Snow was blown bits of metal that would dot your face with blood if you rode your bike fast enough. Rain became hard splats of gum and a breeze was something that could rip the hair out of your head. Sue Lynn had raced him down a hill so high it seemed to be a mountain. They called it Sack Mountain but his momma said it was really a hill. If you wanted to see a mountain, there was the Rockies where she grew up. As if you could compare them. One was stone teeth in the sky and the other a mound of grass and gravel that blocked everything until you reached the top. One was warmed with green and gold leaves of oak, the other blue and sterilized by cold. It was like running in two different directions at once. Couldn’t be done.
The wild apple tree was the same knobby but oddly lacy ones that were in her mother’s garden. She had walked past it for 10 years, never paying attention before. But this was the first time Virginia saw a man sitting in the middle of the branches. He didn’t glance her way but kept watching the sky as she got closer.
Then she recognized him. “Mr. Graham what are you doing in the tree?” She waited for him to respond, shuffling her feet in place, trying to keep warm.
His white hair was stuck up in wiggly strands and his windbreaker was zipped all the way to his chin. Being the only flesh you could see, his head looked as if it was added on and foreign to the rest of him. She followed the track of his gaze and saw nothing but an expanse of white.
“Is everything okay, Mr. Graham?” She stepped closer to the tree and squinted over her shoulder in hopes someone, preferably an adult, would appear. No such luck. She watched him a few more minutes. He seemed fine. His face was serene but not spookily so. Maybe he was waiting for someone. Old people never minded waiting. Turning away, she kept walking and didn’t look back. She knew what she’d see; him still there watching the sky.
Sue Lynn had laughed at him when he told her it was too steep, too cold, and look! It had just now started to snow. We’d be at the bottom again before it had a chance to stick, she’d said and picked her woolen hat off the ground where it had fallen. She pulled it down low over her ears. He did the same with his. They both left their gloves off, needing to grip the handles firmly. The first time she’d laughed at him, he’d threatened to pound her face in with his dad’s boots. He’d held them in his shaky hands but didn’t have the nerve to do it. Then she’d pushed him in the shoulder as if he was a jokester, until he laughed back and dropped them heavily to the floor. Later, they both pretended it had never happened. He no longer got mad at her but that didn’t mean he’d let her show him up by going down the Mount before him.
Her mother was at the table smoking a cigarette.
“I thought you gave them up?” She put her backpack on the chair and unbuttoned her coat.
“I did. I have. I just got lonely.”
“Oh.” What else could she say? “What’s for dinner?”
“Meatloaf. I know how much you like it.” Dad was the one who’d liked it, not her. It always seemed to be mushy in the center but she could microwave the pink out of it. “Did you eat yet?:
“No. You go ahead. I’m not hungry.” When she saw Virginia’s face she smiled. “Later. I’ll eat later, I promise.” Then she went back to looking out the window. She was staring toward the tree but they were too far away to see Mr. Graham in it. Getting out two plates, Virginia laid a slab of meatloaf and a couple of spoonfuls of peas on each. She set one plate in front of her mom and put hers in the microwave. The crust would be brick but at least she could eat most of it. Her mother snubbed out her cigarette and picked up her fork.
Virginia was washing their plates in the sink before she said anything. “Mr. Graham is in that tree.” She pointed out the window.
“Really?” Her mother got up and stood beside her. “Where?”
“That one. There.” She pointed more accurately.
“You sure? What would he be doing up a tree?” She leaned closer to the glass, over her row of potted herbs, until the tip of her nose touched the cold.
He pushed off before she could, the ground dragging at the toe of his shoes until he got them up. Holding on with every muscle in his body, he let gravity take control. His knees were pumped by his feet on the spinning peddles and hit his chest at the high point. The snow and rain mix became a needling fog to see through. He heard her laughter screaming behind him and felt triumphant. It was about time he became a winner. There were ruts that jammed his teeth against each other and slippery stones that tried to knock him sideways. The larger ones he careened around by twisting the handle bars at the last second. He didn’t dare put on the brakes. He’d rocket past, or worse, flip the whole thing end over end. The bike bucked, jerked and tried to toss him and he fought it, strong armed it, hunkered in close enough to smell the rust in the joints. Sue Lynn wasn’t laughing anymore, but her seat squeaked with every bounce and was making a breathless giggling sound that got louder as she closed the distance between them. The slope was flattening out and she’d not make it before him. He snuck a quick look behind. She had her legs held out to the side, away from the blur of pedals and grazed her feet against the ground to help her balance. Why hadn’t he thought of that? Then with a bump, his front tire hit level dirt. He let go and raised his hands above his head, whooping on top of his lungs. He learned one thing that day. He loved Sue Lynn and mountains.
Angela looked up at Mr. Graham, holding two half empty cups of tea in her hands. Then she walked away. No need to speak further, he was cold. Back in the house, she dumped the tea in the sink before dialing 911. There was no hurry, she assured them, he was dead already. They hurried anyway.
As she neared the tree, Virginia noticed that Mr. Graham had gone and some of the branches where cut off, leaving shocking cream centers exposed to the air and a hole among the leaves. In the bathroom she heard two girls talk about how Mr. Graham had been found dead in the tree. They had to cut him out because his hands were frozen to the branches. She went to the nurses office, claimed cramps, and got sent home. She didn’t look at the tree when she passed underneath. She held her breath so she wouldn’t see it fog the air. Her mother shut off the television when she slammed the door behind her.
“You alright Ginnie?”
“Yeah.” She shrugged out of her coat. “Mr. Graham died.”
“Right there, in the tree.”
“I know. You want some cocoa?” Angela went into the kitchen and turned the stove top on, feeling the heat against her face. “He once was married to my sister. You know, the one who died climbing the mountain. He was with her. I haven’t been able to forgive him until now. I think he was trying to say sorry he’d dragged her up every mountain he could find and that’s why he was staring at our house from that tree.”
Virginia opened her mouth then closed it again. He hadn’t been staring at the house. He’d been staring at the sky, as if looking for something or waiting for someone. She shivered and took the warm cup from her mother’s hands, suddenly cold again.
*JF Speed is an artist, writer, and teacher working in the South Puget Sound area. To check out more of her work it is available for purchase on Amazon.*