Nic Fort ’16

They found Mr. Higgins on the floor of the chemistry lab at 9:32 PM on the night of Friday, September 23. His body was still warm. The cause of death was a stab wound, with no murder weapon found. Less than twelve hours later, they concluded their investigation.

I was the only suspect.

No.

I can’t start there.

In that long summer, I had a close encounter with a grizzly bear, nearly capsized a 60-foot sailboat, caught a 36-pound bass off the Atlantic coast, and spent several hours in a police car, but the most surprising thing of all was receiving a letter inviting me back to the Alpine School for the fall term. My grades were good – excellent, even – but mischief and civil disobedience had created a haze of my years at the school; I could no longer pick out individual events, looking back on a vague feeling of smug anarchy.

As August came to a close and I pulled up to my sprawling home after my self-imposed exile in Wyoming, I wanted nothing more than to put as much distance between me and Greenwich, Connecticut as possible.

The thin voice of my mother floated from somewhere near the back of the house as I entered. “Who is it?” I walked to the pool, the sun’s rays reflecting off the pristine expanse, and saw her tanning her rotund body on a deck chair.

She gasped and shot up off the lounge, and losing her grip on her drink. “You’re back! Oh, Patrick, it’s so wonderful to see you!” She locked me in an uncomfortable embrace, her tanning product seeping in to my white shirt.

“Relax, mom, relax. It’s good to see you, too.”

“I was worried, you know. You need to be back at Alpine in three days, and I started…” She was thinking; it looked very difficult. “I wondered if you were ever coming back. Your father will be so happy to see you!”

I assured her several times that I had noticed the weight she lost. “In fact, mom, I barely recognized you!”

If anything, she had gotten fatter.

Nothing had changed: the marble staircase, the pristine pool, except for me.

***

My father’s reaction to my return was less than joyous.

“What is all that shit, clothes? It’s so cold up there, you only need a jacket.” My father was an Alpine graduate himself, and he purported to understand the school, which extended to what I packed.

When I was eight, he forgot me in Vermont, driving sixty miles before realizing my absence. Four years later, he sent me away to the same Rocky Mountain perch where generations of apathetic Wilfords had sent their children. I was simultaneously overjoyed and saturated with melancholy. I found a place with few rules, low standards, minimal supervision, and breathtaking mountain vistas. Love of the surroundings and hatred of the institution tugged me in opposite directions.

“How about you don’t tell me how to pack, and I won’t tell you how to raise your children, Calvin.” I couldn’t remember ever calling him “dad.”

“Fair enough,” he shrugged. “Bring them to the car, will you?” I hefted my trunk, checking off another box on my list of “Remaining Times I Will Have to Return to Connecticut.”

* * *

The first three weeks of school swam by after my arrival, seeming barely to happen at all. My first prank of the year, which revolved around a stuffed bear and a pair of woman’s underwear, was a smashing success, and yet, for the first time in my life, I found the elation of anarchy absent from the result.

I paused before the gate of Topher House, the pounding music already giving me a dreadful headache. I stood among the ivy, gazing up at the starkly bright light of the moon and stars. As a child, I spent the summers alone, waking at dawn, scurrying to the dock and sailing away. At night, after everyone was asleep, I would lie beneath the sky in my rocket ship pajamas, pointing at the distant stars. Alone under the heavens, I learned to see. The night sky was like a pair of glasses – it put the world into focus.

I found a similar feeling as I rested on the cusp of going inside. I walked away, finding the Mountain Trail. I moved past trees, catching glimpses of Orion through the canopy. The darkness had an acute silence.

My shoes scuffled along, climbing progressively upward on the path as my sight escaped me. I had gone stargazing almost every night during the summer, but this felt different. The world blew cool air on me, pumping rejuvenation into my body. The night was biting; I ignored it. I kept climbing, my skin prickling; the endless darkness grew more and more quiet as its hold on me increased. I was in love with it all, I realized suddenly. The stars and the moon, the wood and the night.

I began to jog, my mind racing as the forest rushed by. The low-hanging branches brushed my face and left me wet and smiling.

I kept the trail, despite the gloom, and time escaped me as I left the world behind. Topher House, and the rest of that destitute campus were far behind me. Nothing was ahead of me but the universe.

It was a glorious feeling, being up there on that mountain, the school before me and the sky above; a sharp wave of knowing washed over me. I saw people milling about, drunk and screaming, going through the standard routine of those who feel the casual press of the world passing them by.

I thought of the places I had been, my life unfurling before me like a storybook. I saw Connecticut and Maine, New York and Alaska. I saw the mast of a sailboat, flapping in the cold wind. I saw the Tetons, the Adirondacks, and the Cascades, mountain faces sweeping before me, silhouetting my vision. My life was full, but I felt almost as if I had eaten too much and I was about to vomit it all out.

