Old Mr. Bill was long gone from this world when a neighbor finally found him, slumped in his chair with a cat curled at his feet. The poor woman didn’t expect to find him dead, though at his age, no one should've assumed he'd live much longer, but the shock of his death was nearly overshadowed by what she found in his home: an overwhelming and astonishing volume of artwork. Paintings hung on almost every square inch of the walls, some on simple canvases, others in gilded frames. They lined both sides of the hallway and the stairwell leading up to the second floor. There were even stacks of unhung paintings propped against a sofa.
Most were landscapes, scenes in sky blues and forest greens that seemed to bring the outdoors in, with one location recurring as the subject of dozens of paintings—a waterfall trickling into a river. The falls were narrow and somewhat hidden beneath an overgrowth of trees, no grandiose world wonder, but the artist made it look like an Eden. With masterful strokes, they had painted light rays cutting through the foliage to kiss the streams of water. Glistening white beads of spray rose out of the mist, like a celestial being ascending from within the falls.
Each painting was uniquely beautiful, but in the corner of every one were the same, unmistakable looping initials signed in blood red paint.
Gravel crunches under my tires as I weave higher up the mountain. The thing about mountain towns is that the deeper in you go, the more it seems like Time himself got turned around and couldn’t find his way along the winding dirt roads.
When I had driven through town, it looked a bit fresher than I remember, with new signs on storefronts and freshly paved sidewalks, but the farms and cabins along the route to my family’s property look nearly the same as they did five years ago. Besides seeing the occasional tractor in place of a horse-pulled plow, not much has changed.
My Ford bumps over dips and holes in the gravel road like it’s not sure if it was made for this kind of terrain. I pass the Martin’s place and wave to Mrs. Martin hanging her laundry on the clotheslines, but she only stares, understandably. She wouldn’t recognize my car.
And probably doesn’t recognize me either.
For the hundredth time since pulling out onto the highway with a crisp map in the passenger’s seat, my stomach rolls and I wonder if I’m making a huge mistake.
The hill is getting steeper as I get closer, and my knuckles are stiff over the steering wheel. I recognize the Schulz’s property around the next bend, where a rusty mailbox hangs open at the road. My palms grow moist, my breathing uneven. I hurry on. I work the gas pedal lower, gaining momentum for the next steep curve, and nearly fly right past the driveway to the house. Branches hit my window as I roll in.
I leave the key in the ignition and squint through the bugged-up windshield; the house is nothing like the images from my memories. Its paint is faded, the flowerbeds are overgrown and scraggly with weeds, and moss grows along the shaded part of the house, like the entire structure is becoming part of the mountain. The old oak tree we used to play under as kids stands as strong as ever, as if five years was just a short nap. Its branches are thick with vibrant summer growth, and a rope dangles in the breeze where a tire swing once hung.
Cows graze on the edge of the hill and down in the sunlit valley where a figure walks among them with a subtle limp—his souvenir from the first war.
My stomach rolls again and I consider backing out and driving away before anyone knows I’ve come, but before I can make up my mind, the front door opens and someone steps onto the porch.
Pinpricks of guilt sting my eyes. She’s aged much in the same way the house has, her skin faded and tired, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve caused it. I step out of the car and remove my hat. She shuffles down the porch steps, shielding the sun from her eyes with a wrinkled hand, and then she stops.
Her mouth hangs open. “William Raymond Lawson, is that you?”
I clutch my hat to my chest, not sure what to do with my hands. “Yes, Mama, it’s me. I’m sorry, I should have written first.”
She stands there for a moment, staring, and I wonder if she’s heard me. Her face is void of all expression and my deepest fear bubbles to the surface; they haven’t forgiven me. I shouldn’t have come.
And then she takes a step, and another, and then throws her wiry arms around me. She is so small now, so fragile in my arms, and I’m afraid to break her, but I don’t want to let go.
She pulls away and holds my head in between both hands. “Your hair’s so short.” She chokes out the words.
I run my hand across my scalp, “I had to cut it, back when I enlisted.”
She blinks back tears. “You look just like your father did.”
My insides twist. “Papa—how is he? Is he still angry?”
Her face falls, and she looks away. “Your Papa. He took it hard, Will, harder than any of us. I won’t lie to you.” She kicks at a rock in the driveway. “Things were so difficult–with your sister, with the farm. He felt like you just abandoned us when we needed you most.”
A wave of shame washes over me and my stomach rolls like I’m caught in a tempest. I feel sick and all I want to do is run, run away, like I did all those years ago.
