Four friends go for a sunrise hike after graduating from high school in Harrison Kim’s lyrical coming-of-age vignette; by Harrison Kim.
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After the high school graduation ceremony, the four of us slid ourselves out of the school gym into the car and along the highway above Shuswap Lake, wheels revolving, mountains and water slipping by.
Jackson’s sister Carol drove, her smile partly hidden under falling forward auburn hair that she flipped back before it fell again.
“We’re all in this together,” said to her friend Janice, passing back a lit joint which I handed to Jackson; he took it in his big fingers and sucked the smoke.
“What are we in?” I asked.
“This,” she motioned, circling her hand to indicate the car. She put her fingers to her forehead and along the edges of her pageboy haircut. “Ow. Everything’s so big.”
I pointed out the window. “What we’re moving through is bigger.”
“Under the stars.” Carol sang. “Twinkle twinkle.”
“Lights in the darkness,” Janice replied. “There’s so many.”
Carol looked at me in the rear-view mirror. “What big eyes you have,” I told her.
“It’s almost dawn,” she said. “Eyes are bigger at dawn.”
Jackson laughed. “What if the world ended now, and we were the only survivors.”
He stopped talking and took another hit off the joint.
“I’d miss my dog,” Janice said.
“I’d give you a dog,” Jackson assured her.
We drove to a grad party at Zettergreen’s; so many teenagers there we could barely squeeze through the front door. I headed for Ella Mae Zettergreen, smoking in a tight dress, sitting cross legged on a chair, beckoning towards me and talking about the future, cigarette dangling between her long fingers; and I talked back, never thought my words could mix so easily with hers.
“Would you sooner be a movie star or a rock star?” she asked.
“Stars never go out,” I said.
She said, “If I was one I would. Just ask.”
And I asked, “With me?”
“I’d go out like a light,” she said. “With the sun.”
We laughed together, my ear near her mouth, I inhaled her smoke as she shouted above the music. “You don’t seem drunk,” she said.
I wasn’t. I missed things, though. I gapped out and lost perception. At the graduation ceremony, I missed my parents. Mrs. Kupkee, the physical ed teacher, saw me standing around alone during the traditional parent-child dance. “Maybe my Mom was bored,” I told her. “She gets bored at odd times.”
Then again, it was unusually hot in the gym, and my dad hated the heat.
“You can do the dance with me,” said Mrs. Kupkee. “Your life may be full of surprises,” she said as we waltzed around. “This might be the start.”
School hadn’t been too productive. I spent a lot of time sliding in my socks along the well waxed school floors. I sat in the tiny room behind the trophy case, and through slits in the wooden wall peered at students viewing the awards. I sat outside with Jackson, we warmed ourselves against the gym wall in the afternoon sun. He beat the bongos; I played the guitar. Over at his place, he switched to the trumpet. No one could make us learn anything.
“I think you care,” I told Mrs. Kupkee after the dance. “I mean, you in particular.”
“I hope you remember that,” she said.
We four in the car left the graduation party as the early morning light rose in the sky far ahead, between the triangle peaks of the Monashee Mountains.
“Your faces shine,” I told Carol and Janice, “Like the trophies in the school trophy case.” Janice looked back at Jackson and I. “Our faces look thick. Like the lake,” I said to Jackson.
“The sun is very bright,” Jackson informed me. “When it shines on your gigantic face.”
I laughed. “I want to feel some fresh air and water. Let’s hike up to Renniker Falls.”
“I like the sound of that,” Carol shook the hair out of her eyes. She’d had about four coffees.
“Yes, there’ll be such a roar,” I told her. “All the snow melt coming off the hills.”
“I bought my running shoes,” Janice said. She was already taking off her vintage canvas pumps.
“Is there a trail?” Jackson’s pupils looked huge. “I need to follow a trail.”
“It’s a secret trail,” I told him. “Up above the falls there’s a secret world. Up there, everyone can be anything, anybody they want.”
“Are you certain?” Jackson asked. “Are you absolutely certain?”
“I like the way the trees move in the wind ahead of us,” said Carol.
“Do you believe in the trees?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “I believe in the trees.”
Janice laughed and didn’t stop for quite a while.
We all stepped out by the side of the road across from Renniker Creek. The light shone full on from the U between the peaks above.
“We’ll have to balance on logs,” I said.
“Right on.” Jackson moved in place with his big head and huge shoulders, bouncing up and down on his squat legs. “I can’t wait to see your secret world.” He took a last puff on the joint.
“You have to slide out of your old skin,” I told him. “Is that possible?”
“What I want to know,” said Jackson, “is if we just acted out a part, with this graduation ceremony.”
“Sometimes acting gets you through a situation,” Carol replied.
“I like to make my own decisions,” Jackson told her.
“Everyone wore nice clothes.” Janice offered.
We crossed the highway. I led my friends upstream, following a narrow deer path under a canopy of cedar trees. Ahead, I heard breaking branches. “Might be a doe or a buck,” I said.