It wasn’t that cold, really. September in Colorado is chilly but livable. It was enough to wake me up. The stars were bright, and I allowed myself to consider the universe for a moment in its vastness. There were people out there, staring back, probably wondering just what we thought was so significant about ourselves. Our folly was a grand comedy broadcast to the denizens of the cosmos.

* * *

At some point, lying in the cold grass, I accidentally fell asleep. Or I must have, because when I woke up, the whole world had gone quiet. I moved down the path much quicker than I ascended, stumbling in my haste.

The fact that I was seventeen years old and still trying to rationalize the very core of my existence, not even having moved to the complicated stuff yet, frightened me deeply. I spent many nights tracing patterns in the wood paneling with my eyes, asking the same question over and over, Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?

I walked back through the campus, not caring that if I was caught, it would mean detention. Not that it mattered. At that point, they could have reasonably named the detention room after me.

When I reached the dormitory, my grand thoughts were replaced by an aching desire for my bed. The ground had left me cold and sore, and my eyes closed beneath the weight of discovery, sending me to sleep.

***

Roughly six hours later, a nervous freshman knocked on my door, informing me through a series of stutters that I was expected in the office of Mr. Lexington. I was fairly unperturbed by this new development; I was a frequent flyer in Mr. Lexington’s office, and this occasion seemed no different.

After a short walk, I reached the school’s main building, brushing by old memories adorning the hallway before reaching an imposing wooden door. I knocked, and a distressed voice ushered me in.

Mr. Lexington had graying hair, a stubbly beard, and piercing eyes. He was one of the only people at Alpine I liked. His laugh was one of his hallmarks, but there was no humor in his voice that day. “Something very serious has happened, Patrick, and if you are behind it, consequences will be severe. You could leave Alpine and face the law. So I suggest you speak now, before the charges against you mount.”

For the first time since the missing toilet seats when I was thirteen years old, I had absolutely no idea what Mr. Lexington was talking about. “I’m sorry, but what’s going on?”

He leaned back in his chair and sighed, eyes closed in exasperation, his brow knitted. “I’ll be blunt with you, Patrick. Did you kill Mr. Higgins?”

“Of course I did. Who the hell is Mr. Higgins?”

“My cat! They found him dead last night, in the chemistry lab. But you already know that, don’t you? Why, why…?” The accusatory blast of his gaze threatened to overpower me, and his eyes rimmed red with tears.

I was speechless, a rare occurrence. “What…”

He gazed back at me, venom in his eyes. He rose from his chair, his tremendous height looming over me. “I didn’t want to believe it, Patrick. I really didn’t. But the proof, well, it’s irrefutable. Who stabs an innocent cat? Who does that?” He ran his hands through his thinning hair. “I mean, you’ve always been mischievous, but this, this… I thought you were better than this, Patrick.”

“How am I supposed to have killed your cat? I didn’t even know you had a cat!”

Silently, he showed me his computer, displaying a surveillance video of the chemistry lab, full of glassware and shiny white surfaces. I watched as a man stuck a knife in the cat, dropping it to the ground roughly. Its tail pointed towards the sky. To my absurd shock, this man was not only wearing my jacket and pants, but from the back appeared to have my tousled haircut. Seeing tears rushing down Mr. Lexington’s face in a newfound torrent, I ran out of his office, ignoring his yells behind me.

The possibilities spun in my head as I rushed home. I was almost 95% certain that I had not killed Mr. Higgins, which left me wondering who the hell had killed the cat and framed me, and I was really drawing some blanks.

I thumped into my room, certain that I would take the fall for this murder. I scrounged up all the food I could find and stuffed it into a bag, topping it off with all the clothes I would possibly need. I grabbed a sleeping bag and tent and ran out the door, still wearing my soft slippers.

The trail would be the first place they looked. Instead, I went directly into the forest. The brush tore into me as I advanced steadily upward, giving me no time to think as the world blurred by. I began to consider that I might have overreacted by running away.

Suddenly, I heard a voice to my right, cutting through the crisp air. “Who’s there?” it called, sounding surprised. My stomach collapsed into a black hole of dread. I would’ve recognized that voice on the radio. Since the day I arrived at Alpine, Ava Ross had been my absolute worst enemy. She was a straight-A student, student body president, and captain of the soccer team, and I had never gotten past her fierce intelligence, which confounded me endlessly. Although I hoped to avoid her, she rushed down from a clearing, descending into a glare at her first glimpse of me.

Unfortunately, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever met. Brown hair ran down her spine, and her face would take the breath out of anyone, literally anyone. On this morning, in her boots and red jacket, I thought the cold air made her look particularly enticing.

