By the time he was seven, Jason had sat shivering for hours in a duck blind and clung with bleeding fingers to a rock wall in Joshua Tree. At eight he was buried in the tube at Pleasure Point and knocked off his board. At nine he lured a coyote to its death by simulating a dying rabbit with a wounded-game call. Ray insisted it was all good for him. “That’s how you learn what it takes!” he often said, scarred hands wrapped around the stock of a muzzleloader or the scales of a hunting knife.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAs he grew older, Jason started to understand that his stepfather didn’t really care about surfing big waves or getting to the top of a boulder. What he liked about nature was the way it scared the living shit out of a person who, once he’d conquered his fear—or simply endured it without crapping himself or dying—was closer to being a man. Jason himself hated being outdoors: the way it had to hurt, the danger.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter he’d watched Ray bag that coyote, he said he had to pee, but really he just needed an excuse to turn his back.
IIIIIIIIIIIISkiing, though. Skiing was different. Jason loved the whispering snow, the silence of speed. From the start he knew he was good at it. At ten he was nearly as good as Ray, who was always seeking out steeper hills, icier moguls. Jason felt he and Ray were engaged in some sort of competition that Jason was winning. The winning had a lot to do with Ray trying to trip him up and failing.
IIIIIIIIIIIIJason’s mother Veronica didn’t know any of this.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThey began going to the mountains more often, renting the same ski-in/ski-out condo at Squaw every weekend. Veronica went with them but she didn’t ski. She baked cookies and muffins while Ray and Jason tackled the slopes. “My boys,” she called them. “Take your boots off outside, boys!” she would yell from inside as they began to clomp up the icy outdoor staircase to the front door. Jason vaguely resented the sense that she viewed them as equal in relation to each other and to her. But he knew Ray was diminished by these comparisons, and he knew Ray knew it too, which pleased him.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAt night in the mountains, he could hear them—sometimes behind their closed door, sometimes in the living room, where there was a wood-burning stove. He could make out the creak of furniture, his mother’s muffled giggles, Ray’s demanding tone, muted but familiar. Then silence that wasn’t really silence at all, full of half-sounds, whispered secrets. After, Jason would sleep fitfully and dream of hating his mother, who gave in to Ray’s authority just as he did but laughed while she did it.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAt home she asked Jason with tender solicitude about school, cooked homemade macaroni and cheese just for him, kissed his hair when he was sick. It grated on Ray, who often accused her of trying to “sissify” her son. “Oh, for God’s sake,” Veronica would say, but without real irritation, as though Ray was making a trivial but tasteless joke. Her arms around him, Jason would gaze placidly at his stepfather, understanding that his mother enjoyed Ray’s jealous ranting and used her son purposely to cultivate it.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhat those two did in the dark. She made him part of it.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe knew that next time the runs would be more precipitous, the way down less certain.
Late in February he and Ray drove up to the mountains alone.
IIIIIIIIIIIIJason almost fell asleep in the truck, soothed by the rumble of tires on pavement. He was glad to be going to the mountains without his mother, whose showy doting had begun to annoy him. Perhaps he and Ray might enjoy each other in her absence. He liked thinking they might team up against her, beat her at something, although he didn’t know exactly what. It puzzled him, this wanting to be on Ray’s side and not his mother’s, because he loved her—adored her, even—and thought Ray was kind of a dick.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThis was it: He wanted to teach her a lesson.
Jason’s real father had died when he was seven. Cancer. He had a new wife by then: someone Jason had never met. All he knew was she’d been the girlfriend Jason’s father had been texting until his mother snuck looks at his phone and threw him out.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter his father left, Jason never saw him again. He talked to him on the phone once or twice. Their conversations were questions Jason was supposed to answer happily: how school was, what video games he liked, if he wanted to play soccer on an after-school team.
IIIIIIIIIIIISometimes at night, he looked into the blackness above him and whispered, “Dad,” just to see if it meant anything anymore.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen his mother told him his father had died, she paused and said, “Karma.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s when you do something bad to someone, and then something bad happens to you.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Is it always like that?” he asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“That’s what they say,” she said, shrugging with the mystery of it.
