In the story of the tortoise and the hare, you really don't notice when the tortoise goes into the lead for good. But sometimes in life, that moment can be locked in your memory forever.
Ten miles east of Middleburg, West Virginia, State Route 36 began to climb. It rose over a thousand feet in just under five miles, a slope steep enough to make my father's Volkswagen bus strain and lug until he cursed and downshifted to third. It was my 16th birthday, and we were going to Wilder's Rock, as we had on every birthday I could recall. I was sitting on the back bench trying to concentrate on The Catcher in the Rye, but mostly listening to my father and brother talk basketball. Keith was 14 and already six feet tall. He was on the middle bench, leaning forward between the two front seats and saying something about Jerry West while my father nodded and scratched his belly. My mother hated basketball. She was staring out the window and doing something to her fingernails with an emery board. Coach Bailey watched Keith play at the East Marion Big Man's Camp that summer and told him he'd probably start at center for the freshman team the next year. I lettered in track that spring, but you can't really talk track.
As we crossed the Preston County line, my father took one hand off the wheel and turned half around to tell Keith about Hot Rod Hundley's game-winning jumper in the fifty-something NCAAs. It made me nervous when he did that, but Dad hated back-seat drivers, so I said nothing as the bus began to drift to the left. We were straddling the yellow line when the hard blare of an 18-wheeler's horn pulled my father's head around. The truck was in the west-bound lane, still a few hundred yards away. Dad cursed and jerked the wheel hard to the right. I fell half over, and when I caught myself on the back of Keith's bench my book dropped to the floor and snapped shut.
"Asshole!" yelled my father as the truck roared past in a rush of air. "Christ, did you see how fast he was going? I hope he burns his breaks."
"Bill! That's horrible." My mother hated it when he said things like that. He was right, though. The truck was going too fast. That slope was too steep and long for a loaded rig's breaks to handle without help from the transmission, and the only escape ramp wasn't long enough to stop a truck with a real head of steam. The ramp wasn't fixed until the summer after I graduated, when a trucker from Cumberland named Scott Simpson hit it at 95 miles an hour, pitched off the end, rig and all, and fell 70 feet into the forest above the North Fork River.
I was wondering what it would be like coming down off Booker's Ridge with no brakes, flying around the curves and waiting to crash, when Keith turned half around and asked me if I thought a player like Jerry West could still make it in the NBA.
"Sure, I guess so.... I mean, he was a great player, wasn't he?"
Keith laughed and shook his head.
"He was a great player in the '50s and '60s, but that was before the fast break and all. I don't think he'd be quick enough to play pro ball today."
"Maybe you're right. I don't really know that much about it." Neither did he, of course. Neither of us had ever seen Jerry West play. All he knew were Dad's stories and what they told him at the camps he went to every summer. Keith stared at me for a moment, then turned away and said something. I couldn't quite make out the words. Dad laughed and started in again about Hot Rod Hundley, over his shoulder this time and with both hands on the wheel.
I picked up The Catcher in the Rye and thumbed through it, trying to find my place. The last thing I remembered before Dad made me drop the book was Holden sitting in a hotel room talking to a whore named Sunny, telling her he'd just had an operation so he wouldn't have to have sex with her.
I guess most people would say Holden was pretty stupid to hire a whore and then not even use her, but I knew how he felt. My prom date that spring had been Jody Pritchard, the daughter of my father's best friend. She drove, and when the dance was over she took me down past the Motor Lodge and out to the end of Goose Run Road, almost as far as the Meadowdale Dairy Farm. Woods ran along both sides of the road, and I'd heard that a crazy old man sometimes came down out of the hills with a shotgun and stalked Goose Run, looking for young fornicators.
I guess Jody never heard that story, though, because she turned around in the farm entrance, drove a few hundred feet back toward the lodge and pulled halfway off the road.
"Have you ever been here before?" she asked. I shook my head. Clouds had covered the half-moon and the windows were like black ice, already beginning to mist over. She laughed, leaned toward me and started to say something else, but I knew she was waiting for me to kiss her, so I did. It was dark and I closed my eyes and I sort of missed her mouth at first, but she slid across the bench seat and pressed herself up against me anyway. I knew she wanted me to try something, but I couldn't. If you don't try anything you can at least pretend you're a gentleman, but if you try something and screw it up you're scarred for life.
The bus slowed as my father eased onto exit 12-B. At the end of the ramp was a narrow mountain road with a brown Park Services sign along side it that said WILDER'S ROCK STATE FOREST 7 in letters six inches high. Dad slowed a little, then gunned the engine and screeched into the south-bound lane. There was no traffic. Dad just liked to pretend he was driving a Ferrari instead of a Volkswagen bus sometimes.
