He’s grown a lot, she realizes, and since she feels sentimental drops some bark into his hair from her higher perch.
Hot honey sunshine lies warmly on the pine needles – it’s mostly pines up here, although their tree is all enormous wide branches and hollows, something deciduous, something ancient. That smell, the pine needles in the sunlight it’s every afternoon of their childhood encapsulated in an intoxicating richness that reminds her of the river.
Three years have passed since they were last here. These days, they don’t spend much time together, and he often surprises her. Like now, with the bark in his hair.
“Love you too, sis,” he tells her, grinning up with bark and lichen speckled through his buckeye hair. So rich, that color. Soft. She smiles back tentatively, and reaches her arms to the sun as it ambles towards the horizon.
“What are you listening to these days?” Not that she’ll know what it is – sometimes she loves the same emphatic beat and rasping screams that he does, but her tastes have run to Borodin and Scarlatti these last few months and he changes bands so quickly.
“As I Lay Dying, Avenged Sevenfold, Bullet for My Valentine, Story of the Year. Red. Um. That’s all I can think of right now. They’re pretty good.”
“Yeah, you and Dad sang it a lot.” Their parents have been divorced for almost a decade now. His voice is disinterested, vaguely reminiscent. She’s known him since before he was born, and his face is opaque.
“Not even that the tree’s poking you?” She remembers her mother asking her the same questions years ago, and with a sudden clarity understands the sudden stiffness of her mother’s face when she answered with nothings.
“Stuff like that? Yeah. Sun’s nice.”
“Got any plans for tomorrow?”
“Maybe I’ll go fishing. With Clay. He’s got some new stuff.”
Once upon a time her mother asked her the same questions, and she responded with the same uninformative answers. She wonders if he remembers the night he went camping with his friend, and they ate the two tiny fish they caught – probably not, he was so small, drenched and grinning with the biggest eyes. Maybe he remembers the time she ran away and he followed. He knocked down her shelter, and they had to go back home. They were both crying.
He remembers, of course, but probably not like she does. Mostly, she recalls being so proud of him for making it the entire night, for eating the fish even though they were nothing but bone and probably tasted like charcoal. She remembers her anger and secret relief when he ruined her haven and she had to go home. He’ll recollect her shouting at him and how she cried and he felt guilty but wouldn’t say anything, and sad because he wanted to be with her – obvious, in retrospect. Back then, he followed her like her dog does now when she’s been away from home a while.
“Sounds like fun.” There’s no point in asking what Clay’s got. Maybe he doesn’t want to talk, but it’s hard to tell. “Hey, I was thinking about how we used to rhyme in the kitchen.”
He giggles like he used to. “It made Mum nuts.”
“That doesn’t rhyme!”
“It’s a slant rhyme like Emily Dickinson used.” She’s lost him again; he resumes staring up into the empty sky. “You hungry?”
He nods enthusiastically, because he’s young and always hungry. For that matter, so is she, but she’s not growing seven inches a year. She pushes some leaves aside and they spring right back into her backpack, obscuring the cheese. Wind blows leaves into her hair and her hair into her mouth; it’s cool against her skin, which is still too hot from the hike up, but she utters a muffled, frustrated sound anyway. He tugs the branch down, and she retrieves the cheese, some bread, and a few of his favorite cookies.
They eat for a while, heedless of their scattering crumbs. It’s one of the pleasures of eating outside – that, and that after a hike, the food always tastes so good. She’s had little as delicious as the cheap tortillas and store-brand cheddar with salami that she ate on a hike with her father.
“’S’good.” High accolades.
“Yeah.” Leaning back against the trunk of the tree, she watches the shadows get longer. The air’s colder now. It’s probably time to head back. They’re young and mountain-raised, so the dark doesn’t faze them – that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.
“’Sup?” He inquires.
“Maybe time to head back.”
“Dude,” he acknowledges.
“Dude.” She throws it back, grinning. She’s called him dude for a few years now; he calls her sis and chops her name in half, which sounds stupid any way you look at it and she’d never let anyone else call her that ever. He might know that – he uses it a lot, wields it with a smug air before the rest of the world.
“Duuuuuuude,” he groans.
He tosses a twig at her and it brushes against her spiderwebbed jeans before falling, clacking against branches on its way down.
They disentangle themselves from leaf and branch, moaning about the hardness of the tree, their stiff limbs, the unpleasantly cold and damp sweaty straps of their packs. He steps in front of her to catch the webs across the path on their way down. She’d done it on the way up, and he’s tall enough now to take his fair share of the sticky threads. Tall enough that she can’t see over his head when she looks down the trail. She has to look around him.
“’Sup?” she asks, wanting to know if he feels this same edgy strangeness, or if she’s the only one who feels suddenly alone. He’s the only other person who’s read all the same books, listened to all the same music, eaten all the same foods, and she looks at his back and she doesn’t know what’s going on in his head. She realizes that she hasn’t known since she turned fourteen and cruel with pain and confusion and fear. Fourteen was a bad year. He didn’t follow her after she turned fourteen.
“The sun.” He looks at her with an imminent roll of his eyes, familiar territory. He can be eloquent, but he hasn’t spoken to her with all the words he knows for years, and she wonders if he ever will again. Maybe not. Probably not. Probably they’ll be those siblings who see each other every couple of years and never have anything to say. Her breath catches on the new roughness in her throat and she reaches out and tugs him into a hug because he can’t leave her, he’s her baby brother and she wants the little boy who knocked her fortress down. “Huh?”
“Nothing.” He’d look at her like she’s stupid, and she’s surprised by the pained twist of her mouth at the thought.
His arms tighten around her for a moment, and then he ruffles her and runs down the trail, glee and mischief. She chases, laughing and shouting dire threats.