All the Roads and Trees of Pennsylvania
All the trees in Pennsylvania are dark and strong. They are earnest maples and enduring pines. They are ancient and watching over the roads. They are tricksters against people who expect a straightaway but instead find, just after one blind turn, another two snaking past a mountain ledge or spilling-over ravine. The trees wait and watch cars twist around and past them, getting lost and tracking back through them trying to find a green road sign in an ocean of green trees. Mike doesn’t hate the trees. He knows what they are.
When they got to where they expected to find an unused fire tower, they found nothing. Daniel made a wrong turn and the roads led them to a hill with rocks and pits where fires burned before summer. It didn’t stop them. Sandra ran in front of them towards the rocks while Daniel and Mike got the stolen beer out from the trunk and cracked one open like adults might. They tapped the cans together and Mike imagined Daniel being his father’s age, not seeing the beer as anything nearly so amazing as right now.
They found Sandra on the top of a long, flat rock—like grey ice cream that someone scooped away at with a spoon. The low part of it was facing towards them, and where it got thicker led to a drop off—something carved out by a glacier long before Mike could even imagine. They sat on the rock, the minimal exposure to the sun making it warm, and drank. Sandra sat on Daniel’s lap because they were dating, and Mike drank more than he meant to because he didn’t want to look like it bothered him.
When they kissed, Mike looked up at the tops of the trees until they stopped. Until Sandra threw an empty can at him and he threatened to throw a half-full one back. Daniel said he needed to piss, so Sandra stood up so he could go away from them both. Mike expected her to slip away with him, for the two of them to leave. But Sandra did not go, and instead walked along the length of the rock, going to the highest point of it and slide-walking back down. She told Mike it was fun and because Mike drank more than he meant to, he tried it, too. They ran up the rock, scrambling to the top, and then slid back down, sometimes falling to their backs and sliding sideways. It was fun because it was scary, because they could decide—just once—to keep running right of the edge and fall down through the drop off to the ground far below.
They got to the top again and saw Daniel walking back through the woods. He was looking at his feet because there was always the chance of a rock poking up from the ground or a snake, so Sandra shouted at him. Mike shouted at him, too.
When Daniel looked up he waved and shouted something back but Mike didn’t hear what he said. He shouted it again and Sandra shouted back that there was still some left.
When Daniel disappeared behind overgrowth, Mike turned to Sandra and kissed her on the lips. She pushed him away and he fell.
He drank too much because he didn’t want to look angry that Sandra was sitting on Daniel’s lap. He drank too much and he fell from the top of the boulder to the ground below. He fell looking up the whole time. He fell watching the tops of the trees grow higher into the sky and Sandra shouting down at him with terror through her face. He fell and stopped falling, and felt the rocks below break his ribs and head and spine and arms. He felt his whole body crack apart and didn’t make a sound.
He waited for Sandra to run down the boulder and down the long sloping side of the hill. He waited for Daniel to kneel next to him and whine out Jesus to Mike’s broken bones.
He cried when they picked him up, Daniel under his broken arms and Sandra holding on to him from his useless knees. He cried and felt everything inside shifting with each heavy step or stumbling progress towards the car. He listened to Daniel’s breath grow ragged with effort and hot against his cheek. He watched Sandra’s ponytail bounce with each panicking step.
When they reached the car, they tried to put him in the front seat but he whispered out that he wanted to be in the back, where he could lay flat. Sandra pulled him through while Daniel supported his broken back and ribs and legs. When they finally got the car door shut, the pain was gone and Mike knew it was because there was too much of it for his body to understand. He felt comfortable, even with the feeling of his bones clicking and cracking against themselves.
Mike looked up at the trees and felt Sandra’s warm hand on his cheek and looked at her. He told her that he wasn’t angry, that it was his dumb fault for drinking so much. He heard her start to cry and told her he was sorry for kissing her.
He told them both that they were lost, and that he was sorry and he wasn’t upset at all. Mike opened his eyes and looked at the trees racing by and thought he was almost home, just for a second.