The fawn wobbled uneasily, placing one hoof in front of the other. It was not easy, but the newborn persevered. Mother doe watched closely. Improving with each clumsy step, the little fawn disappeared into the brush. How beautiful it was to witness her offspring take on the world. She went to follow, but not before checking one last time on her other child. Turning around, she made her way to an area of flattened grass where, not long ago, she gave birth to two fawns. The other still lay there, baking in the sun. Mother doe bent down in the grass slick with blood and amniotic fluid. A small nudge. No movement. A larger nudge. Still nothing. A few moments passed. Mother doe stared, expecting her baby to get up and join his brother, in vain. He was dead. There was nothing she could do. Instead of waiting any longer, she got up to join her living young in the brush. They walked together until they reached the side of a road. The young fawn walked towards the edge, then into the middle.
Mother doe followed.
“I’ll be there in a little while, I just got over the bridge,” Jason told his fiancée over the phone. “I’m going to run out of mental energy by the time I even get there. I have no idea how the hell I’m going to deal with him after that.”
“He’s your brother… you’ll find a way. You always do,” Susan responded. “Please just give him a chance. This was his idea in the first place.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I have to give him at least a chance.”
“I’m always right.”
“No bullshit here,” she teased, “have you heard from him today?”
“No, I haven’t. I’ll call him when I get off of the phone with you.”
“Let me know wha”--
Jason dropped his phone when he saw two deer in the middle of the road, staring blankly at him. His reaction came naturally. He stomped on the brakes and swerved. Both animals stood their ground as the car screeched passed them. Time stretched and Jason saw everything happen in slow motion. The squealing of tires deafened him until the car stopped and rocked back violently. Burned rubber plagued his nostrils, though he held his breath. Still gripping the wheel, Jason looked in his rearview mirror.
The fawn continued to stare blankly, looked the other way, then crossed to the far side of the road. It had no idea how close it had brushed death. Jason watched the fawn disappear into the woods.
Mother doe continued to follow.
“Jason! What’s going on? Jason!” shrieked Susan from the phone. Where it was, he did not know. His breathing slowed from quick and shallow to controlled and deep. Jason let go of the sweat-covered wheel. Finding his phone proved to be easy; Susan yelled his name with a shrill that he would not soon forget. He put it to his ear and flinched at the brain-splitting cries.
“I’m here. I’m alright,” he told her, “take a deep breath.”
“OH MY GOD”-- she answered in relief, “I THOUGHT I’D LOST YOU.”
“I thought I’d lost myself there too… I almost hit a deer.”
“And you swerved?! You know you’re not supposed to swerve! You’re”--
“Supposed to hit it. I know. I didn’t have time to think,” he replied as if responding to a parent.
He heard this many times before. “Listen, I should just call you when I get there. A little more attention to the road might not be such a bad thing.”
“Fine. I love you.”
“I love you too,” he said, then hung up.
Placing his hands on the wheel and foot on the gas, Jason kept his eyes strictly on the road.
He never called his brother.
Hours later, he noticed an approaching wooden sign on the side of the road. Crudely written in bright red letters read: CHIBIABOS RAPIDS INN 2 MILES
Jason exhaled out a deep sigh of relief. He found the place.
“In two miles, your destination is on the right,” the voice of his GPS said. Behind the towering evergreens, Jason could make out a dirt road that led to a cabin-like motel. He turned into it.
“You have arrived,” the GPS finished.
Oh yes I have, he thought, but not without almost killing myself.
Rocks and debris clanked under the car as it winded down the dirt road. Emerging from the evergreens, he now saw that the motel contained several rooms. A parking spot stood in front of each room, of which only one was taken.
That’s his car. He actually made it, Jason marveled to himself. My burnout brother drove all the way here to do something with me… maybe he isn’t bullshitting this time. It was a comforting thought, but he had learned to not get his hopes up when his brother was involved.
