Eighteen-year-old Tyler Welner tells his disabled brother to put his shoes on. “And a jacket,” he adds. “You’ll need a jacket.” Henry dangles his legs from the bed like a child in a swing. Wind beats against the window of their shared bedroom. Outside it is dark and starless and spitting sleet.
“Too cold,” Henry says, fingering his ear. Making a mock wind sound, he pushes air out from between his teeth. “Too stormy.”
Tyler is short on patience. They needed to be out of the house and on the road ten minutes ago. Posters of animals cover the fake-wood paneling walls of their room. Lions and gazelles and wolves. He crouches at Henry’s feet, slips Henry’s shoes on. As he ties them, Henry traces something with his finger in the air and then looks down at Tyler looping the laces. “Round and round the tree the rabbit runs and then jumps in the hole.”
“That’s right,” Tyler says. “Round and round.” He stands up and finds Henry’s rain slicker in a pile of clothes. He holds it up for him like a cape. “Come on. Birthday surprises don’t wait.”
Tyler leads Henry through the dimly lit hall. Today is Henry’s sixteenth birthday and the sixteenth anniversary of their mother’s death. It is a day of contradiction. Life here. Death there.
“Where we going?” Henry says.
“Shut up,” Tyler whispers. They pass their father snoring on the pullout sofa, pass the low voices of The Waltons reruns coming from the TV. And then they’re outside by the shed, wrapped in the sweet, briny scent of a storm spinning off the coast. The smell of watermelon and fish. From the shadows at the edge of the property trees moan like doors heavy on their hinges. It is December and unutterably cold for northern California. Off in the distance Tyler can see the lights flicker from the casino on the reservation. He tells his little brother to wait and then retrieves the four-wheeler their dad used for hunting, so long ago, before their mother’s death, before Henry, before Tyler can even remember. But still he imagines it. His dad healthy and strong. Living a life beyond chain-sawing redwood burls into animal-statues. Tyler walks the four-wheeler out of the garage, careful to be quiet. His dad’s creations stare down at him. Formless spires of wood, given mouths gaping and eyes slicked black with rain.
“Come on,” Tyler says, and Henry follows him to the highway. Again Henry wants to know where they are going and again Tyler says to stop asking questions. Says it’s a sure way to fuck up a birthday.
The seat is cool and wet when Tyler sits down. Henry gets on behind him and wraps his thick arms around his brother’s waist. At the first semi to drown the engine, Tyler starts the bike and then they’re hurtling down the highway that cuts through town. Nothing is open. But that’s how it is in Orick. Nothing is ever open. It’s a place at a full stop, locked in the past by redwoods to the east and the grinding Pacific to the west, by logging gone broke. Now there are only burls. The mythical West hacked into timber and faced toward the highway. Specters for the passing traveler. A grizzly bear on his forelegs. Sasquatch. An Indian with stiff, wooden feathers. And Tyler thinks of his dad’s carvings. Thinks of trying to explain their twisted, brute faces to Henry while the rest of town says their dad has gone wild with grief. But Tyler can never figure out how to explain. How to say maybe their dad is lost and irretrievable so long as Henry, slow and kind and not entirely there himself, is always present, as a reminder. It weighs on Tyler, the silence of their small house broken daily by the roar of Dad’s chainsaw, shaping nameless creatures out of dead wood. And thinking, even though he loves Henry, how things might have been different.
The two brothers pass a sign that reads The Majestic Forest and then town is gone, a fleck of lights folded behind trees and coastal mountains.
Wind lashes Tyler’s jaw. The back of his head burns as if laid bare. Bone against sleet. Henry holds on tight and his teeth chatter in Tyler’s ear. They cross the Klamath Bridge. Black water eddies around tree trunks, cresting the banks from weeks of rain. As they hit the reservation, sleet turns to brilliant, wet snowflakes. Tyler takes the shortcut through the trailer park. Dogs prowl the road freely, snapping at each other as the brothers fly past.
Finally, the old logging road and the gravel lot behind the abandoned orphanage. Before Tyler even stops the four-wheeler he sees Lacey. Sees her in the shelter of the train, frozen in place decades ago to gather rust. She comes out from its shadow carrying a candle. She spins around in the snow. Her blond hair catches in the wind and the short, white slip under her jacket lifts. For a moment Tyler thinks of her like he did that summer when the two of them walked in the woods behind his dad’s property. Those afternoons when the clouds pressing up against the Klamath Mountains broke, Lacey would turn her head upward, twirl, and catch rain in her mouth. She said she could taste the sky and Tyler would lift his head just to taste the same thing she did. He steps off the four-wheeler. He asks Henry if he remembers Lacey.
Henry nods and shivers, still sitting on the bike. “Cold,” he says.
“Forget cold,” Tyler says. “It’s your birthday.”
Lacey puts the candle down in the dirt and sways toward them. She stretches her arms out and turns her palms up to gather flakes. She begins singing Happy Birthday, and it’s obvious from the slips in her words that she’s drunk.
Tyler crouches down on one knee and looks up at his little brother. Henry’s face is pale and round. Already he regrets this, but he tells himself it’ll be good for Henry, just like Sam, Lacey’s boyfriend, said that morning before school. That it will teach Henry to take care of himself. Still, Henry shivers. Still, he has that look of eternal confusion.