We'd turned onto Route 27, which rides the crest of the Alleghenies north into Pennsylvania and south as far as White Sulphur Springs. If you go north you run into farm country pretty quickly, but south of 36 the road cuts through the forest like a fire break, and you can go 20 or 30 miles between side roads. When I was a kid Dad took me hunting in those woods a couple of times. He bought me a .22 and a blaze orange vest, but I didn't have much enthusiasm for shooting things and he gave up on me when I was 14. I haven't once touched a rifle in all the years since then, but Keith was a better study. He used to get out of school to hunt, and as far as I know he still comes home for a week each November to drink beer and shoot at shadows with our father in the Preston County uplands.
Five miles south of 36 we passed another Park Services sign. WILDER'S ROCK STATE FOREST, it said, and below that in bright silver letters, NEXT LEFT. My father slowed and stopped, waited for a coal truck to rumble past in the northbound lane, and made the turn. We were on a Park Services road then, patchily paved and just a little wider than the bus. My father slowed and honked his horn at every turn, and it took us almost 20 minutes to cover the five miles from 27 to Wilder's Rock. Every half-mile or so an even smaller road branched off to one side or the other, each with a wooden, arrow-shaped sign identifying it by its destination. We passed them all: RANGER STATION, PICNIC AREA, TOURIST INFORMATION, even WILDER'S LODGE.
Then the pavement ended, and we were riding on gravel. The trees drew back and the road widened into a parking lot. There were no lines or spaces. You just left your car wherever you could find a spot and tried not to block anyone in. It wasn't very crowded, but my father parked at the high end of the lot anyway, 30 yards from the nearest car. Keith opened the sliding door and climbed out. I marked my place in The Catcher in the Rye, dropped the book onto the bench and followed him, pulling the door closed behind me.
Outside, the sun was almost directly overhead in a perfect, powder-blue sky. The air was cool and dry and the sun felt good on my bare arms. My father opened the back hatch and pulled out our ice chest, a metal and plastic monstrosity almost three feet long. Loaded it weighed 60 or 70 pounds. Dad couldn't carry it by himself anymore. I expected him to ask me to help him, but instead he motioned to Keith, and together they lifted the cooler and headed toward the picnic tables, stiff-legged and waddling like ducks. My mother locked the doors and handed me the basket of bread and paper plates. I tried to glare at her as she dropped the keys into her purse and started after my father, but she was already looking away and I don't think she noticed.
By the time I got to the picnic table the cheese and soda were already out. Keith was sitting backward on the bench, leaning with both elbows on the table and working on at least three sticks of Juicy Fruit. Dad sat beside him with his hands clasped and his elbows on his knees. They looked like Andy and Opie Taylor. I dropped my basket onto the table and walked away.
"Honey? Where are you going?"
It was my mother. I'd hoped Dad would ask.
"I'm just going to see the Rock, Mom," I said without turning. "I'll be back in a while."
"Be careful," she called after me. "And stay off the rails!"
I didn't look back.
A hundred yards from the picnic area was a worn flagstone path. It wound down through a stand of pines and ended at a pinewood footbridge across a chasm 30 feet wide and maybe twice as deep. On the other side was the Rock, a flat, slightly tilted slab of stone overlooking a thousand-foot drop to the North Fork River.
When I turned 18 I came to this place with Ben Thompson. He and I climbed down under the bridge, followed a ledge around to the south face and tried to climb up to the overlook. He went first, and 50 feet from the top he slipped, tumbled past me and fell another 200 feet before wrapping himself around the trunk of a pine. I hugged the face and watched him sail past, and all I could think was that I'd seen him fall before, in a dream. When I was older, though, I realized I hadn't -- not Ben, anyway.
But on my 16th birthday, I just leaned against the heavy wooden rails above the south face and watched the hawks wheeling in the middle air below. There were a half-dozen coin-operated telescopes spaced around the rim of the Rock, but I never used them. The view from there didn't need amplification. From that height, the North Fork was just a stream of silver trailing back into the hills, and the mountain opposite was laid out like a salt map, huge and rough-textured and decorated in late-summer browns and greens. The hawks followed one another from updraft to updraft, spiralling as high as each one would take them before gliding downwind to the next. I thought at first that they might be hunting, but in twenty minutes not one of them dropped into the treetops. They weren't hunting. They were flying for the sheer joy of flying.
I was about to turn away when a hand pressed against my shoulder and bent me half over the rail. My feet lifted off the Rock. My hands groped blindly for the top rail, and I couldn't breathe until Keith's forearm wrapped around my throat and pulled me back to safety.