Jason parked right next to the spot and got out. He walked straight up to the room and knocked. If his brother already arrived, this would be his room. Room 6 was etched onto a green plaque hanging from the door. He waited patiently. Another knock. More silence. He must be out on the trails exploring. Nature has always been his form of release. Regardless of this conclusion, Jason felt an involuntary unease at the silence. He abandoned the motel room and set forth to the lobby.
Behind the lobby desk stood a woman with graying auburn hair who must have been in her late forties, but appeared in her thirties when she smiled at him.
“Hey there darlin’,” she greeted with a large grin. “You must be Jason. Bruce said you should be comin’ on up any time.”
“You got me,” he admitted, smiling back. “I’m Bruce’s brother, Jason. You clearly met him as well.”
“You bet I did. He introduced himself, quite confidently I must say. He explained that his handsome brother would be joinin’ him here for a weekend of trails and white water raftin’,” she eyed him up and down, “he hit the nail right on the head. I’m Tanya.”
Brushing off the little flirt, Jason shook her hand. “Jason. Pleased to meet you.” The glint of his wedding band caught her eye. She flushed. Her voice took a more formal tone.
“Pleased to meet you as well darlin’.”
He paid and went outside to find his room. Jason peered down at his key, which read Room 5. Looking back up, he saw a familiar face. There stood his elder brother, Bruce.
They sat and stared, unable to believe it. A thought came to Jason; I’m not sure whether to hug him or to kick his ass.
Years ago, anyone who looked Bruce in the eyes would see vitality and happiness. Those eyes held enough power to lure most women into his bed and did for a very long time. He had a compelling nature that awoke life in even the most miserable people.
Until he was in his cups, Jason reflected; and not without regret.
Within the first few seconds of seeing his brother, his heart broke. Here stood a stranger. His brother’s eyes, which once held so much power, now belong to a tired man. Not just worn out from age, but from the day to day strife that all addicts face. His eyes told the story of a defeated man on his last attempt to make peace with himself. A part of Jason’s soul died while realizing this. The air around them thickened with tension.
Any passerby would say they resembled two cowboys out west preparing for a standoff. Bruce’s hands shook unsteadily as if he could not take the suspense any longer. He must be having withdrawals, which is better than him being piss-drunk, Jason thought to himself.
Bruce broke the silence. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“The feeling is mutual,” is all Jason could say before both brothers embraced for the first time in several years.
Jason expected passive-aggressive exchanges and cold silences during their first reacquaintance. On the contrary, he felt a surge of emotions immediately after their embrace. A myriad of emotions… and not all great. But they would get to that later.
“So I’m your handsome brother I’ve heard?” asked Jason with a playful grin.
“Nothing short of,” Bruce replied and winked back with his glossy eyes.
“How long have you been here waiting for me? No offense, but I was kind of surprised when I saw that you had beaten me here.”
Bruce hesitated before answering. It gave Jason enough time to notice that his brother was rather pale compared to his usual complexion. Contrasting his milky skin were blackened bags of fatigue under both eyes. Between seeing his brother’s shakey hands, his pallid skin, and the lifeless look in his eyes, Jason became convinced that Bruce was in fact experiencing withdrawals. Any harsh feelings Jason felt for his brother died at that moment. Unfortunately, it made room for pity.
“Not too long. I arrived in style yesterday,” Bruce finally answered,
“‘In style,’ with your shitty car? You have a unique sense of style, oh brother o’ mine.”
“Your mom seems to think so.”
“We have the same mom, you dirty bastard.”
“Alas! The cat is out of the bag,” Bruce exclaimed, “Why don’t you go check out a raft. I’m more than ready to go down to these rapids”
Jason looked surprised, “Already? I just got here.”
Bruce looked at him but said nothing; he didn’t have to. Jason saw the desperation on his brother’s sickly face, then understood. Bruce needed to do something to occupy his mind. Anything to distract him from the pain.
“Let me put my stuff in my room and grab a--”
He almost said “drink” but caught the words in his throat before they could escape.
"And grab some towels for when we’re out there.”
Good save, he thought.
He did exactly that, then they left for the lobby.
