They hadn’t been in the same room together in five years, after the wedding. That reunion had ended with a glass of bourbon leaving its permanent mark on the white dress, and they had all come to an unspoken agreement not to meet after that.
But a group will always have factions, much as a broken chain still was once made of links. They were no longer a collective unit, but some bonds lingered, suspended in time and unbothered by circumstance.
It was Drew’s idea. His uncle had passed away a week before Christmas and bequeathed his house in Vermont to Drew’s father, a snowbird who would likely never travel above the Mason-Dixon line again. Drew hadn’t seen the house since middle school. One of his most prominent memories was a winter break spent in that cabin, he and seven cousins and the parents all squeezed into the three bedrooms and pull-out couches, boxes of Swiss Miss and macaroni and cheese from the wholesale club that had made the journey up there with him in the backseat of the minivan. To this day, seeing a bag of beat-up marshmallows sitting on a grocery shelf made him think of the house hidden away in the mountains: the cozy hearth alight with flickering orange flames, the ghost stories his mother’s kooky sister would dramatize while the uncles smoked cigars outside in their overcoats, the snowmen he’d adorn with sticks and carrots in the yard before his older cousin trampled them.
Drew suggested to Mackenzie they make a weekend out of it. Hire a sitter and spend the five-hour drive listening to Americana and rekindle romance as they crumpled up newspapers for tinder.
She thought about it and said, “Why don’t we invite Tina?”
Tina was the woman with the stained wedding dress. If Tina came, so would her husband, Kevin. If Kevin was going, Larson would want to come, too. Or even if he didn’t want to come, he would inevitably send them all an email ostensibly asking how they’d fared in the sub-freezing weather while poking around for the reason he hadn’t been invited.
Drew said, “Let’s invite Helena, then, too.”
Mackenzie said nothing and he took it as assent.
So there it was. The six of them in the cabin in Vermont. Drew thought about it and felt nothing. It was an odd thing to feel, really, to feel but to feel nothing. Even an absence of emotion could bring an unsettling unease.
The six of them used to spend every weekend together. Kevin would pull around with Larson riding shotgun, and the other four would squeeze into the backseat, sharing seatbelts when they felt like being responsible, the ones in the middle ducking out of view when they passed a police car. They did nothing together. Drive around, swing by Burger King if it was someone’s payday, blast Skynyrd and Springsteen and throw the empty soda cups at passersby. It was a thoroughly unremarkable time, yet sometimes Drew was hit with this feeling, he didn’t know what to call it; like the life that remained before him was a black hole, waiting for him to step inside and be sucked within its infinite stomach and ground to gravel by gravity. Sometimes he peered down into that hole and wished for somebody to push him in. And sometimes he felt if he could only turn around and go back to the years he had already lived, the hole would disappear forever.
He thought maybe at Tina’s wedding they could all reconcile. It was a wedding, for God’s sake, the wedding of one of their oldest friends. He envisioned a night of joyful union, reminiscent storytelling, dancing and drinks. And instead the night was a bit like swimming a lap through a pool of pudding. The air felt thick and the hours never-ending. And it had all ended with Mackenzie spilling that bourbon on Tina.
He understood that the cabin was Mackenzie’s way of making restitutions. He joined her upstairs to pack their suitcases.
Tina and Kevin and Helena all said yes. Larson didn’t reply to Drew’s email, but he was waiting in a cab in Tina and Kevin’s driveway when Drew and Mackenzie pulled up.
“It’s so good to see you, Tina,” Mackenzie called from the passenger window as Tina and Kevin put their suitcases in the trunk.
“It’s been too long,” Tina said. She walked around to the SUV’s back door. The rest of her body seemed to take a while to catch up to her long, lithe legs. Tina was a ballet dancer. She spoke politely, matter-of-factly.
Kevin clapped Drew on the shoulder from behind the driver’s seat. “Good sport, huh?” Drew didn’t know what that meant. Kevin continued, “Ready to hit the slopes?”
