Dusk comes early to the blue-black Virginian woods in November.
I know these paths well, but I still stumble on scraggly branches and twigs which poke angrily through a pristine icy blanket of snow. It crunches under our heavy boots as we make our way to the old oak. It seems the perfect time of night for a visit to our childhood haunt.
I stagger a bit, wondering how many beers we’ve had.
“Careful, Thomas,” Peter calls out. “You can’t go back to college with a broken ankle.”
His younger brother Andrew predictably laughs, carrying the nearly depleted case of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Tired of the post-Thanksgiving questioning by the adults (“What are you majoring in?”) and the annoyance of younger children (“Can I see your new tattoo?”), we three grab what we can to drink from the cold garage. If it were warmer, we'd just hang out there, the place where our fathers keep their beer and our mothers hide their wine. But we've been housebound all day, eating and playing cards.
There is just so much football we can watch and pie we can shove into our gobs. The adults seem happy to surfeit themselves on both.
The brothers and I give each other a sidelong glance. We gotta get outta here.
It’s been a while since we’ve lumbered through the woods together, looking for a quiet place to smoke weed and riddle out the mysteries of the universe.
It was simpler when we were kids. We’d steal a box of Jell-O Strawberry Instant Gelatin or dozens of little white sugar packets from their dad’s restaurant. I’d be chasing our childhood Jell-O high the rest of my life.
“That’s our tree, right?” I say. The night air is cold and dry and crisp; my breath comes out in small white puffs. “Oh my god, this is it!” I squint in the dark. It is hard to see without my glasses, but I stride over to an old oak tree, climbing the lower branches.
Andrew puts the remaining beer down; both brothers scramble onto the limbs. Andrew, eager to show off, ascends to higher and higher branches.
“You aren’t thirteen anymore, Andrew—” I yell. Peter snickers, jumps down, walks over to pop open another beer. I join him. Let Andrew continue to prove himself.
Peter and I sit in companionable silence for a while, listening to Andrew drunkenly talk to what he thinks is an owl. It's just a gnarled knot in the old oak, but Peter is not dissuaded.
“He’s an idiot,” Peter says.
“A useful one,” I reply.
“So college is good?” he asks, a little more guarded than he usually is around me. We've been friends for so long. I don’t know how to respond to him. The six months that have passed since high school graduation seem like decades to me. To him and his brother, not so much. Every stultifying day must be the same for them, working in their father's restaurant.
“Yeah,” I say. “College is good.” I don’t want to tell him how much smaller this town feels or how much more claustrophobic my parent’s house seems.
The quietude hangs between us.
Andrew is still high above, singing a jingle from our childhood, suggestively swaying his hips. “It’s Baby Bottle Pop! It’s a Baby Bottle Pop! Just lick the pop, dip it and shake it and lick it again!”
“You. Are. Disgusting!” his brother yells. Andrew responds by dropping his pants and peeing in a perfect arc, graciously avoiding either one of us.
“If he gets down that tree without killing himself, it’ll be a holiday miracle,” I remark.
“Whoo! That feels so good!” Andrew screams, zipping up his pants.
We mutually decide to ignore him. Since childhood, his endless need for attention is cloying.
“Thomas . . .” Peter says pointedly, motioning to a mound nearby. “I think that’s where I buried that dog you hit.”
I look at him, almost angrily.
“You remember—last July? I was out here digging in the middle of the night.”
I clench my teeth. Peter promised me he’d never bring that up.
He walks over to the mound while my stomach gurgles and turns queasy. Too much rich food. I am used to just grabbing pizza or a ham sandwich between classes.
“Yeah, Peter. That was a rough night.” I attempt to placate him. This isn’t a conversation I want to have.
“Dude, you woke me up at like two in the morning . . . My parents were pissed.”
“It’s Baby Bottle Pop! It’s a Baby Bottle Pop! Just lick the pop, dip it and shake it and lick it again!”
“Shut up, Andrew!” we both yell. Andrew laughs at both of us, high overhead. He throws a beer can at us, nearly missing his brother.
“If I didn’t adequately thank you for that night,” I say diplomatically, “then I apologize. You really helped me out.”
“C’mon, Thomas. The end of high school was a weird time. Everybody was making plans—or not making plans.” He looks at his feet. “You’d just dumped Jenny McKinney for getting fat,” he slyly remarks, punching my shoulder.
“Peter," I say. "C'mon, stop.”
“Most girls get a glow up after high school. After prom, that girl just got hella fat. Nobody blamed you, especially with you heading off to college and shit.” Peter walked over to the mound and began kicking the frozen ground.
“Peter,” I warn. My hands involuntarily clench into tight fists.
“That was weird you showing up in the middle of the night. That dead dog wrapped in paper bags. It seemed little for a dog. What did you hit—like a chihuahua? It could have been a squirrel or some rodent. Didn’t feel like much,” he says, draining his beer and pitching the can into the bushes.
"No," I reply.
He kicks the mound with his boot. “We should dig it up, right? It would be cool to have a little dog skull . . .”
“Peter!” I scream, eyes tearing up in the brisk night air. “Stop kicking the mound!"
“Why not—what the hell?”
“Jenny McKinney,” I whisper. “She didn’t get fat.”