Bruce stayed back while Jason went to check out the raft.
“I’ll be back,” Jason said.
“Alright,” Bruce answered before sitting on the curb and closing his eyes for a quick rest.
God, he looks like shit, Jason thought, but anything to keep him from drinking. He looked back once more at Bruce, and could not help but despair. Anyone could easily see that if he didn’t get his life together, Bruce would die soon. It pained Jason to have these thoughts, but it wasn’t the first time the possibility crossed his mind. Without considering the matter any longer, Jason turned and walked into the lobby.
“Back so soon?” Tanya asked when she saw Jason. “Welcome back darlin’.”
“I’m just as surprised as you are,” Jason said. “I’d like to check out a raft for my brother and I. He wants to go out already.”
“Oh. He’s up and around? I could hardly tell he’s been here. That one is as quiet as a mouse...quieter,” the word hung in the air ominously. “At any rate, you two be careful, please. The rapids can be very violent and people are known to get lost or seriously hurt ridin’ them. Sometimes even dead.” At this remark Tanya’s countenance became grave. It reminded Jason how old she actually was.
“Yes. We’ll be careful,” Jason remembered again what it was like to hear a concerned parent.
Satisfied, Tanya gave him a key to one of the locked-up rafts. He went to leave when Tanya mentioned one more thing.
“Come in here tomorrow mornin’ when you boys wake up. I’ll have breakfast made. If you keep me waitin’ too damn long, I just may have to come bust that door open and serve you breakfast in bed,” she gave Jason a little wink and laughed.
His face turned a bright red. “You have my full permission that if we’re not up by noon, you can come into our rooms and wake us,” he said then walked out the door.
The two brothers strode past the motel towards the forest trail. No words passed between their lips.
Their eyes were too busy surveying the labyrinth of trees on each side of the trail: maple, hemlock, evergreen, yellow birch, and white pine. Leaves and pine needles crunched under each stride.
Breathing in the intense smell of pine brought back nostalgic memories of their childhood; a childhood that quietly slipped away into distant memory.
“I’ve been away for too damn long,” Jason said, waking them from their daydreams.
“I know,” his brother said, “you’re not the only one. I’ve been here, but my mind has been in other places…” he struggled to find the right words before Jason finished for him.
“You haven’t been all there. I know. You don’t have to explain yourself… yet. I can tell you’re in pain right now. We don’t have to bring about the elephant in the room if you’re apprehensive. Let’s just follow the trail to our raft and enjoy it. If it comes up after that… it is what it is.”
Bruce regarded his little brother after he finished. “Thank you,” was all he could say without his voice breaking. Jason could see him holding back tears and pitied him once more. Tears now began to swell in his own eyes but he fought them back. It agonized him to see his older brother this broken and vulnerable.
The moment passed as soon as it had come. Bruce exhaled before changing the subject, his composure reclaimed.
“Chipper up, chap! I see our raft and our take-off point,” Bruce said with enthusiasm, “I hope you’re ready to ride these rapids.”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
The trail sloped downwards to a side bank of the river. Next to the bank were the rafts to which they helped themselves. The two brothers were on the river not long after.
Their paddles broke the clear surface. They floated down the river as gently as a leaf. Both brothers remained silent while Bruce studied the map.
“If I’m reading this map properly,” he began, “it should be smooth sailing for a few miles before we get into the real shit. In the meantime... we can go with the flow.”
The flow took them and they went willingly.
Tree branches hung over the water on both sides, jutting from sloping rock walls. Trout swam beneath them, refracting each hue of the rainbow back into the sky. One jumped out of the water to catch a mayfly before crashing back down with a splash. Jason steered them out of harm’s way whenever a log protruded the surface, or a boulder inhibited their path. Bruce gave updates from the map but otherwise stared in deep awe at their surroundings. Floating in silence, Jason noticed this awe grow into what resembled a trance-like state. In fear of what thoughts troubled his brother, Jason casually broke it by speaking.
“This is exactly what I’ve needed,” he said.