IIIIIIIIIIIIShe met Ray a few months later. In those days Ray would take him to Tony’s Auto Body Service and Repair, where he worked as a mechanic. Jason loved the smell of grease and coolant, Ray hoisting him up to see the engines beneath propped-open hoods. He was fascinated with machine magic, the dreadful roar of ignition. His own father’s betrayal and death were barely remembered, his mother—almost back to herself—looked at Ray with the gratitude of someone pulled from a burning building, and all around him, motors hummed and throbbed.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThey didn’t go to the garage anymore. Ray said it was because weekends were for the fun stuff, which Jason knew meant forcing him to do things he wouldn’t do if given the choice.
IIIIIIIIIIIILearning what being a man was. That’s what he was doing now.
He stood at the window of the condo, watching the fragile flakes tumble and churn in the wind. Maybe they’d close the lifts.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut Ray pulled on his bib and slid his feet into his unbuckled boots with grim purpose. “Let’s do it,” he said, leading Jason out into the cold.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThey rode one chairlift, then another. The lifts swayed. “Is this safe?” Jason asked, and Ray laughed and said, “You could get run over walking to the mailbox.” The chair jerked and stopped. Below, the trees tried to duck under the howling wind.
IIIIIIIIIIIIEventually the lift lunged into motion and Jason could breathe again. At the top of the mountain, he adjusted his goggles and grasped his poles in imitation of Ray, who said, “Come on now. Let’s see what you got up here.” And then stood waiting, smirking behind his balaclava.
IIIIIIIIIIIIJason started down the hill, feeling the unfamiliar steepness beneath his skis. At first he was afraid. He reviewed all he knew: Keep upright, with skis parallel to each other; bend at the knees; move across the hill; don’t be afraid of the turn. And after a minute or two, he began to relax into his certain knowledge, the wisdom of his body moving as it had been taught, beneath the battered pines.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHalfway down he slowed as Ray hockey-stopped in front of him, drenching him in a spray of snow. “Lousy form,” Ray said. After a moment’s pause he added, “At least you didn’t fall,” and took off.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThey skied all day, skipping lunch, until the sky began to darken and the snow iced up. The hill was nearly empty of people. “One more,” Ray said and Jason, whose legs were shaking, followed him onto the lift.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThat last run, Ray went first. “Do whatever I do,” he commanded. He skied fast, barely turning, then wove in and out of the trees. Not allowed, Jason knew, but he followed Ray as best he could, terrified, hunching beneath low boughs. Back out on the run, he glanced up the mountain. They were alone. Below him, Ray entered another glade.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHis legs aching, Jason slowed himself, then came to a halt. He rested for a moment, catching his breath, watching the hill below him until he began to realize something was wrong. He skied slowly down and peered into the stand of trees. Ray lay beneath them, legs pretzeled, blood oozing out of his mouth, staining the snow. Out of view. His eyes were closed; he moaned unintelligibly. After a few moments he stopped.
IIIIIIIIIIIIJason squatted above his skis and rested his crossed arms on his knees. He had never seen someone unconscious. Or maybe dead. He thought being dead might be better than whatever this was. Ray might prefer it.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe blood reminded him of that coyote’s, the way it soaked the earth: frothy, steaming.
IIIIIIIIIIIIStill no moaning. He had to be dead.
IIIIIIIIIIIIJason straightened and sniffed the air—Ray had taught him that sometimes you could smell a storm— then skied closer. Cautiously he fumbled in Ray’s pocket for the condo key, then skied down to the lodge, pulled his boots out of the bindings, hoisted his skis onto his right shoulder, and headed across the parking lot. At the base of the stairs, he thought about leaving his boots on, but in the end he unbuckled them and set them on the mat.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOnce inside the condo, he went to the kitchen and ate an apple while he waited for two blueberry Pop Tarts to heat up. He burned the tips of his fingers pulling them out of the toaster. When they had cooled, he took small bites and chewed slowly.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter the shock of it all—and the crying, the funeral—his mother would worry about him, ask gently if he wanted to talk about it. He would say he was fine, and she would be too, then.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOutside the darkness was starless, absolute.
He watched TV until a little after seven o’clock. Then he called her. “Ray said he wanted to ski another run. He said go to the condo if I was tired,” he explained. “He never came back.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“What? Where are you?”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe could hear rising panic as she lobbed questions at him, not even listening to his answers.