“You know I couldn’t stay, Mama. Every single day I had to look at her and see her pain and know there was nothing I could do to make it go away–it was torture.”
“I know,” Mama says.
“I just didn’t know what else to do, but I couldn’t stay.”
She nods her head, not looking at me.
“I told myself when the war was over–if I made it though–I was going to come back here, come and make things right.”
Mama squeezes my hand and smiles, lips tight.
“Mama, what about Elsie? How is–is she—”
Mama squeezes my hand. “Would you like to come in and say hello?”
They say you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. Growing up here, I was surrounded by beauty, and until I left home, I never knew how different life could be, how in big cities, people lived stacked on top of one another like building blocks with barely a window to let in the sunlight—a patch of communal grass for a backyard.
For us—Elsie and me—the world was our backyard. We’d come home after school and kick our shoes off on the porch. Papa would call from the barn, “just look after your sister, Will,” as we disappeared into the woods. In the summer, we’d spend nearly every day at the river, sunbathing like turtles on big rocks or fishing from the riverbank with chunks of spam on our hooks. And if you followed the river upstream, about a mile’s hike from our property, there was a beautiful waterfall we claimed as our own.
When it rained, Elsie and I would hide behind the falls and pretend we were survivors from a shipwreck, waiting for someone to rescue us. When the river was shallow, we’d look for fossils along the bank and pretend we were archeologists at a secret dig site.
Elsie and I were always close when we were little. We did most everything together and didn’t see a problem with it–until the summer the Schulz family moved to the area. They had three boys around my age, and we became fast friends–inseparable, especially as we got older. We’d trap crawdads in the river and hike to the top of the falls in our matching coon skin hats to hang hammocks in the trees. We believed we owned the mountain, and on our mountain, there was no room for little sisters.
The day Elsie followed us up the river was the day the Schulz boys and I had just finished building a tree fort at the top of the falls. We were sitting with our legs over the edge, hunting squirrels with slingshots, when we saw Elsie coming up the hill, holding her favorite kitten in her arms like a baby.
“Will, look.” The oldest boy pointed, “we’ve got a trespasser.”
“Yeah,” said the middle boy, “a girl!”
I played along. “And she’s bringing that flea-ridden cat! She’ll heap a curse on our whole camp!”
Then we spat like cowboys.
Elsie reached the top, and we climbed down from our fort, holding nubby sticks in our mouths like cigars.
“What do you want, Elsie?” I said.
“Can I play with you?” she asked, leaning over to catch her breath.
“No girls allowed,” said the youngest Schulz boy.
“Yeah. Isn’t that right, Will?” said the oldest.
“That’s right.” I crossed my arms. “No girls allowed.”
“Please,” she whined. “I’ll play whatever game you guys want.”
The oldest Schulz boy threw a meaty arm around my shoulder, his voice low. “Let’s play, steal the cat.”
I nodded in agreement, and we broke apart and dove toward Elsie. I pulled at her wrists while the other boys tried to wrestle the cat from her.
“No!” She squealed, squeezing it tighter. I finally managed to peel her fingers away from the cat’s torso and it dropped to the ground, hissing. One of the boys lunged forward, chasing it with flailing arms. The kitten inched backwards, baring its pointy teeth, and then suddenly disappeared over the edge of the falls.
“No! No!” Elsie shrieked, breaking out my grip and running to the spot where it fell.
We all stood like statues, eventually inching our toes closer to the edge to peer over, curiosity demanding we know the outcome of the cat’s fall. But when we looked down, the cat was looking back at us, meowing from a ledge below, mist coating its fur in a layer of moisture.
“He’s alive!” I shouted, turning to look at Elsie, who stood glaring at me.
“William Raymond Lawson, you better go get my cat right now.”
“Down there?” I pointed to the ledge. “No way. Not for a stupid cat.”
We started back toward the fort, the other boys laughing and mimicking Elsie’s high-pitched whine, and I started to feel rotten for being mean. I turned back to tell Elsie we’d try to find a stick long enough to reach it, but all I saw were her hands gripping the exposed roots at the edge of the falls.
She was going after the cat.
“Elsie! What are you doing?” I scrambled over to where she was climbing and squatted over the rocks and roots, reaching for her.
“Elsie, this is stupid! You’re going to fall. Take my hand.”
Her tears mingled with the spray of water, softening the angry lines of her forehead, but she was still angry, and she was still going after the cat.
“Elsie! Please come back up, just leave the cat. Leave it!”
“No!” she shouted over the noise of the water. “I’m not going to leave Whiskers behind like you always leave me behind!”