“Yeah, man,” Drew said, the word sounding odd in his mouth, as if they were twenty years younger and still friends. “Think I’ll try out the black course.”
“The black diamond.”
“You don’t need to say it like that, Kevin,” Tina said, arranging her purse in her lap.
“I didn’t say it like anything.”
“You said it like—”
“Speak up, would ya, Drew can’t hear a word you’re saying! Isn’t that right, Drew?”
Drew glanced at Tina in the rearview mirror, at her lips pressing into a practiced, precise straight line, as if this were just another dance step. His eyes flicked to Mackenzie, who was staring back at him. Then Larson banged on his window.
“You got ten bucks?”
Larson didn’t greet anyone, even in his emails, which themselves were sparse. He’d thrown his cell phone over a cliff several years ago, and his communication was sporadic. Over the years, he’d seemed to have forgotten social conversation norms.
Drew slid six single bills out of his wallet. “This is all I’ve got, man.” Man again. He wasn’t even sure if he liked Larson these days.
Larson rolled his eyes. “Ten percent tip it is, then, I guess.” He walked back to the cab.
“Why doesn’t that hermit get a damn car?” Kevin scoffed.
“Where’s Helena?” Mackenzie interjected.
“Helena’s coming?” Tina asked, her voice jumping slightly in a rare hint of surprise.
“She’s driving herself. She’s meeting us there,” Drew said, still watching Larson and the cab driver, the latter of whom was counting the stack of bills Larson had handed him and curling his lip. Finally, the cab driver got out, shoved the wad of money in his jeans pocket, and walked around to the trunk. He pushed Larson’s ratty suitcase at him and drove off.
“What a dick,” Larson said, climbing into the second row of backseats.
Mackenzie typed the Vermont house’s address into the maps app and they settled in for the drive. Drew turned on a classic-rock playlist on his phone, mainly for old time’s sake, maybe the songs that soundtracked their youth would spindle as they cruised up the highway. Drew was actually more of a podcast guy these days, thinkpieces about the validity of the Nobel Peace Prize and Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. But he couldn’t picture the others becoming interested in that.
Two hours from the city, the sparse treetops and occasional rundown houses lining the road fell away, swallowed by the boulders that were forerunners to the mountains still off in the distance. Drew drove toward them, overtaken by the same feeling he’d had as a kid in the backseat of the minivan — these looming, silent guardians of the highway were towering over him, watching him, landscape ambassadors welcoming him to life beyond what he’d always known, what he had settled for.
He thought about how so often mountains were thought of as things to be conquered. To be climbed, mastered, their peaks and valleys and crevices and footholds found and recorded. They were to be summited so you could emerge victorious at their peak. Elevation, elation, an exaggeration of panoramic riches.
When he first learned how to ski, he wanted to stay up at the top forever. The clean spread of snow seemed to stretch on an infinite canvas, and the cold air whipping and whistling past his ears seemed to frolic in a way nothing on the ground was. But his father had joined him up there, teaching him about pizza and French fry skies, and this reminded Drew of the s’mores in the cabin, and he floated all the way back down.
The five of them said remarkably little in the car. Occasionally, Drew glanced at Mackenzie, wondering if she felt as wary as he, but she stared stoically at the road ahead. He caught Tina in the rearview mirror from time to time as she fiddled with her purse or reached over to pinch Kevin, who was listening to something on his phone with earbuds in. Larson was asleep. The map’s mechanical voice and the horn of an impatient driver punctuated the silences here and there.
They reached the cabin at last. It struck Drew that he didn’t know what shape his uncle had left it in, but upon unlocking the front door, it seemed to be about as he’d remembered it, if a bit dustier and danker. The fireplace greeted him as he switched on the living room light, its hearth dotted with a few framed photos of Drew’s uncle and the family. Drew moved through the house, switching on lights, and realized the six of them hadn’t worked out how to split the three bedrooms. They hadn’t really thought this through at all.
