This Is How It Ends
TRIP WAS LATE. AGAIN. I ran my fingers across the rough wood of the porch, counting seconds. Two hundred forty-seven, two hundred forty-eight. I’d been fidgety inside with my mom, but this was no better. The wind coming off the mountains made my nose drip and numbed my fingers. It was barely October, but that’s Vermont for you. I dug through my backpack checking for gloves. I’d need them up at the cave.
Trip swung around the corner finally, the wagon’s left headlight dimmer than the other, like it was winking. If anyone’s car could wink and get away with it, it’d be Trip’s.
He parked haphazardly, beeping before he noticed me on the step. I stood, catching the flutter of curtains next door. Mrs. McGinty watching me walk down the front path. Nosy old bat, Trip called her.
“You’re late,” I told him, sliding into the backseat.
“Sue me,” Trip answered. “I had a hot date.”
Sarah backhanded his arm lightly, then turned, smiling, her arm draped gracefully over the seat. “Hey, Ri.”
“Hey,” I said, trying to ignore the softness of her brown eyes, perfect lips. Hot date indeed.
We started up the trail toward the cave just past six, after picking up Tannis at her house a half mile from mine and Natalie at the ski shop. It was near dusk, but none of us needed much light to find our way. We’d been doing it all summer. Some of us for years before, too.
My dad first brought me when I was eleven, not to hang out with girls or go drinking like we were doing tonight. He and I were going hunting.
He’d stopped just outside the cave, his gun resting on his shoulder, breath coming hard after the steep climb. “My parents didn’t know about this place,” he’d said, peering into the dark opening. “Never woulda found me here, even if they’d come looking.” He’d turned, scanning the clearing, a half smile on his scruffy face. “But I know about it, Riley.” My dad had looked down at me sharply. “So don’t think you’ll be getting away with anything, Son.”
I’d met his eyes, not sure if he was teasing, not sure what I’d try to “get away with” in this place that stank like our basement: stale beer and ash. “Okay, Dad.”
He’d smiled and ruffled my hair, his hand still protection against the scary unknown. “C’mon. Let’s head to the platform and see if you can bag us some dinner.” He’d laughed loud, his heavy boots snapping branches as he’d started up the path to the hunting perch where he’d die two years later.
I thought of him a little bit every time I came here, wondered if he’d really have tracked me down if he’d still been alive. Or whether he’d have sat and had a beer with us.
“Move it, Riley!” Trip yelled down. He stood at the top of the trail, grinning back at me. “We’re thirsty, dude.”
Sarah stood beside him, her arm around his waist, dark hair blending into the dusk and woods behind.
“You could’ve carried this shit.” I hitched my bag with the six-packs inside.
“I procured. You haul.”
I flipped him the bird and continued walking—no faster—up the path. His laughter floated down, and I saw them turn away, Trip catching Sarah’s hand, lacing her fingers through his as they walked toward the clearing.
Tannis was already working on the fire when I got up there. I let my backpack slide to the dirt by the pit.
“Hey, loverboy,” she called. “How about a beer?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” I said, pulling one out of the bag.
Tannis snorted, poking at the logs with a stick that she tossed on top before walking over. She was easily an inch taller than me, and broad. I had to remind myself to stay put when she stopped solidly within my personal space, hands on her hips.
“Easy, motorhead.” I handed her the beer, grabbing another from the backpack for myself.
“Shove it, Riley,” she answered pleasantly, taking a long swig. Her blond hair fell heavily down her back, and I noticed a smudge of dirt under her chin.
I told her and she shrugged. “Adds character.” But she wiped it away, her fingernails still rimmed with oil or lube or whatever they used to tune the cars in her front yard. It drove her OCD neighbor nuts, which I think was half the reason she and her brothers did it there instead of in their barn or at the track.
I took a drink, then bent for a fistful of twigs and listened to the sizzle and crack of the green ones as they landed on the fire.
“You guys need help?” Nat came up from behind. She waved off the beer I offered.
“Sure,” Tannis said. “You and Riley want to collect some more wood?”
Natalie nodded, and I walked with her to the thickets on the opposite side of the clearing, both of us glancing toward Trip and Sarah, who were in soft conversation by the cave. Their foreheads touched and Trip’s arm was around her waist.
“Gag,” I said dryly.
“I think it’s really sweet,” Natalie said softly. “They’re so happy together.”
“I think you mean ‘sappy together,’” I said, something hot and sour in my throat.
“Oh, Riley.” She gave me a little shove. “Someday that’ll be you.”
I glanced past Natalie at Trip and Sarah, now walking hand in hand toward Tannis. If only she knew how much I wished that were true.