"Saved your life!" he crowed, then pushed me back and danced away like a ballerina. I staggered a half step backwards, then caught myself against the rails. My ears were ringing and I could feel my pulse pounding in my fingertips. Keith was laughing so hard he could barely stand.
"God, Phil, if you could see the look on your face!" He bent double and pounded his fist against his thigh. He was trying to say something more, but he was laughing too hard to get it out. I drew a deep, slow breath and shook my head. My hands were trembling. Keith stopped laughing and slowly straightened. I could feel my face twisting into a snarl. As I started toward him Keith backed a half step, raised his fists and bared his teeth like an animal. I hesitated another moment, then lowered my head and charged.
I still don't know anything at all about fighting. When we were younger I didn't need to, but that day Keith avoided me easily. He skipped away, tagged me twice with his left fist and then stepped in and put his weight behind his right. The sun flashed in my eyes and my hands and feet tingled, then went numb. When I raised my head I was lying face down on the Rock, just a few feet from the edge. Keith was standing over by the tourist scopes. His fists were still clenched and his eyes were leaking tears.
"You can't do that anymore!" he shouted. The corners of his mouth twisted down and he had trouble getting the words out. "You're not bigger than me any more, Phil. You can't do that to me."
I pulled myself to my feet and imagined hurling myself over the top guard rail and flying, soaring after the hawks, chasing the next updraft while Keith stood at the edge begging me to come back. I put my hand to my face. It was a little swollen, but at least there was no blood. Keith was still standing with his fists at his waist. He thought I was going to come after him again. Instead, I turned my back on him without a word and walked back across the bridge to solid earth.
My mother found me sitting on a stone bench a little off the flagstone path. I'd been there for most of an hour.
"Phil? Honey? What are you doing here?"
I looked up. She winced when she saw my face.
"I fell down," I said, before she could even ask.
"You gave yourself quite a bump. Where is your brother?"
"He's still out on the Rock." I looked away. I was sure she knew what had happened.
"Your father's ready to go home. Let's go find Keith."
She held out her hand to me. I shook my head.
"You go ahead, Mom. I'll go help Dad pack up the stuff."
"Your father doesn't need any help. Now come on."
I hated doing this to Mom. She couldn't understand why Keith and I fought. Once when I bloodied his nose she cried for almost an hour, until I went to her and promised it would never happen again. She laughed then, and told me never to make promises I couldn't keep.
I pulled up short as we stepped out onto the Rock. Keith was sitting on the top rail, facing outward over the south face with just his hands on the wood beside him to keep his balance. My mother gasped, took two steps forward and stopped.
"Keith! Have you lost your mind? Get down from there!"
Keith's head snapped around. His face was wide-eyed and startled as a spotlighted doe's. He sat frozen for a moment, then began waving his arms and tottering back and forth on the rail.
"Keith!" My mother was almost screaming, and there was a twinge of real fear in her voice. "That's not funny. Get off that railing before I come pull you off."
But Keith wasn't listening. He waved his arms more and more wildly and moaned in mock terror. And then...
And then he was gone.
There was the barest moment of silence before my mother's scream filled the dry summer air, echoing off the bedrock and coming back to us sharper and more frightened than before. She dropped to her knees and slapped both hands over her mouth. I looked to her, then turned and ran to the edge, threw myself against the rails and leaned over.
And there was Keith, crouching on a ledge three feet below the bottom rail, two knuckles shoved into his mouth to stifle his laughter.
That night I had a dream, the one that made me think for a while that I'd dreamed Ben's fall. I was standing on the Rock a little before sunset. A hard, cold wind was blowing from the north and little white clouds were racing across the sky, like a fast-motion film of a building storm. At first I was alone and I felt like the last person on Earth, but then there was someone with me -- a tall, thin boy in a long black overcoat. He was walking around the edge of the Rock on the top rail with his arms spread like a tightrope walker, tottering back and forth and leaning against the wind. I tried to yell to him, to tell him to get off the rail before he fell, but the wind was so strong by then that it carried my voice away and I was sure he couldn't hear me. So I chased after him, grabbed him by the coattails and tried to pull him to safety.
But instead of pulling I pushed, and without a sound he toppled off the rail and fell. He pinwheeled and shrank as he dropped, until he was just another tiny black shape far down among the hawks.
And I wasn't sure, but then I thought I saw him catch an updraft and spiral upward, chasing a robin into the teeth of the wind.
Edward Ashton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research engineer by necessity and a fiction writer by choice. His work has appeared in a number of online and print magazines, including Blue Penny Quarterly, Painted Hills Review, Brownstone Quarterly, and The Pearl.
InterText stories written by Edward Ashton: "The Rock" (v5n3), "Danielle" (v6n2), "Christmas Carol" (v7n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Edward Ashton.