Remnants of Evergreens
On cold December afternoons like this one, every sound seems amplified by the glittering layers of frost that glaze the branches, the bushes, each blade of grass. It crunches beneath their feet as they trudge between the trees side by side. The warm steam of their exhales floats up in cumulus formation before them. All around, the birds have fallen silent as if stunned by the sudden frigid assault. Even the river’s babbling rush has died, smothered beneath the thick layer of snow-dusted ice.
Waylon coughs. The echo of the hoarse plosive bounces off the frosted trees. “Old Lady Rossum is such a bitch,” he grumbles.
“Shhh,” hisses Everett. He glances behind them even though he already knows they’re far out of earshot of her house, far away from her glowering eyes that bored into them as she scowled from her perch on her veranda.
“Relax. She can’t hear me. She’s inside her miserable house, probably counting out all her pennies. I swear to God, I thought she was gonna stiff us.”
From the disgusted way the old woman had sneered down at them as she inspected their handiwork on the fence repair, Everett’s a little surprised she actually did pay them. Most of the other adults in town still treat him with careful sympathy – gently-chosen words, soft pity in their eyes. But Old Lady Rossum is so ancient, she isn’t perturbed by the looming shadow of death. She’s probably old buddies with the Grim Reaper. Everett shifts Papa’s old toolbox to his other side and shoves his numb hand deep into his pocket.
They walk in silence. The only sound is the crackling treads of their footfalls as they trudge through the frozen grass. Everett hadn’t noticed how their steps have fallen into perfect sync until Waylon breaks the rhythm, stumbling over a root, spitting a stream of mumbled curses toward the ground. He clears his throat and quickens his pace to catch back up. “Hey, you’re not pissed off, are you?”
Everett glances over at him, blinking to force his eyes to snap out of their reverie and focus again. “About what?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m not pissed. ” Everett looks down at his boots, at the wet splash pattern across the toes from the kicked-up bits of ice.
“Well, you seem pissed. Maybe you’re just quiet. I mean, I guess you’re always quiet these days since–” His words choke themselves off and he falls into awkward silence again.
Everett can feel all expression, all emotion drain away from his face. It’s been almost a whole year. It shouldn’t still hurt like this, the dull burn blazing back up into a breathless moment of fiery grief as acute as the beginning. He’s supposed to be the man of the house now. He’s supposed to be okay. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t even dare to breathe too deeply in case the fire within him might feed on the oxygen and burn even higher. He waits for it to fade down again and settle back into the dimly glowing coals of its usual low ache.
Up ahead, the treehouse looks strangely beautiful in the icy mist. Everett squints up at it as they approach. They were just little kids when their dads teamed up on the project. His memories of that summer are all immersed in a sepia light, like he’s pieced the events together from old photographs. It seems like more than a lifetime ago – Papa looking young and strong-bodied and immortal, laughing as they hoisted the huge planks and bolted them in the boughs. At their feet, the boys watched with wide-eyed awe as if they were witnessing superheroes in the flesh. Even Waylon’s old man grinned and joked as they worked, the memory of him almost unrecognizable with happiness. Everything is different now, but their treehouse is solid as the day they built it. They stop at the rope ladder. Everett fumbles to push Papa’s toolbox up his arm to free both hands.
Waylon shifts his weight, out of impatience or cold Everett can’t tell. “Just leave it on the ground. You don’t have to lug it up the ladder.”
“No.” A hammer starts to slide out; Everett readjusts.
“It’s not like this is a high-traffic area. Besides, nobody wants to steal that shitty little toolbox.”
The grief flares back up into a full blaze again. His throat feels almost too tight to breathe. Fuckyou, he thinks but doesn’t say. Ma always flew into a rage when Everett cursed, but Papa never did. He can still hear the old verse Papa recited whenever Everett let a bad word slip out – “Everett, son, let no unwholesome talk come from your mouth; let your words be a gift to those who hear them…” Papa had a platitude for every occasion. If he repeats the sayings to himself over and over, maybe he’ll never forget the sound of Papa’s voice. Without a word he grabs onto the first rung of the rope ladder with half-numb hands, and he hauls himself up. The toolbox rattles against him with every movement.
Waylon follows up behind him with somewhat less graceful motions, wheezing by the time he reaches the top. Everett leans against the wall and watches as he doubles over to catch his breath, hands on his knees, panting dramatically. “Jesus, why did we have to build this thing so high?” He straightens up and pulls off his toboggan, fans himself like an old lady in church. “Maybe we’re getting too big for this.”
A stab of panic twists through Everett’s gut at these words, at the prospect of growing out of this place, these memories. At the idea of Waylon abandoning him too. “Maybe you’regetting too big for this.” He studies Waylon’s face, searching for any trace that he can hear the needy fear behind Everett’s words. “Maybe you oughtta lay off the mashed potatoes.”