Twenty minutes later we had a pile of branches, seven empty beer cans, and the sky had turned purple through the tree line. The five of us sat on stones around our fire, me between Nat and Tannis, Sarah and Trip at the other end of the semicircle. I’d stacked the hollow cans in a pyramid by my feet, drifting in and out of the conversation—Trip complaining about the ski shop, Nat telling him not to, Sarah agreeing with one, then the other. Mostly I thought about how the air smelled crisp and smoky, like the bonfires my dad used to make at home after all the leaves fell. I remember him towering above the flames, even though in pictures I can see he wasn’t much taller than my mom. Memories are funny like that.
Being here felt like those bonfires—warm, comfortable, ritualistic. I’d never have guessed it back when Trip first suggested bringing the girls. “C’mon, man,” he’d said. “Think about it—drinks, dark, ladies . . .” He’d raised an eyebrow suggestively. “Anything could happen.”
I’d agreed, because that’s what you do when your best friend needs a wingman, but I’d known exactly what would happen with those ladies. Nothing. Not for me at least. I’d gone to school with Nat and Tannis since kindergarten. They weren’t into me, and the feeling was unequivocally mutual. But over the weeks of summer, I’d gotten to like coming here with them. Gotten to like them. I was sorry to see it end and wondered if any of them sensed it too—the bite of ice in the air, the hard-packed feel of the ground now. This would probably be our last night.
“Why so quiet, Riley?” Sarah asked. “Whatcha thinking?” Light flickered on her pale skin, fragile and translucent beside Trip’s, still tanned from summer. She reached up to tuck a stray piece of hair behind her ear, holding my eyes.
My heart hammered at her voice, deep and slightly raspy. “Nothing.”
“As usual,” Trip said.
I shot him a look. “Actually, I was thinking this is probably our last time up here for a while. Won’t be long before it’s snowing.”
“And Nat’s training all the time,” Trip said.
“And Tannis is holed up in her garage,” Nat added.
“And Sarah’s studying all the big books in the library,” Tannis said.
“And Riley’s cleaning toilets for tourists,” Trip said.
Nat snickered. “Sounds like a game show. Toilets for Tourists.”
“I assure you, it’s not,” I told her.
“And Trip?” Tannis turned to him. “What are your plans for this winter?”
He took a long drink, belched softly, and said, “Finding us somewhere else to keep the party going.”
“Hear, hear!” Tannis said. She raised her beer and stepped up on top of her stone. With her feet planted and her arms up, she looked about a hundred feet tall. She cleared her throat loudly. “I pronounce it time for a final game of truth or dare.”
“Yes!” Trip agreed, standing too, his features strong and Nordic like hers. “Let it be so.”
No, I thought. Let it not. “Do we have to?”
Tannis pouted. “Party pooper.”
“Don’t be a wuss, dude,” Trip said.
“Fine.” I threw back the rest of my beer. I’d known there was no escape.
“Just for that, you get to go first,” Tannis said, grinning. “Truth? Or dare?”
Tannis could be a serious pain in the ass. I stacked my empty can on the pyramid. We’d need two more to finish it off.
She tapped her foot impatiently. “What’ll it be . . . loverboy?”
That decided it. “Dare.”
“Exxxxcellent.” Tannis rubbed her hands together and jumped to the ground. “Go into the cave,” she said. “Far enough that we can’t see you.”
“Okay.” My skin crawled as I stood. Dark, spiders, mice, muck. In a closed-in space. I started walking.
“Hold it,” Tannis said. “I’m not done.”
“Take Sarah with you.” She smiled wickedly. “And tell her a secret.”
I shook my head, my heart beating triple time as I looked across the circle at Sarah, beside Trip. “You can’t drag someone else into my dare. That’s not fair.”
“C’mon, Tannis. You—”
“It’s okay, Riley,” Sarah interrupted. “I’ll go.” She was already standing, looking at me. “If you want.”
Her deep voice gave me shivers. “Thanks,” I said. “But you shouldn’t have to.”
“What are you arguing about?” Tannis threw up her hands. “She agreed to go. Get on with it. Unless . . .” She raised an eyebrow. “You’re too chicken.”
I snorted, feeling like I was definitely too chicken to be going into the dark with Sarah. I looked at her, my pulse racing. “You ready?”
“Sure.” That voice again.
I felt sweaty, hoped I didn’t smell. This isn’t a big deal, I told myself. Don’t make it one.
“Be good!” I heard Trip call, laughing, as we walked toward the cave.
It was cool and dim inside. Musty, like our basement is now, the smell of late-night benders long gone. The cave’s ceiling was less than a foot above my head, and my chest felt tight. Sarah’s breathing was soft and quick behind me, and I could still hear Tannis outside. I slid forward, biting my lip so I wouldn’t freak out as the dark surrounded us. “I think this is far enough,” I said quickly.