“Hello!” a cheery voice burst through the half-lit house. Drew dropped his luggage in the bedroom he was standing in and went back to the entrance. Helena, her face slightly aged but her hair blonde and her eyes green as ever, stood grinning in the doorway as she slid her snow boots off.
“Hi, Helena,” he said, reaching forward to hug her. He spotted Mackenzie in his peripheral vision looking away. She’d said, a long time ago, before they had even gotten engaged, that she was sure Helena had been the one he was meant to end up with. He denied it then and he denied it now, but sometimes he wondered. Helena had always had a wandering spirit, a zest for life that terrified him. It seemed the second their high-school graduation ended, she was speeding off in a half-working RV toward Vancouver. She eluded college for six years, lived in an art loft, married a man who worked in a tattoo shop on a whim and then divorced him a year later, though they were still friends. Helena had always embraced the moment, and Drew knew if he’d stayed with her, he might’ve become a blip in the past.
But he’d probably loved her. He probably loved all his friends, at one point. They’d all been in love with each other, the way youthful companions are, the way you think you are with anybody whom you’ve shared curfew violations and illicit liquor with, whose flaws and faults and future troubles you haven’t seen yet, couldn’t even imagine.
The atmosphere eased slightly as Drew heated up some chili for dinner and they all sank into the couches to eat in front of the fire.
“What have you all been up to?” Helena said, her eyes twinkling in tune with the fire.
Kevin and Tina were trying for a baby. Drew and Mackenzie were getting a handle on local preschools. Larson was writing a book. None of them asked what it was about.
“What about you, Helena?” said Tina.
Helena held a spoonful of chili in her mouth for quite a long time before answering, “I’m in love, I think.”
“Really,” Mackenzie said.
“Why do you say it like that?” Tina asked.
Mackenzie glared at her.
“Nobody is saying anything like anything.” Kevin stood up and crossed into the kitchen, refilling his bowl of chili. “Go on, then, Helena.”
Drew stood up and gazed out the window beside the fireplace as Helena spoke, something about a man she’d met in her office. Night swallowed the horizon, the mountain’s peaks overshadowed by an opaque cloak littered here and there with a speck of starlight, the highs fading into the monochrome of the evening. There was nothing to conquer here, only a dark tidal wave looming ominously above a world threatened by its existence. Or perhaps it was the mountain being threatened by the black pool of the world beneath. It was always hard to say.
They awoke early the next morning. Helena had dug the coffee maker out from a corner cabinet and put on a pot. This sort of intimacy and comfort with a house she’d never been in seemed to disgust Mackenzie, who politely declined a cup even though Drew could see her stifling a yawn.
“Still going for that black diamond?” Kevin said to Drew without taking his eyes off from his phone.
“Think so,” Drew said, sipping from his mug. Somewhere behind him, he could hear Larson snort.
“Don’t say it like that, Lars,” Kevin said, smirking. It could have been mocking or affectionate. Drew couldn’t quite tell which.
After lift ticket purchases and equipment rentals, they decided as a group to see Drew off to his black diamond course first.
“This will set the tone for the rest of the day,” Kevin said.
“Bet it will make great book material,” Larson muttered.
Mackenzie patted his arm as he moved up in line for the ski lift. She looked him up and down. He knew she was thinking how unlike him this was, this thirst for a risk, this venture from the safety of green dots they’d stuck to on ski trips past. He avoided looking at Helena. He didn’t want anyone to think he was doing this for her, or because of her, or anything to do with her.
This was all his idea. And as the lift carried him into the air he thought of the cascade of snow enveloping the cabin, of the warm beating heart of the fire within, of the things that sustain human life and desire.
He reached the top. He thought he could see them, the five of them, tiny dark pinpricks gathered at the bottom of the course, looking expectantly up at his tiny self at the summit. Perhaps they were laughing about the inevitable fool he’d make of himself, or maybe they were sharing quiet and nervous yet awed looks. It was a nice picture anyway. He raised one arm to wave at them, the pole dangling from his wrist by a strap. Then he swung the pole back down so its spear punched the snow. He pushed off. Gravity would take him down.