“What are you doing out here?” she asked, daring me to speak.

“I could ask you exactly the same thing.” She did not strike me as the kind of girl who spent her time exploring the woods. Ava Ross had always cast the illusion of persistent work and constant success.

“I just sit out here sometimes, I guess; it’s calming.” Her face glowed red with her honesty.

Despite my curiosity, a voice incessantly urged me to continue on. I nervously began, “Anyway, I’m sort of going this way,” pointing north, into the heart of the Rockies.

She smiled at me. It looked great, and made my insides turn. “What are you running from?”

“Nothing,” I said, and broke into a sprint, hoping to leave her far behind. Of course, I heard the steady skitter of feet to my rear, and saw the red jacket in my periphery. “Get out of here,” I yelled. “I need to go!”

A grin stitched her face open with a burst of light. “If you’re running, then I’m coming with you.”

I could think of no worse idea, and promptly pushed her to the ground. She kept her balance, and continued to match my pace as the air grew noticeably thinner. She had completely ruined all my plans. She just had to know everything, didn’t she? Undoubtedly, she planned to turn me in to Mr. Lexington as soon as we stopped. As I reached the crest of the hill and began to descend, I tried to quicken my pace, only to have her match it. She weaved around me for hours, occupying every possible position in my proximity, and matching my every move.

Eventually, I had to catch my breath. The forested hills bore no landmarks; we were deep in wilderness. I turned to her, “Why the hell are you following me? What’s wrong with you?”

She flashed her grin.  “Nothing’s wrong with me at all. I’ve been dreaming of doing this for so long.” Seeing the look on my face, she continued, “Not with you, moron! But just getting away, you know? I had to leave that place.” I had never expected this from Ava Ross, future Ivy Leaguer.

But I needed to get serious. “Listen to me. I’m only telling you this because you need to leave me alone. They think I killed Lexington’s cat and I need to get as far away as possible, or they’ll probably send me to federal prison.”

Staring at me blankly for a second, Ava doubled over, her laughs echoing in the forest. Unrestrained glee stretched across her face. “Patrick, that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.” Erupting into another fit, she emerged only to say, “Well, I guess we better keep going then,” and promptly began to trudge on.

I saw no way to get rid of her.

We walked on, speaking no more until we reached a large clearing of fallen leaves just as the sun began to sink beneath the horizon. Looking straight at me, she said, “Let’s make camp here.”

As much as I wanted to argue, it was a great spot. “I think we need to consolidate our resources. What kind of food do you have?” Turning out her pockets, she contributed a Ziploc-bag full of trail mix. I took out four granola bars, six bottles of water, a half-eaten package of beef jerky, a bag of Twizzlers, and a single peanut butter cracker.

“Quite the haul,” I muttered. We silently developed an agreement not to discuss the present or the future. She sat down, legs crossed, as I remained standing and gave her several pieces of jerky. I handed her my water; she accepted it gratefully

By now, a pleasant darkness had descended over the woods. The noises of the night emerged, resonating through the trees.

In the mountains, undisturbed by the world, I was feeling something that even Ava Ross could not ruin. The open wilderness filled me, and I felt once again what I had found as a child. My retreat had washed Alpine and Greenwich off of me, and I was capturing the world as I never had before.

I broke the silence. “I think I’ll go to sleep.” My knees throbbed with pain from the hike. I had yet to consider what I would like to call the “one sleeping bag” problem.

As Ava walked away to answer nature’s call, I unfurled the bag and climbed inside the tent. Curled within it, a pleasant warmth pushed me towards sleep. I nearly forgot all about Mr. Higgins the school in the twilight of my mind, barely fathoming that I had only left it all several hours before.

I was dimly aware of Ava entering the tent. The faint light of the moon outlined her calm, beautiful face. I shuddered as she slid into the bag, her body warm against mine. She felt substantive like no one else I had ever met. Without saying anything, she wrapped her arms around me, leaving us intertwined, heat flowing between us. It certainly wasn’t supposed to, but it felt so damn good. She was Ava Ross, my sworn enemy, and yet, as it turned out, the only person who understood the nicks in my soul.

Before my thoughts could stop me, my lips found hers and we kissed. It was very wet, and she was somehow kissing me back and my elation overcame the strangeness of it all. After a time, I withdrew. Neither of us said a word as she closed her eyes. With sorrow, I realized that this would never happen again.

Silently, I slid out of the sleeping bag and exited the tent. I continued to walk north, taking only the Twizzlers. I felt my joy slip by me with each passing step. After a time, I paused and looked up.

It was cloudy.

Nic Fort ’16 (Scholastic Art & Writing Silver Key)