Watch Me

 

©1992 by Jay Braiman

 

 

“Come on, you guys, there it is!” Adam called to his three friends zigzagging down the ski slope above. One behind the other they approached, sending up surges of powdery snow with each turn and weaving their way around the other skiers in their path. The bare trees cast long shadows across the snow, as the late-afternoon sun descended toward the side of the mountain. The sky was a brilliant, crystalline blue, and from this high up Adam could see for miles. He could see the little village they’d passed through on the way, the lodge where they were staying, the winding roads that would lead them home tomorrow.

A bright, athletic boy of twelve with a passion for skiing, he liked nothing better than to spend a day on the slopes with his three best friends. And what better way to cap it off, he thought, than with a spectacular jump? He’d been practicing all day on some small moguls, taking air and extending one foot forward one back; something he called an airborne daffy. It seemed he could never jump high enough to do it right. As he stood waiting for his friends, he imagined how high he could fly over the car-sized swell that he observed some sixty yards downhill.

Bryan arrived first, sending a rooster-tail of powder into Adam’s face as he slid to a halt. The eldest of the four boys, a month shy of thirteen, and the most accomplished skier, Bryan laughed as Adam brushed the snow out of his dark hair and off his black and red ski jacket. Adam smiled at his friend’s freckled countenance and swore at him good-naturedly – he’d been rooster-tailing Bryan all day, and now he’d finally been repaid.

Jon and Marc came down almost simultaneously, though Jon came to halt just above where Bryan and Adam stood while Marc skidded all the way down to the corner of the woods where the two trails met. A slight, fair-haired youngster not yet twelve, Marc called out to the others, “Aww, man!” grudgingly sidestepping up the incline. “No fair, you guys come down here. Come on, you guys ski better than me, come on!”

Jon glanced at the others and laughed to himself reservedly, watching Marc struggle up the hill. He turned to Bryan and asked, “Think we should go down there and help him out?”

Adam interjected, “No way, I’m lining up my jump here.”

“Come on,” said Bryan, “give him a break. Let’s go down there.”

“No way, I’m lining up my jump.” Adam repeated, then turned and called down the hill, “Hey, Marc! Hurry up, let’s go!”

Marc nearly fell as he replied, “I’m coming! Wait up for me!”

Shaking his head, Adam muttered, “We’ve always got to wait for that kid.”

Jon held up his hand and said, “Allright, relax, guys. We’re not in a rush.” He then peered downhill at the mogul Adam had sighted and inquired, “You going over that?”

Adam nodded, his dark eyes focused on the inviting hump of snow. “Damn right. I’m going to try an airborne daffy.”

Another skier whizzed past them and executed a beautiful spread-eagle as he bounded over the mogul full-speed and landed fifteen yards further down the slope. “Whoa!” Bryan shouted. “Check that out! I’ve got to go over that!”

“I’m going first,” Adam asserted.

Jon gazed skeptically at the mogul, wondering about the wisdom of their plans but realizing it would be fruitless to try and talk them out of it. “Hey,” he began, changing the subject, “What time is it?”

Adam took off his right glove and pulled back the left sleeve of his jacket. “Twenty to four. Time for one more run. Here,” he said, unstrapping the watch and handing it to Jon, “hold this for me, in case I wipe out. My dad gave me that and I don’t want to mess it up.”

Jon took the watch and placed it in his right jacket pocket, along with his own, as Adam put the glove back on and maneuvered his gaunt frame to the edge of the plateau, in front of the others, ready to go. Marc struggled up to the plateau next to Bryan, trying to catch his breath after his arduous sidestep climb. “OK,” he grunted, “OK, is this our last run?”

“No,” Jon replied. “We’ve got time for one more. We’re not leaving until tomorrow anyway.”

Bryan turned to Jon, “What? I thought we were going straight home.”

“No,” said Jon. “it’s supposed to snow tonight. My dad would rather wait it out and let them clear the roads.”

“Makes sense,” Bryan shrugged.

Marc spoke up, having seen another skier go flying over the mogul and nearly crash into someone. “Wait, are you guys going over that?”

“Yeah,” Bryan replied, “and I’m next, so back up.”

“Jon, are you going?”

Jon took another look downhill and gave the reply they all expected. “Not me, no.” He then turned to Adam. “Hey, are you sure you’re ready for this?”

Adam turned his head round, his sharp features conveying an air of absolute confidence. “Always.”

“Yeah!” yelled Bryan, pumping his fist in the air. “Go, Ad, go!”

Marc looked nervously up at Jon, who shrugged his shoulders as Adam shoved off with his poles and tucked them under his arms, heading straight for the jump. The others watched in anticipation as his speed increased.