Waylon snorts and turns away, flipping Everett the finger halfheartedly over his shoulder. “Oh, blow me.” He rummages around the top shelf against the far wall, pushing aside cans of lantern fuel and unearthing a large mason jar. The clear liquid within, full up to the halfway mark, sloshes as he pulls it down. He brings it over to Everett, and they settle down onto the worn log bench.
Everett eyes the jar. “That looks a lot emptier than last time.”
“Naw.” Waylon unscrews the cap and drops it with a clang onto the sawdusty floor at their feet. “You just have a terrible memory. What, you think I’m sneaking up here to guzzle this down by myself? There’s plenty more of this right at home way easier to come by.”
He has a point. If there’s one thing Waylon’s dad has in abundance, it’s hooch. And poorly-managed anger. “Maybe you’re sharing it with someone else.”
Waylon takes a quick shot from the jar and shudders. “No way. Who the hell would I share it with?”
“I don’t know.” Everett stares down into the mouth of the jar, at the way the trees from the window above them cast ghostly miniature silhouettes in their reflections on the moonshine’s surface. When he gives the jar a little shake, the reflections distort and dance. Papa never drank this stuff. Sometimes he’d come home from a long business trip bearing interesting little gifts for Ma: a bottle of exotic fruit wine, chocolates filled with cherries and French liqueur. He never brought moonshine into the house. It would have seemed so out of place there, so much better suited to Waylon’s trailer where the drink’s taste is as strong and as angry as his dad always is. So much better suited to this cold treehouse and the desolate emptiness in Everett’s chest.
“Hey, Earth to Everett.” Waylon nudges against his shoulder, and the reflections in the jar dance even harder. “You sure you’re okay?”
Everett lifts the jar to his lips and gulps. The moonshine burns as it streaks its way down inside him, a different burn than the sear of his sadness. Something cleaner, purer, more absolute. Here is the alcohol, here is his throat, here is the control in Everett’s own hands to pour it in and let it smolder down its predictable path. Nothing like the burn of his grief, with its sudden blazes and random flares immobilizing him out of nowhere. He swallows hard and coughs. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Waylon’s expression still seems dubious, but he doesn’t press any further as he takes the jar back. His swallows are deep and almost comically loud, draining the hooch in efficient gulps. He’s a better drinker than Everett. But of course he has a role model at home for that, demonstrating daily. He tries to push it back into Everett’s hand, but Everett only shakes his head. “What?” Waylon seems genuinely offended. “You pussying out on me?”
“I gotta go home after this. Ma’s gonna notice if I’m stumbling around, reeking of moonshine. She’ll tan my hide.”
Waylon just stares as if the words make no sense to him. Everett feels a stab of guilt at his own insensitivity. Ma doesn’t tan his hide anymore anyway, only gazes at him with her sad eyes, shaking her head with monumental weariness. “Oh, Everett,” she murmurs in a voice with a mourning dove’s sorrowful cadence. And then she turns away. It’s somehow worse than a switching. “Besides,” he adds quickly, “I gotta go cut a Christmas branch. I already put it off too long.”
“You and your weird little branch tradition.”
He feels himself bristle, coiling to leap to the branches’ defense, just like Papa’s toolbox. “If you don’t cut it down, the rest of that tree will still be alive in a hundred years.” The echo of his father’s voice in the quote is so faint it’s barely there at all.
Waylon rolls his eyes and gulps from the jar again. “What the hell do I care if that tree is still alive or not? The whole damn forest could burn down and nothing would change.”
He’s right in a way, but he’s also wrong. If the forest burned so would the treehouse, along with their last tangible link to happier times, along with their only real reprieve from the everyday struggle of life in these godforsaken hills. What would they do without this last window into those innocent memories, this hiding place to escape into their quiet little vices? Everett shivers.
Waylon glances down at him over the rim of the moonshine jar. “You cold?” He puts the jar down on the floor.
“C’mere.” Waylon scoots closer, unzips his coat and rests his arm over Everett’s shoulders. The coat drapes over him like a blanket, like an enveloping wing. Everett presses closer in to Waylon’s radiating warmth. The contrast to the icy breeze that gusts in through the paneless window above them confuses and disorients Everett’s senses. He closes his eyes.
He can feel Waylon’s touch before he actually makes contact. The nerve endings in the skin of his thigh start tingling beneath his layer of clothes, and he tenses his muscle just as Waylon’s hand lands there as soft as a bird alighting in the snow. At the tiny moan that flutters out of Everett’s mouth, the touch turns stronger, braver. Everett arches up into him. The sensation of pleasure reacts with his sadness like ammonia to bleach. His brain doesn’t know what to do with nice feelings anymore. He turns his head away and hopes Waylon won’t notice the tears welling in his eyes even as the blood swells his cock under Waylon’s hand.