Sarah bumped into me. “Sorry!” She laughed, nervous. Her breath was warm and minty like I remembered from sixth grade at Kelly Lipman’s birthday party. “Yeah, I think it’s fine.” She stepped back, away from me. We were quiet for a second, and I could begin to pick out shapes in the darkness—the rough stone walls, the rise of Sarah’s cheekbones, her full lips. We spoke at the same time.
“You know, you—”
Sarah laughed a little, and I told her, “Go ahead.”
“I was just going to say, you don’t have to tell me a secret,” she said, her hushed voice echoing faintly. “I know this isn’t your thing.”
My pulse quickened with the idea of telling her my real secret. Not that I would. I looked down, kicking at the dirt.
That’s when I saw it.
A straight-line shape among the ragged leaves and rocks. I nudged it with a boot.
“What?” Sarah asked.
“There’s some kind of box down here.” I squatted and ran my hand over the cool leather surface.
Sarah knelt too, her hand brushing mine as she touched the box. I felt the whisper of her breath as she leaned closer, and I thought about how it might feel to kiss her. Not like we had in sixth grade but like we might now. Like she and Trip kissed.
“What’s inside?” she asked. It was rhetorical, of course, but I had a weird sense of déjà vu, like I’d been here, heard these same words before. Like I almost knew the answer. “Let’s take it out to the fire,” she said.
“Yeah,” I agreed, not moving. A dark, unsettling worry crept through me.
I felt Sarah watching. “Riley?” Her voice saying my name in the quiet of the cave sent chills up my spine. “Are you afraid?”
There was gooseflesh on my arms, under layers of clothes, and I realized I was. “No,” I told her. “Of course not.” To prove it I lifted the box, and something inside shifted as I tucked the case under my arm. “Let’s go.”
We stepped back into the clearing, the bright fire raging against the shadowy woods. “Did he tell you a secret?” Tannis asked suggestively.
“Lots,” Sarah said.
“We found something,” I said. Everyone crowded around, peering at the box.
“Cool,” Trip said. “Open it up.”
No. It was an immediate and primal response. But I pressed the button anyway, and the latch on the front sprung open with a sharp click. I remember thinking maybe it’d be worth something, whatever was inside. The box was old, hidden for who knows how long. Childhood stories of pirates and treasure jumped to mind, and I felt a sharp disappointment as I lifted the object out. Not gold coins or jewels or important documents.
Tannis wrinkled her nose. “Are those . . . binoculars?”
“Yep,” I said, though they weren’t like any I’d ever seen before. Clunky, with strange knobs and gears and lenses longer than they should have been. They looked like a cross between a small telescope with two barrels and a brass View-Master, dirty with bits of green where the metal had oxidized.
Forgotten by some old bird-watcher or hunter, I thought, turning them over. Someone sheltering in the cave or camping up here. I rubbed the lenses, which were clear and unbroken. I’d have Morris Headley at the antiques shop check them out. He always had junk like this in the window. If I were lucky, maybe they’d turn out to be worth a few bucks.
I put them to my eyes and turned toward Trip, expecting to see his face magnified when I looked. I even had a joke ready—I knew you had a big head, man, but . . .
Only, I didn’t see Trip through the glasses at all.
There was a show of colors and light instead. Patterns swirled slowly in and around one another, like when my mom made squash soup, her wooden spoon cutting white lines of cream as she stirred in figure eights. In the binoculars the lines twisted, folding in and out, new colors emerging. A kaleidoscope, I realized vaguely. An expensive one. Not like they sold at Miller’s General in town. Some rich kid’s toy, I thought thickly. I was mesmerized by the changing view, fluid purple merging into yellow, then green, a burst of red. A tourist must have brought it up here.
I could hear Trip and Natalie talking. Someone saying my name. I tried to drag my eyes away and listen, but it dawned on me just then that there was something else.
A picture was taking shape slowly, coming out of the colors, but also, not. Something was happening somewhere between the gyrations in the kaleidoscope and the dead center of my brain. Like the ghost images you see when you stare at brightness for too long, shadows burned into the back of your vision.
It was a room, I realized. That shape, a bed. A dresser behind. There were clothes on the floor and hung over chairs. A table, books, computer. The image was sharpening, and I saw a window. Outside, a blue sky broken by a building, long and uneven, with row after row of tiny squares. The whole picture was there but not, vivid but translucent, like something remembered from a dream.
Then suddenly there was movement. A rustling in the bed.
The image shifted as a figure rolled over and sat up.
I stared, focused, and sucked in my breath.
It was me.