“Let me feel your muscles,” Tyler says to his brother. “Show me how big.”
Henry perks up. He always does when Tyler asks this of him. It’s their game. He holds out his arm and Tyler squeezes his bicep. Tyler is about to tell his brother that he’s strong as an ox, but Lacey is there now, next to them, asking who the birthday boy is, asking whose special night it is.
“My birthday,” Henry says and then looks at the ground. He hugs himself, rocking back and forth. Lacey is close enough now that Tyler can smell the schnapps.
“Tonight is special,” Lacey says. She unzips the top of her jacket just enough to make the straps of her slip visible. “But you gotta come inside for your surprise.” After a few steps she turns around and asks Henry if he’s coming. He looks at his older brother.
Tyler nods to go after her.
Lacey takes a few more steps, stands in the doorway of the orphanage, and calls Henry’s name. It is a disembodied voice flung from the dark.
“Go,” Tyler says, and then watches his brother shuffle toward the building. He wants to call out that it’s okay, that Henry is safe because his big brother is there, but his mind goes cold and blank. He looks up at the ancient canopy of redwood and for a moment the clouds part. There are stars and a slivered moon, and above the gale Tyler wishes only to hear the sea. Wishes for wave and tide to snuff out Henry’s voice, always asking about their mother, who she was, what happened to her. For wave upon wave to simply carry Henry away and leave an empty space, smooth and indifferent.
He waits until they are inside and then follows. The orphanage is a tall, narrow structure long since reclaimed by the forest. Tree limbs reach through broken windows. Redwood roots warp the porch. Henry stands in the entry. Pushed up against the walls are aged bedframes and dressers. There is a long, wooden table overturned and rotting. They used to come here, Tyler, Sam, and Lacey. That same summer after their first year in high school, before Lacey was with Sam, when, in secret, she’d pull Tyler into one of the rooms and let him reach a hand down her pants and struggle there for few moments before she pulled away. But now, in the dark, the place looks foreign and lost to some other world, some other memory.
Tyler can hear them above him, ascending the stairs. They’ll go all the way to the top where Sam is waiting. He listens for voices but there are none. He thinks of his brother, shivering, Lacey leading him further and further up.
Tyler is careful to stay one flight behind. When he reaches the fourth floor he waits at the stairwell and watches. It is a large, open room with a single, gutted bathroom. The candle Lacey has lit summons massive shadows to flutter against the walls. By the broken window Lacey stands with Tyler’s brother. She slips her fingers into his hand and Henry looks down at his feet.
Tyler sees Sam hiding in the bathroom like they planned. Sees him stifle a laugh. The big elk horns strapped to his head are barely visible in the candlelight. The dried-out seal skull is strapped to his face like a dog muzzle.
“Have you ever touched a woman?” Lacey’s voice is slow and slurred.
Henry nods no but doesn’t say anything. He tries to take one of his hands from Lacey’s.
“But you’ve wanted to, right?” Lacey is pressing up against him now.
Sam is crouched and ready and Tyler hates him, then. Hates how after that first summer Sam started coming here alone with Lacey while Tyler was stuck at home, taking care of Henry. But most of all Tyler hates himself for offering Henry as entertainment, for going along with Sam’s idea just so he could be closer to Lacey. And Tyler is about to stop the entire thing, about to walk out into that big flickering room, retrieve his brother and take him home to the sound of their dad’s drunk snoring on the couch.
But Lacey’s hands are pressing Henry’s jeans. She’s asking him if he likes that. Saying that it’s okay if he does. That he’s supposed to. Henry’s eyes are wide as he fumbles with Lacey’s blouse. Then Sam snorting and howling and grunting, charging out from the bathroom. His dad’s bear pelt draped over his body. There is Lacey, screaming like planned, feigning fear. There is Henry, big and startled and turning toward the noise.
It’s a scene that Tyler goes back to over and over again in his memory. The way Henry runs at him once Sam gets half way across the room. The way Henry fights, but more than he’s supposed to. Through the broken window there is a flurry of snow, and Henry takes Sam by the antlers. He twists them. Sam’s voice welling up and desperate as they spin together. Sam’s mask and antlers and pelt quake in the light and Tyler sees the animal faces his dad carves. Sees them locked with his brother, spinning in circles until they are not spinning, until Henry lets go and Sam is stumbling into the broken window and then gone. And it is nothing like slow motion. It is like fast forward. One minute Sam is there and then he isn’t.
There is silence. Lacey stands up from where she fell. Henry stares down from the window. Tyler thinks that maybe this is part of the joke, the last laugh that Lacey and Sam didn’t clue him in on.
He is at the window now, standing next to his brother, staring down. He can see the mound of Sam’s body at the base of a redwood. The antlers still strapped to his head like broken branches. Lacey is there, too, looking down, her hand over her mouth, panicking. Henry is silent, still staring out the window, the snow in his hair, and already Tyler is thinking how to protect him from this.
Eric Severn is a writer from Arcata, California. His fiction has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction, Lake Effect, Massachusetts Review and Moss. His book reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades and The New Orleans Review. Eric received his MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Idaho and has worked as the fiction editor of Fugue. Currently, he lives in Portland, Maine, is the Literary Editor for The Portland Phoenix.