IIIIIIIIIIII“What should I do?” he asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You stay there. Don’t move. I’m calling the police. And I’m driving up there. Goddammit,” she said. “Don’t you move.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter he hung up, he went back to watching Jeopardy. Under “Hunting and Fishing” one of the clues was: “The most hunted animal in the United States.” “Deer,” he whispered, smiling when the contestant hesitated and then said, “Duck.”
Ray wasn’t dead. He’d had a stroke, his mother said, causing him to hit the tree, breaking his neck and puncturing a lung. He was paralyzed and would need a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You mean he’ll just sit there?” Jason asked.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThey were at home now, where spring was gasping for breath, suffocating under the weight of cold rains. Ray was in Calvary Christian, a rehab hospital, where Veronica spent the day talking to nurses and helping to feed him.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s so unfair,” she said. “Him of all people.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Is he going to die?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“We’re all going to die.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“From this, I mean.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I don’t know, Jason. No one does.” She pulled a towel from the pile of clean laundry and began to fold it.
IIIIIIIIIIIIShe hadn’t cried once since it happened. Not in front of him. But she was cocooned and far away. All balled up.
IIIIIIIIIIII“What do you mean ‘unfair’?” he asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Because he’s so active, so athletic. Was. And now he can’t be. I don’t know what he’ll do,” she said, her hands falling to her lap, the towel crumpling beneath them. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
She came into his room that night, sat on the side of the bed, gathered him in her arms. She kissed his forehead and rocked him against her. When he started to cry, she whispered,
IIIIIIIIIIII“We’re going to be all right” over and over.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe wanted to tell her it wasn’t unfair but he didn’t know how.
Veronica spent every day at Calvary Christian, often staying long after Jason got home from school. She fed Ray and helped bathe him, which horrified Jason: He pictured his step-father as a giant baby, mute and immobile, submitting to his mother’s gentle ministrations. Surely Ray hated every moment of it.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Oh, no,” his mother said when he asked. “He loves it. The warm water, being clean. He loves bath time.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIIt made him sick, the way she said it.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Everybody loves being washed clean,” she said.
The summer came and Jason was alone for long stretches of time while Veronica tended to Ray. Sometimes he went to a friend’s house; sometimes a neighbor would offer to watch him at the community pool. Mostly he sat indoors, watching TV or playing video games.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOne July morning he slid open the family room’s glass door and ventured outside. Their backyard was just a thin stretch of patchy, untended lawn, bounded by scraggly pines that ran the length of the neighborhood. He sat on the back stoop, his face tilted to the sun. The warmth felt good on his cheeks.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter a while the heat became intolerable, and he walked toward the shade, where the air smelled of sap and pine needles. He lowered himself to the ground and leaned against one of the trees, its rough trunk solid against his back like a firm hand. He sat there for the rest of the morning, breathing in deeply the scents of remembered places—Squaw and Kirkwood, camping at Tamarack, Population 9 near Big Trees, the Ewoldsen Trail high above the ocean in fog as thick as gauze, Sky Meadow under redwood canopies so dense you couldn’t feel the rain.
“He wants to see you,” his mother said one night as she unloaded the dishwasher.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe was doing homework at the kitchen table. Outside the October heat was being overpowered by evening, gnawed on like a bone. Somewhere an owl hooted.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I thought he couldn’t talk.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“He says a word or two sometimes. He asked for you.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIJason went back to fractions, boredom feeling like relief. Maybe she would just let it go.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut she said, “I’m not asking. This is important.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I don’t see why.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Because he wants to see you. Because he misses you.” She pulled the dishwasher door up and closed. “Don’t you miss him?”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe nodded while dividing both sides by seven. Making everything equal.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Well, then.” She pulled a dishcloth off the handle of the oven door and folded it so the hems touched, then rehung it. “Tomorrow after school. I’ll pick you up.”
Calvary Christian Rehabilitation Hospital was a two-story building on the edge of town. From the outside it looked like an apartment building. The only giveaway was the van on the front driveway, from which emerged an attendant maneuvering a woman in a wheelchair down a ramp. Jason could tell that if she wasn’t buckled in, she would slump forward or fall out of the chair completely. “Don’t stare,” his mother said, nudging him with her elbow, but he couldn’t look away: The woman whimpered as if each inch of descent to the sidewalk was causing her distress. The attendant was calling over his shoulder to the van driver, razzing him about something, laughing, like he was hauling a pallet of carburetors off a truck in front of Tony’s Auto Body.
