave Ethan forever in that church. Maybe if I just left, I could still keep his death from forever becoming a part of me. Instead, I looked at his parents and felt the life go out of my legs, which had for years been so eager to run. I wanted to tell his mother that I did it, it was me, I was selfish and I thought words didn’t matter and I killed your son. I wanted his father to hit me hard enough to knock me to the ground and leave a mark that would sting for the rest of my life. But the air had left my lungs, and I had nothing else to say.

“We did everything together, and I thought I knew him,” I said with an edge I realized was meant for me. I looked out at the pews. Nausea, room unsteadying.

“I hope he found some kind of peace, wherever he went.” Meaningless platitude. I stepped down and rejoined my family.

After the service, I murmured my condolences to Ethan’s parents, swallowed as they were in grief, unable to see my face or hear what I told them. Then I let the crowd of halfway mourners push me aside. The casket was open, but I kept well away, afraid the mortician had put a smile on his face.

My father drove us most of the way home in silence.

As we rounded a long bend in the darkening road, I said, “Nothing’s the same here, is it?”

My mother sighed. A long, tired sigh, late autumn leaves rustling in a chill breeze.

“No, honey,” she said. “Not especially.”

Winter slid past on either side, whites and grays and ruddy browns fading to navy as the sun slipped behind the trees. My parents becoming silhouettes in the front seats of the sedan. The hush made them older than I had ever imagined they could be.

“Do you remember when he fell through the ice?” I said. The words sounded like an echo, spoken outside of me.

My mother nodded.

“‘Course I do,” my father said. “One of the scariest days of my life. You coming running out of the woods and the ambulance sirens tearing down the road.” He shivered. “Damn miracle that that woman was nearby.” He stopped, recognizing the sourness of that miracle now.

“Do you remember what I told you about it? On the way to the hospital or afterward?”

“Well you were pretty panicked, so I can’t say I remember exactly—”

“What about his face? Did I say anything about the look on his face?” I knew I wasn’t making sense, but I couldn’t help myself. I just wanted him to tell me he’d looked afraid. Tell me it was an accident and Ethan really had meant to reach the island. Tell me there were no signs. Tell me I couldn’t be blamed because nobody can know that somebody’s going to swallow a whole medicine cabinet full of pills until after they do it and everything before then stops meaning a goddamn thing. More than anything, I needed him to tell me everything was all right, the way he had when he was a god, and I wanted to believe him the way I had when I was small and a believer.

He couldn’t tell me any of those things, of course. We were just two men now. He couldn’t remember what I’d said any more than I could remember what I’d seen. So the last question just lingered on my lips down all those winding roads—Is this sly smile I see in my memory the same one he wore when he took all those pills? I couldn’t ask it, because I realized there was no way I would ever know. No one left in this forever-winter town who could answer. It struck me then that maybe what I’d said at the pulpit was true. Maybe this was the only peace Ethan could have ever found. The small smile as he sank down to glossy white tile—the moment just before he slept.

Fuck, it was cold in the back of that car. I pulled my coat tighter around myself and saw my breath in the air. Ethan’s name in the silence. I closed my eyes, opened them, and it was gone.

“I think I’d like to stay in town for a little while,” I said. “If that’s all right with you.”

“Of course it is, Ty,” my mother said. “This is still your home, you know.”

I listened to the cold wind whip around the car and thought maybe, for a while, I could believe her.

Shane Inman

Shane is a freelance tour writer born and raised in the smallest state in the U.S. He gave up a budding career as a technical writer to focus on his creative work, which includes both writing and theatre. More comfortable behind the lights than in front of them, he has directed several theatrical performances, including Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses and an original adaptation of Apocalypse Now. When he has the time and resources, he travels domestically and abroad, performing volunteer work in exchange for room and board. He has lived on an animal sanctuary and in a monastery, among other odd places, but wherever he strays his home will always be the New England winter and the city of Providence, Rhode Island.

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