When Waylon gives him a gentle shove, guiding him off the log bench and onto the floor, Everett goes unresisting where he’s led. It wasn’t that long ago that there was room for them both up there on the bench when they met here to mess around, but not anymore. It’s like what Waylon said, what Everett fears – they’re slowly outgrowing this place, whether they want to or not. There’s nothing Everett can do to make it stop, to hold onto the things he loves. Time is cutting everything down. What it doesn’t annihilate in one crushing blow, it slices apart little by little, branch by branch. Papa was wrong. Nothing will still be alive in a hundred years, not even the remnants of the evergreens he tried to preserve. It’s all just kindling, nothing more. Everett squeezes his eyes shut as the tears begin to fall.
He can feel Waylon’s eyes on his face. “Hey,” Waylon whispers. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” Waylon unzips Everett’s jeans and pulls his hard-on out into the freezing treehouse air. Everett feels him adjust his position to stroke Everett off without breaking rhythm while he grinds himself against Everett’s leg. “You’re okay. You’re okay.” His voice is breathy and uncertain, as if he’s only pleading for his words to be true.
It’s not okay, he’s not okay. But that’s okay. He opens his mouth but can’t find any words to explain this. “Yes,” he groans instead, his voice husky, hungry, the crack of tears running all through it like woodgrain. “Yes.”
“Yes,” answers Waylon. His hand tightens around Everett’s erection with practiced, familiar motions. He knows Waylon knows he’s already close. Maybe on some other day, some afternoon less dreary with cold and sadness, Waylon might slow him down, build him up and pull him back from the edge, linger here longer in this sweet place where language falters and pleasure swallows up their brains like a river current. But this isn’t a day for lingering. Waylon’s hand moves faster and Everett curls up around himself, doubling over as if in agony. He cries out as the orgasm thrums through him, shooting from a place deeper than his pulsing cock.
Before Everett begins to come down again, Waylon’s grinding against his leg grows sharper, faster. Everett reaches up to touch his arm, but Waylon grabs him by the wrist with a growl and slams his hand onto the floor, pinning it over his head. His eyes have darkened, pupils blown black. His thrusts are hard enough to hurt, hard enough to bruise. “That’s it, take it,” Waylon snarls through gritted teeth in a voice that sounds nothing like his own and everything like his father’s. “Take it all, you little bitch.”
Everett lies perfectly still. He isn’t sure exactly when Waylon’s old man started punishing him with violence worse than the cruel words, the blows, the chronic neglect. Everett doesn’t know how to talk about it when his tongue keeps stumbling over humiliating words like molestationand rapeand pedophile. Waylon always changes the subject whenever it comes up anyway. The truth really only leaks out in these fleeting climactic moments, then disappears again when it’s all over. Once more Everett feels the unfairness knifing through him. How could his own Papa, so gentle and kind, suffer and die and vanish forever, while Waylon’s monster of a father lives on and on and on? He tries to stifle the sobs but they gasp out of him anyway, muffled only by the growls Waylon makes as he fucks hard against Everett’s body, the roar he lets out as he finally comes.
They lie in silence for a moment, staring into each other’s faces as they both pant for air. Waylon politely says nothing about Everett’s tears; Everett doesn’t mention the eerie way Waylon’s eyes melt back into their usual innocent, boyish light. Together they catch their breath. Waylon releases his crushing grip on Everett’s wrist, ducking his head and flushing with embarrassment, as though he’d forgotten he was holding him there.
Everett pulls himself back up to sitting as Waylon rolls off him. He zips himself back up, pulls his coat tight around himself again. The cold wind is already soaking back into him, chilling his overheated skin again, dragging him back down under the grey December skies. He stands and looks over at Waylon. “I gotta go cut that branch and get home before it gets dark. Come with me?”
Coat still splayed open and clothes still disheveled, Waylon doesn’t look up from the jar of moonshine in his hands. “Naw. I’m just gonna stay here a while.”
Everett doesn’t know what to say. He wants to drag him down the rope ladder and pull him into the safety of his own house, hide him in his bed. He wants to sit back down on the cold, sawdusty floor with him and drain the jar of moonshine dry until both their hearts grind to an exhausted stop. He wants to go back to those sepia-toned summer memories where their fathers were both happy and immortal, where the scale of the treehouse was just perfect for two innocent, oblivious, carefree little boys. But Ma’s at home waiting for him. He scrubs his palms against his cheeks to obliterate the tear tracks, practices slipping his brave face back on. He’s supposed to be the man of the house now. He’s supposed to be okay. He grabs hold of Papa’s toolbox and hoists it up his arm. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” His monotone answer reverberates within the mouth of the jar as he drinks.
Everett watches him a moment more, then drops his eyes to the floor. The tools in the toolbox rattle as he lowers himself unsteadily down the rope ladder. The treehouse disappears behind him as he trudges back through the brittle grass. Off to cut the Christmas branch, to subtly dismember a tree that will still be alive in a hundred years.