I swung my legs over the edge and started to go after her. The rocky river below wavered in my vision, and I froze, half suspended over the ledge beneath me. Cold water bounced off the rocks and seeped through my shirt as I struggled to find footing. My chest tightened and everything around me seemed to be spinning.
When I heard the cat meowing, I glanced down to see it clinging to Elsie’s shoulder. She held it in one arm and was scrambling to climb back up the ledge with the other. I reached out to help her, my hand just inches from hers, when her bare foot slipped on the wet, slick rock.
And she disappeared.
My own voice was a distant, ragged wail when I screamed for her. I pulled myself back to the top and scanned the water below.
My little sister lay contorted in the shallows at the bottom of the waterfall.
And her kitten was being swept down the river.
When I step through the threshold of my parents’ home, it’s like I am back in time—just a boy with sunburned cheeks and dirty feet. I clutch my hat and let my eyes adjust to the dim light. The room smells like pine trees and castile soap–and something new.
“Elsie, someone’s come to say hello.”
My mother tugs me by the arm and leads me to a sunlit corner where my sister sits in a chair with two giant wheels attached to its sides. She sits unmoving, hands in her lap. In front of her, a white canvas is becoming a summer day, and between her teeth, she grips a paintbrush dipped in olive green. Mama walks over and tugs the brush from her mouth, laying it down on the paint splattered table.
I squat in front of her. “Elsie. Els. It’s—it’s me, William—your brother.”
I’m afraid to touch her, afraid to say anything else.
And then she speaks. “I know who you are.” She looks sideways at me. “I could smell your dog breath a mile away.”
I laugh, a sound so unfamiliar to my own ears. Then she laughs, and Mama laughs, and something inside me breaks, like a cord that’s been twisting for all these years.
They let me cry—no rushing, no chiding—and it’s cleansing.
We don’t talk about the accident, or the years gone by, or the fact that Elsie’s arms and hands and legs and feet haven’t moved since I walked through the door. We talk about her art, how one day she was tired of just sitting and doing nothing, so she asked Mama to dip a brush in blue paint and put it in between her teeth. She says it took a good while, but she finally got the hang of it.
“The Clarks, do you remember them?” Mama turns to me. “They run the general store in town, and they let Elsie sell her paintings there—display them right up front,” Mama says, smiling.
I study a finished piece propped by the fireplace. It’s the waterfall where we played as kids, the place where our world turned upside down. She’s chosen darker, more ominous shades of grays and blues to depict the river, like the water is hiding a secret. Or a kitten.
“I’m glad to hear that, Els. Have you sold any?”
“I have–only a handful though.” I had forgotten how Elsie’s cheeks dimple when she smiles.
Mama sits up straighter and smiles. “Elsie’s been saving up to go to art school. People say she’s got a natural talent.” Mama’s eyes focus on something behind me and her smile falters.
The front door cracks against the wall and we all jump. Everyone’s eyes turn to Papa. My Papa, once so upright and brawny, has been replaced by a gaunt old man in a too-big shirt.
I stand and turn to him. “Hi, Papa. It’s me—your son.” We lock eyes. Where regret and shame and hope shine in mine, only ice reflects in his.
“I don’t have a son.” He holds the door open and stands aside.
And it hurts like a punch to the gut. “Papa, please. I’ve come to make things right.”
His voice is a hoarse whisper. “You can’t just walk in here and undo in a day what’s been eating away at this family for years. Now do what you do best, and leave my house.”
I shove my hat back on my head, bend to kiss Elsie on the cheek, and rise to kiss Mama on hers. I stride past my father and I don’t look back.
I know I can’t undo the past; I’ve been living with that reality since I watched Elsie fall. But I was hoping to walk away with a chance for better tomorrows.
A bell above the door frame rings as I step inside Clark's General Store. It’s not as big as I remember, but then again, everything looks bigger when you’re a kid.
Two of Elsie’s paintings hang on the wall, right at the front like Mama had said, with Elsie’s looping initials signed in red in each corner. One is of the old oak tree outside our house, and the other is of the waterfall, and underneath the falls, catching the surge of water with outstretched hands, she’s painted two kids—a boy and a girl.
I lift the paintings from their hooks and walk to the counter. “I’d like both please,” I tell the woman at the register, adding a handful of caramels for the ride home. She counts out my change and wraps the paintings in sheets of newspaper.
When I get back in my car and turn onto the highway, and the mountains grow smaller in the rearview mirror, a heaviness settles in my chest that I know will be with me always, but something about the smell of paint from my backseat makes it feel a little more bearable.