The mogul drew closer. In concentration Adam focused his eyes on it, the rush of wind causing him to squint. As he approached he lifted up his poles, and with a burst of speed felt himself hurled upward. In mid-air, he extended left leg forward and his right leg back, arms outward, hands grasping the poles, at least four feet of air between him and the slope. He felt overcome with exhilaration as his jump reached its apex and gravity began to take over.

His friends cheered loudly as he soared through the air, but cut themselves off abruptly as his skis struck the snow at an awkward angle and he fell, sending up a thick cloud of powder as he sprawled and slid twenty yards down the hill.

“Whoa!” Bryan exclaimed, holding his hand up to his mouth and shouting, “Wipeout! Way to go, Adam! Woohoo!” cheering mockingly as he got set to go himself.

Adam lay unmoving on the snow. Bryan waited anxiously on the plateau, waiting for his friend to get up and brush himself off. “Come on, man,” he uttered, “get up,” but Adam remained perfectly still. He was nearly a hundred yards away, and they couldn’t see him clearly, but they could see that he was not moving. They hadn’t heard him cry out. They hadn’t heard the snap of a broken bone. They hadn’t heard anything but the low, soft hiss of skis on the packed-powder surface.

Bryan and Marc both looked at Jon, who said, “I’ll go,” taking off and skiing as quickly as he could down to the spot where Adam lay. Bryan stood watching concernedly on the plateau, as Marc moved up next to him. “Oh my God,” the younger boy said over and over, “Oh my God, I hope he’s OK. I hope he’s OK. Oh my God, I hope he’s OK.”

Jon slowed down and stopped ten yards away from Adam, then took off his skis and dropped his poles, walking slowly up to his fallen friend. What he saw frightened him as he had never been frightened before. “Get ski patrol!” he cried out at the top of his lungs, horrified beyond restraint, signaling frantically for the others to come down. “Bryan, get ski patrol! Hurry!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Bryan launched himself down the slope as fast as he could go, with Marc following close behind. Marc stopped next to Jon’s discarded skis as Bryan raced down the mountain. The boy couldn’t bear to look, but neither he nor Jon could bring himself to turn away.

 

*

 

The pleasing aroma of wood smoke permeated the lodge as the flames crackled in the large, gray stone fireplace, casting a warm yellowish glow on the knotty pine walls and rustic furnishings that surrounded the three solitary boys. Together and alone at the same time, they sat by the fire, gazing at the hypnotic flames, taking turns stoking them with wood from the pile on the floor near the hearth.

For some time, none of them said anything. None could think of anything to say. Nothing in any of their experience could provide any rhyme or reason for what had transpired that day.

A burned-through log fell, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney. Bryan got up and threw in another log, causing even more sparks, then turned and glanced at his friends. Jon sat on a couch in front of the fireplace, with Marc seated on the floor, leaning his back against the front of the couch, a tear running down his face.

“Don’t cry, Marc,” said Bryan, as Marc sniffed and wiped his eyes, “only girls and babies cry.”

Jon looked up somberly at Bryan. “It’s allright to cry.”

“You’re not.”

The boy swallowed hard and looked back into the fire. “I guess…I guess it just hasn’t hit me yet.”

“Yeah,” Bryan sighed, sitting down in a large chair adjacent to the couch. “I’m almost waiting for Adam to get here…” He shook his head, ashamed of himself for having said such a thing, for even mentioning their friend’s name. He didn’t really know how he was supposed to feel, how he should react. Even in the worst of times he had always kept his edge, maintained his composure, always tried to be brave and mature; this wasn’t the first time he had lost someone close to him, but somehow this was different.

Jon stood up and walked to the fireplace, squatting down and jostling the burning logs with a poker. “Damn,” he muttered, “why’d he have to go? I should have...I should have…”

“Hey, what could you do?” Bryan interrupted. “When you got down there he was already…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. He suddenly found himself choking up. I won’t cry, he thought, I won’t. “…it was too late.”

“No,” said Jon, shaking his head. He who had always been the voice of reason couldn’t help but feel responsible somehow. “I could have said something,” he said, his voice tinged with regret, “I should have tried to stop him.”

“How could you know? How could you know he’d catch a tip and fall and break his neck? It was an accident, that’s all.”

Marc sniffed loudly and said, “I miss him already. I wish he was still here.” He wasn’t thinking about how he felt, what not to say, or about regret; only of his absent friend.

Jon closed his eyes tightly, reliving the awful event in his mind. “I can’t believe I didn’t stop him. I wish I could go back, you know? Tell him not to…”

I won’t cry, Bryan thought, I won’t.

“You know,” Jon continued, putting down the poker and sitting on the floor next to Marc, “you spend so much time with somebody, you’re friends for a long time, you think you know them so well, and then all of a sudden they’re gone. You won’t see them anymore, you can’t tell them anything, and they can’t tell you either. It’s like they go away and never come back, and you never get to say goodbye."

