My turn, said Ike, flinging himself down. He glided away from me effortlessly, like a figure skater, even though neither one of us had ever skated. We were boys. Boys do not skate.
We called it Suicide Hill, though neither of us had any idea what a suicide was. Just something we’d heard the kids on the bus say. One of us had to stand up top to watch for cars while the other went down. No need for a running start, gravity took care of that.
Fasterfasterfaster, he squealed, all one word, as he picked up speed halfway through. I stood watch at the top, a teenage sentinel poorly matched against the brute force of glass and steel. Of course, cars weren’t the only problem. Trains tracks bisected the gravel road at the bottom and there were steep drop offs on either side; a deep pit of icy water, known to us simply as The Hole, waited on the left. Plenty of death for everyone, as Dad said. Or used to say, when he was still around. He’d disappeared a few months back, leaving Mom to fill in the cracks. Mom didn’t know how to melt though; the cracks remained.
Ike spun slightly to the left as he crossed the icy tracks, but the heavy ridge of gravel at the edge brought the sled to a halt. Sumabitch! he hooted, his voice carrying up the hill. He had a hell of a set of lungs on him for an eight-year-old. I was twelve and quiet. My words sounded hollow, even to my own ears. Speak your piece boy, Dad would often say, his hands trembling from the nightmares that constantly plagued him. Fair-minded he was, even though he woke up screaming most nights.
My turn had me ditching the sled into a formidable snowbank halfway down the hill, when Ike yelled Car, Mason, car! Easy to hear, even over the screeling of the runners. Mr. Allwood rumbled by in his truck, his attention focused forward. You did not stop on country hills with ice and snow on them, not if you hoped to make it up the other side. You simply prayed that a train wasn’t coming and you went for it. I was only twelve but even I knew that.
I get another turn, I said as I crested the top of the hill, but Ike was already gone, whooshing down on his sled, nicer and newer than mine even though he was the little brother. Fasterfasterfaster, he called as he whooped by me, a ghost on two steel runners.
He wasn’t a ghost though; he was a boy. He was my brother, as real as the brown bottles that Mother hid underneath our teevee dinner trays in the trash. He was no ghost.
Neither was the thing that crawled up from The Hole. It was opaque, black like the solar eclipse we had glanced at that summer past, scalding our eyes and generating double vision for the next two weeks. When it straightened and turned towards me, the thing’s eyes burned the same blue flame that Dad’s did, slick as the ground beneath my feet.
Neither was the train that swooped in from the west, its surprise voice bawling with a terrible urgency. It sounded just like one of Mr. Allgood’s newborn calves, hungry and needing its Mother.
Neither was the car that turned off the highway, charging down the opposite hill like a bull towards a matador. It was the same type of car, long and black with a humped back end, that had picked up our Mother just a few days before and carried her into town, sleeping. What would become of us when people found out Dad was gone too, I couldn’t say. I was just a kid.
I closed my eyes because I did not want to choose the ending. Bad things come in threes, Dad would whisper when he still had a voice, his quaking forehead touching my own, our heads folding together like a prayer.
They may have been bad - the car, the train, the thing - but my brother was good and none of them laid claim to him, for he was fasterfasterfaster than all three, outrunning them all like a bullet outruns a gun. Ike made it through, invincible, though all I had to prove it was a wooden sled, unbent and unbroken on the other side. I took that sled with me when I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle in a place that never snowed, but Ike remained gone.
The poplar trees that line the opposite hill, skeleton branches shimmering with their icy coats, stood guard over the silence that was left behind.
But where did Uncle Ike go, Daddy? my son, also named Ike, asks from the crook of my arm. A bedtime story was all he asked for; this tale was all I had to offer. He has heard it before - he loves the twin ideas of soft snow and bitter cold, as we live in a place where neither is real - but he has never asked this particular question.
I don’t know, I say, touching his wheat-colored hair. They are not the same; I must remind myself of this too often. My brother’s hair was black, his eyes gray.
He was too fast, like me, my son says, lifting his blue eyes to mine. A mirror reflecting the past.
I shake my head. He is an only child, he has no brothers, he will never understand no matter how thoroughly I explain the mechanics of loss. Still, my mustache quivers and my hands shake, just like Dad’s did, once upon a time when he was real and I was faster.
He was nothing like you, I whisper quickly, three times in a row, an incantation to keep memory frozen out in the cold where it belongs.