IIIIIIIIIIIIInside there were armchairs and a piano no one was playing. Behind a counter two women were chatting and drinking coffee at a desk stacked high with binders, all labeled with a different name. The people in here, Jason thought, imagining each binder full of everything in a person’s life—all the friends he’d ever had, the things teachers had said about him, whom he’d married, what he’d done right and wrong—and the doctors looking through it and deciding who was worth saving.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe lady with the nametag Evelyn smiled at Veronica. “He’s waiting for you!” she said brightly, as if she was a secretary and Ray was sitting in his office, impatiently checking his phone.
IIIIIIIIIIIIJason and his mother walked down one hallway and then another. A maid was wiping the handrails on the walls with disinfectant that smelled like solvent. Jason glanced into a room they passed: A woman holding a clipboard and wearing a shirt with a repeating pattern of hippos in tutus laughed and said loudly, “We’re doing Bingo at four in the lounge.” The woman in the bed nodded. She looked as though she didn’t have any teeth.
IIIIIIIIIIIIFour doors down, his mother turned to him. “Now remember, it’s just Ray,” she said. “Ray who loves nothing more than being your father.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “Ray who saved us.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIJason nodded, his heart beating wildly.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThey opened the door and the man who was Ray—because that is what his mother said—was sitting in a wheelchair near the bed. His skin was melting like wax, or maybe, Jason thought, all the bent and broken bones weren’t able to hold everything tight anymore. His scarred hands, limp in his lap, were white and soft; his eyes open and unseeing. Around him, machines peeped and ticked.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHis mother went to Ray and leaned down to kiss his gaping mouth. She smoothed his hair. “How are you feeling, honey? You look so good. You have so much color! How are you doing?” she asked, her voice baby-high with devotion, and for a moment Jason thought he might throw up. But then she turned and gestured for him to approach.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Ray, honey, look who’s here. It’s Jason. He’s come to see you. See, sweetheart?” She backed away so he could stand close. The smell of piss was overwhelming. Jason thought, He doesn’t want me here. This is all her.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Say something,” Veronica whispered. “Tell him you love him.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s me, Ray. Jason.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe remembered last year, pretending to be the wounded cottontail, luring that coyote. Its careful, slinking creep out of the brush.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Lean in so he can hear you,” she said.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe bent toward Ray’s ear-lobe, gray like wet clay. He was aware of his mother behind him, the look on her face: joyful and full of hope. Together again. Her boys.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Your hands look like a girl’s,” Jason whispered.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Jason!” Veronica grabbed his arm and yanked him back. “What is the matter with you?”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut Ray blinked. Something—sight, consciousness—passed over his eyes.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It was a joke,” Jason said, pulling his arm out of his mother’s grip. “See? He knew.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIRay’s lips, thickened with disuse, were moving.
IIIIIIIIIIII“He’s trying to tell us something,” Veronica said. “He wants you to hear.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIFighting the urge to run, Jason stepped forward and leaned close.
IIIIIIIIIIIIRay’s voice, when it finally came, was soft with spit, raspy and urgent. “I know you left,” he said, each word slow and separate, its own furious sentence.
IIIIIIIIIIII“What?” Veronica said, but Ray was spent: His chin sank to his chest.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter the blast of gunshot, the coyote’s dead, wide-open eyes, shocked dumb at the deceit.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHis mother looked at him, horrified.
IIIIIIIIIIII“What?” he said before she could ask. “It’s like I said it was.” He thought, You’re the reason this happened. And then, What if it’s not just one person’s fault? How does that work?
IIIIIIIIIIIIOn the way back to the car, he told himself he didn’t really do anything. It’s not like I tripped him. Wasn’t that important? Something to be taken into account?
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut on the drive home, he knew that no matter how he tried to reassure himself, he would always be jumpy and expectant of catastrophe now, waiting for someone to decide the thing he had done—or not done—could only be met with fierce and rightful retribution.