Marc spoke up, “I never knew anyone who died.”

“I did,” Bryan said, getting up and walking to the woodpile to fetch another log. “My grandfather. I liked him a lot. Used to tell me about when he was in France during the war. He even met Eisenhower once.’ With a pair of shiny brass tongs he carefully set the log on top of the others. “My grandfather knew everything about wine. He could tell you the wine without even looking at the label. And he knew all the good years too. He said he’d teach me when I got older, but he didn’t get the chance.”

“When did he die?” Marc asked.

“About three years ago. He had cancer.” Bryan sat down next to Jon and sighed loudly as another log fell through and sparks flew. “I still miss him, you know, but it doesn’t bother me to think about it. I’ll never forget him, but I don’t really remember what he looked like, or how he talked, or anything like that.”

Shaking his head, Jon sobbed softly, “It’s not fair. Adam was only twelve, just like us. Why did he have to die? Why did he only get to live twelve years? It’s not fair. I mean…I’m only twelve, you’re twelve, Marc’s eleven, how do we know how much time we’ve got? I mean…yesterday…we didn’t know he was going to die today. He didn’t know it when he woke up this morning. How do I know I’m not going to die tomorrow?”

“Don’t say that,” Bryan pleaded.

Marc turned to Jon with an inquisitive look and asked, “Are you afraid to die, Jon?”

Jon paused. He thought about it for a long moment. Finally he replied, “I really don’t know,” a little surprised that he couldn’t answer definitively. “I guess…I don’t know.”

“I wonder what it’s like when you die,” said Marc.

“Maybe it’s like sleeping,” Bryan suggested, “except you never wake up.”

“Maybe you come back as somebody else,” Marc offered.

“Maybe everything just stops,” said Bryan. “Like one minute you’re here, and the next you’re not. You’re just gone. Nothing.”

“Maybe you turn into a ghost, or an angel, or something like that. And you can watch over people, like you’re still there, but they can’t see you.”

“Maybe…” Jon began, forming an idea of his own, “when you die…you’re everywhere, all over, all at the same time.”

“You think Adam’s here,” inquired Marc, “watching us?”

“Maybe,” said Jon, gazing up at the ceiling and all around the dim, firelit room. “I don’t know. Nobody really knows. Maybe that’s why people are afraid to die. Because they don’t know what happens.”

Bryan shrugged, “It may not be such a bad thing. For all we know, Adam could be happy…wherever he is right now.”

“Who knows,” Jon added, “maybe he misses us too.”

Bryan nodded. “He does.”

Marc glanced toward the sliding glass doors and noticed tiny, lacy white flakes drifting toward the ground outside. “It’s snowing,” he said and stood up slowly, weary of sitting still for so long, then crossed to the doors and pressed his hand against the glass, feeling the cold.

“Wow,” said Jon, “I hope we don’t get snowed in.”

Bryan stood up and sat back down in the big chair. “Remember the first time we went skiing here?”

Jon couldn’t help but smile. “Oh, yeah. How could I forget? I got lost up on the Bullwhip trail. I freaked out. I was sitting there on the snow for an hour until you and Adam found me.”

Bryan laughed. “He was going, ‘Where’d he go? I’ll kill him! I’ll kill him! Where’d he go?’ Took us three runs to find you.”

Sitting next to Jon, Marc said, “Then you guys ran into me, remember? And we skied together the rest of the day.

Bryan stood up to feed the fire again. “And every year, we’ve come back. Right after New Year’s, every year.”

Jon nodded silently as Bryan retook his seat, his words echoing in each of their minds. Every year…every year…would this be the last?

Finally, Marc broke the silence. “What time is it?”

Jon instinctively checked his left wrist for his watch, but it wasn’t there. He picked up his jacket, which lay next to him on the couch, unzipped the right pocket and pulled out his watch, then glanced at the face and was about to tell Marc the time when he realized the watch in his hand was not his own. It was Adam’s.

He stared at the gold face with its black numbers and silver hands for a long moment. Tears welled in his eyes as he leaned over and held his head in his left hand, his right still clutching the timepiece.

Marc saw it and began to sob himself. Bryan stared stoically into the fire. I won’t cry, he thought, I won’t.

Jon looked up into Bryan’s eyes. He could see what his friend was feeling, better even than Bryan himself. He held the watch out to Bryan and said earnestly, “It’s allright to cry.”

Bryan stared at Jon somberly and slowly took the watch from him. He didn’t look at it. He didn’t have to. His grief overcame his pride, and finally, he cried.

They all cried, for the friend they’d lost. They cried for him, for his family, and for themselves. For the hopes and dreams he would never realize. For the things they would never do, the times they would never share. For the loss of youth, the end of innocence, the harshness of reality. And, most of all, for the lives they would have to lead, growing up without him, not sure if they would remember him.

 

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