Sunlight filtered in behind us, catching the ground here and there. I smelled the bite of freshwater cascading down the creek. The sides of the canyon became higher and steeper as we moved upstream, the big trees poked the sky above. I had no sleep, I felt high on coffee, we all walked towards the roar of the falls. I took Carol’s hand, helped her up over a log. I saw her grin, that face without a flaw. “You look perfect,” I said. The tumbling water beside us drowned me out.
“What?” she shouted. “You are perfect,” I said again, feeling the shape and slide of her fingers leaving mine.
The falls roared in fullest time, with ice cold water tumbling from the melted snow above. We couldn’t hear anything but that roar. Janice danced as the spray flew off the cascade. She screamed and laughed, her mouth making one expression, then reforming into another. Jackson mimed clicking a photo. Carol posed like the statue of liberty. I pointed up like Carol, and began to climb the steep hill, to go above the falls and its thunder, then look and listen down upon it. To my surprise, everyone followed. We climbed quickly, light shone through the widening canyon gap, and the temperature warmed as we neared the top.
“Where’s this secret world?” asked Jackson.
“You have to tap on something very odd,” I said, “in order for that door to open.”
“I’ll tap on you!” he laughed, and clambered up beside me like a giant ape, knocking his forearms against my back.
Carol showed us her hands, all dirty from the climb.
“Wipe them on the grass,” said Jackson.
We lay breathless in the pines, the sun on our faces.
I stared above me as if out of one big eye, inhaled the scent of the green cone clusters dangling from the tree branches.
“What would you sooner be?” I asked Janice. “A movie star or a rock star?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Do you have something I can eat?”
“We forgot to go to the diner,” Carol said.
“On the way back,” Jackson mumbled. He lay back with me and gazed up too.
“Mrs. Kupkee said my future would be full of surprises,” I told them.
“Yeah,” said Carol. “I saw you dancing with the teacher. What happened to your parents? Didn’t they show?”
“I have no idea. They were the ones who wanted me to graduate.”
“I hope they’re okay.”
“Oh, they’ll probably be around till I’m ninety,” I said.
“It’ll all be different after this,” said Jackson. “School days are done.” He paused, then began again. “If the world ended now, and we were the only survivors, what would be our next move?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go back to high school,” Janice said.
I looked over at Carol. “What I wanted to say down at the falls was, you have a nice way. It’s a natural way, I like it.”
“Oh.” She glanced over at Janice. “Thanks.”
I turned to her and spoke louder. “I mean, what I say is very real and true.”
“You are a very intense guy,” she answered.
I was a bit disappointed she didn’t hear me earlier, but I was glad I told her that much.
“So, you like my sister,” Jackson said.
“The secret world is revealed,” I told him. He shook his massive head and yawned.
“Have you ever used a Ouija board?” Janice asked, looking at her fingernails.
“Too early in the day,” I said.
Carol laughed this time, moved herself closer to me. “You told us everyone could be anyone they wanted.”
“Yes,” I said, “I guess they could.”
“Are you who you want to be?”
“Jackson is,” I said. “He’s a man of action. Did you see how he ran up that hill?”
We all sat looking down at where we’d climbed. The falls roared in the canyon below.
“Jackson ran up here as if it was nothing,” I said. “Didn’t you, Jackson?”
Jackson grinned. “It was nothing.”
“Wow,” said Janice. “I finally got my breath back. You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve got your breath back.”
“You did a great dance under the falls,” I said.
On the hike back down, the others argued if a whiskey drunk had a different high than a vodka binge; how much rum to pour to how much coke.
“We should buy a bottle off my cousin,” said Janice. “Get together Friday night again.”
“We don’t need a bottle to get together,” I said.
“Is there anything that we need?” Carol asked.
Jackson grinned. “There are no wars we have to fight,” he said. “I think we’ll be fine.”
After we reached the car Carol drove us to the 24-hour diner. I ordered coffee and rye toast.
“All my life, I’ll be ordering rye toast,” I said, holding up the bread. I bit into it. “See, the shape of Australia.”
“That looks like a starfish,” said Carol.
I didn’t want to gap out. I didn’t want to miss anything. I felt my head falling forward.
“Time for another coffee,” I told the others.
I rubbed my eyes and looked at Jackson. He laughed. “You should have had poached eggs.”
I arrived back at my parents’ place at three in the afternoon.
“Where were you?” My Mom said from the deck chair in the back yard.
“I hiked up to Renniker Falls with Jackson.”
“Why didn’t you call us?”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t think about it.”
“We were getting worried about you.”
“I didn’t see you at the graduation,” I said.
“We were there.”
I rubbed my chin. “Did you see me?”
“Yes, we did. You were dancing with some young woman.”
“That was Mrs. Kupkee. She’s the Phys Ed teacher.”
I sat down on the lawn. Why hadn’t I seen my mom and dad? I looked all over the gym for them.
“You know,” my mom said, “I think you live in your own world. Some kind of dream world. You can talk about all your philosophy and theories, but you can’t see your nose in front of your face.”
“Sorry I didn’t call you.”
“You’ve graduated now,” she said. “You’re going to have to go out and get a job and earn your keep. Join reality, like the rest of us.”
She had a point. I was, in a sense, newly born. I sat on the lawn beside my mom, thinking of the touch of Carol’s hand.