by Max Griffin
Crisp morning air prickled Frank’s cheeks and brought goose-flesh to his wraith-like arms. A squirrel, hidden in the forest’s canopy, chittered at him. The tang of juniper conspired with the musky scent of decaying underbrush to incite memories of days long ago. He heaved a sigh, and hope filled his soul. Maybe this year’s anniversary would be different.
His younger brother Joe, two steps ahead of him on the meandering trail, grunted and hitched his backpack higher on his broad shoulders. “Blasted hole in the path.”
Frank glanced down. Sure enough, a boot-sized gap between two rocks lay partially hidden in shadows, a trap ready to snare them. “Thanks, bro.”
Joe muttered, “Need to be more careful. It’s not like Dad’s around to warn about stuff.”
Frank’s mouth hardened and his throat tightened. “You think I don’t know that? I was going to tell–“
Joe glanced over his shoulder. His chiseled features flamed crimson and a sneer curled his lips. He stomped away without speaking.
Frank clenched his jaw. Joe always managed to ruin everything, despite being their father’s favorite, or maybe because he was the favorite. His anger fouled even a beautiful day like today. Frank’s shoulders slumped, and he muttered, “Whatever.” He rushed to catch up and walked by his brother’s side.
Joe’s expression softened, and his tone turned mellow, almost pleading. “I’ve got to keep it together. It won’t take long to get there.”
True enough. Still, a tatter of regret clung to Frank. “Maybe we should pray. You know, for forgiveness. Or something.”
Joe’s blue eyes shot icy daggers. “Everyone always made excuses for Dad. Even Junior. I just don’t get it.” He trotted up the trail, leaving Frank panting behind.
Junior. That stung. Frank couldn’t help it that he shared their father’s name.
They followed the path as it twisted and turned up the mountain. Before long, sunlight dappled the trail and warmed the forest. Frank’s khaki shirt clung to his clammy torso, and perspiration drizzled down his brow to burn his eyes. He wasn’t used to this kind of thing, not anymore. He rounded a sharp bend, and the trail widened before a low outcrop of rock.
Joe collapsed onto a massive, cracked boulder and shrugged off his backpack. “Time for a break.” He pulled a water bottle from his belt, tossed his head back, and took a swig, his Adam’s apple jiggling up and down in his neck.
Frank sat next to his brother and let his gaze roam over the scenery. Aspens towered overhead, and needles covered the forest floor. A songbird serenaded them from the heavens. “Raccoon Point,” he whispered, uttering the name their father had given this place on family hikes. “I always loved stopping here.”
Joe’s blue eyes accosted him, but then he turned to face the woods. He shoved his bottle across the stony surface, as if offering to share.
Frank gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Thanks.” Water would be good. He was sure the mouth of the bottle still held the warmth of his brother’s lips. “Remember the first time we stopped here? That momma raccoon and her babies paraded by. Haughty as Jezebel, Dad said.” He left the water bottle next to where Joe sat.
His call to the past earned him a snort from his brother. “So many memories. When he died last year, I was glad. I hated what he did to us.” Joe gulped down more liquid. Sweat dribbled down his forehead.
Geeze, could he be more uptight? Just like always. “He was making a joke. You know. Like her raccoon mask was mascara, or something. Like she was a painted woman. Dad always have quoted scripture.”
As usual, Joe wasn’t listening and continued as if Frank hadn’t spoken. “I mean, I get it. He fooled everyone. Everyone thought he was perfect.” Joe unbuttoned his shirt. “Sure did turn hot. Who’d have thought?” He stripped the sweat-soaked garment off and tied it around his waist. His muscular torso sheened with perspiration.
“Hotter than Satan’s breath, that’s for sure.” Frank unbuttoned his shirt and thought about removing it, but he didn’t want to take his pack off. Besides, his flesh was ashes compared with his brother’s bronze.
Joe squinted at the sun and muttered, “Time to get going. It’ll be noon soon.” He stood and lifted his pack. The muscles on his back rippled in the brilliant sunlight.
Frank looked away, at the woods, at the sky, at the earth. His calves ached, and his feet baked inside his hiking boots. “We could go back.” Joe’s pickup was just a couple hours downhill, where they’d left it this morning.
Joe ignored him and struck off up the slope. He stumbled on a hidden root and his upper lip curled. “I hate this place. I’ve always hated it, even before that day. Nothing ever changes no matter what I do.”
Frank stared at him, wanting to shout he had changed even if his brother chose to stay the same. Instead, he heaved himself to his feet. “I was just saying, is all. Come on. Go. Get it over with.”
“What a wimp.” Joe led the way up the trail.
Frank followed, a frown bending his features.
Despite skies of blue and clouds of white, Frank longed for the dark and sacred night. That was when he could wish upon a star and dream a dream of family with voices soft as thunder, singing promises of kindness and devotion. But life killed the dream he dreamed, and now all he had left was…this lonely climb.
By the time they reached the crest of the trail, agony gripped his legs, and his face burned from the sun. The straps from his backpack dug into his shoulders and threw him off balance. The vista was as he’d remembered, maybe even more beautiful. Peaks like chimney tops surrounded the valley below. A distant waterfall cascaded into a lake that glistened in the sunlight. A rainbow hovered in the spray from the falls.
A cairn of stones stood askew at the bottom of the hill, perhaps fifty feet away, near the shore of the lake. A man knelt on that shore, huddled over a child, a boy in a swimming suit. He breathed into the boy’s mouth, stopped, and compressed the skinny chest. Then he started the cycle over again, counting.
They were so familiar. Frank was sure he knew them. Their names were on the tip of his tongue.
Joe stood rigid and stared, chewing on his lower lip. When he spoke, his voice came as if from a man strangling. “The bastard. How could he do it?”
Frank touched his brother’s shoulder. “We should help. He’s giving CPR. There must have been an accident.” Something wasn’t right. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and he couldn’t breathe. He needed to cough, but his chest wouldn’t respond.
Joe ignored him and the tableau on the beach. “The bastard. He saved one son while the other drowned.” He staggered down the hill and knelt before the cairn of stones.
Frank followed his brother while peering over the lake. If there was another child, it was too late to do anything for him. “Maybe he thought he had no choice. Who are we to judge?”
“I’ll never forgive him.” Joe ran his fingers over the top stone on the cairn.
The boy on the beach jerked, hacked, and water sprayed from his mouth. His father clutched him to his breast, tears streaming down his cheeks. The two rocked back and forth, Father cradling his son in protective arms.
“Forgiveness frees you, not him.” Frank let silence grow for a moment. “I’ve forgiven him,” and he knew it was true even though he wasn’t sure why he said it. Frank wanted to hug his brother, to take away his sorrow, but sudden dizziness gripped him. His vision narrowed, and it was as if he saw things from afar, from above the chimney tops and over the rainbow, where he could once more dream eternal dreams.
The man and his boy faded away, a vision as insubstantial as ghosts, as real as yesterday’s memory. All that remained was Joe, kneeling by the stones. The lettering on the top one read, “In loving memory of my brother Frank.”
Frank yearned to comfort his brother, but just like all the other times he could only watch and listen.
Joe looked at the heavens and whispered, “I know you forgave him. Why, oh why can’t I?”
Max Griffin has published five novels and several novellas. His author website, https://new.maxgriffin.net/ includes publications, a short bio, and other author information. His short story “The Meeting” was published in the Halloween 2019 issue of Tales from the Moonlit Path.