“I think this is what we both needed, and we’ll come to terms with it even more with age,” he replied, keeping his eyes forward in deep thought. The comfortable silence grew thick with unease.
Jason once again felt that Bruce was keeping something from him. As if he read Jason’s mind, Bruce shifted uncomfortably, then spoke.
“Listen, man. I wanted to say thank you for meeting me up here when no one else would.”
Jason, caught off guard, lamely responded: “of course.” I guess it’s time to confront the elephant in the room, he thought. “Since the last time we’ve seen each other, I honestly didn’t know if I would ever want to see you again. My fiancée convinced me to come up here actually.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“Good, because it’s not my fault. It’s yours,” Jason answered in a flat tone. It sounded much harsher coming out than intended, yet he made no apology. It was true, after all.
They both sat quietly. A minute passed.
“Does mom know you came to meet me?” Bruce asked.
“Yes, I talked to her.”
“She still chose not to come?”
“No, she didn’t want to come.”
“I’m not surprised. She hasn’t helped me or talked to me since the last time we were all together. Last time we tried this,” he added bitterly.
“Can you blame her though? It breaks her heart to see the way you get. As heartless as it sounds, sometimes people just have to cut their losses and move on. People are not always in control of the world and people around them, as hard as that is to accept,” Jason said.
Bruce listened, “does that justify giving up on her son? I know I’ve made terrible decisions time and time again. But I’m human. I can’t always be as successful as you, and mom doesn’t understand,” Bruce admitted. This was never spoken aloud previously, but it was true and both brothers knew it.
“‘The strong survive while the weak die,’ she always used to say,” Bruce continued. “Over the years I’ve realized that she’s applied the idea of natural selection to her own children. Don’t you think? ” he asked.
Jason calculated how to respond to this kindly. “In a way, I suppose. Yes. But you know what, big brother o’ mine? You’re here with me, right now. That proves you haven’t given up, and I applaud you for that,” Jason appended.
Bruce absorbed everything his brother said with keen interest. A few trickles of tears rolled down his cheeks, yet he made no effort to wipe them. Many times Bruce opened his mouth to speak, but each time closed it without saying anything. His eyes told Jason everything. Bruce was clearly very disturbed, and still struggling to make peace with his own demons. He looked frail and haggard like a man fighting his last stage of cancer.
Yet something was awry.
Sure Bruce was upset. More than upset. But even as honest as he seemed, there was something he was not being completely honest about.
After their talk, all tension disbanded into the air as the current carried them along.
Bruce, very calmly, now spoke, “Even if mom didn’t come, can you please tell her I’m sorry for the stain I’ve set in this family? I would appreciate that.”
“I can certainly tell her,” Jason said out loud. But I doubt she’ll buy it. “Have you ever read the story Siddhartha?”
“What do you think?” Bruce answered, a thin smile appearing.
“I’m forgetting that the only books you read are Playboy and Hustler.” They both laughed.
“Siddhartha in a nutshell is a man trying to find enlightenment,” Jason continued. “Since I know you’re not going to read it, I’ll skip all of the bullshit. He finds enlightenment by staring at a river. Where are we right now, you ask? On a river.”
If they were blind to the beauty of their surroundings before, it blossomed before their eyes now.
Robins chirped and flew over their heads. The warm glow of sun cascaded on their skin.
Notwithstanding his sickly condition, Bruce seemed uplifted by Jason’s words. His eyes showed no anguish now, only tranquility. At last, he spoke: “This may be the closest I’ve ever been or ever will be to enlightenment,” he said with profound gravity. “Right here on this raft, with the one person who was always honest and never gave up on me. I love you, Jason.”
“I love you too, Bruce,” Jason replied. It had been years since those three words had been said. Was this a breakthrough? He still didn’t know. It was different for sure. He still felt that Bruce was not telling him everything. Although Jason never recalled him acting like this, he deemed this behavior an improvement.
“This is the start of a new chapter in your life, Bruce. Forget about the past and move on,” Jason advised.
Bruce faced his brother, “I think I will.”
A rustling came from the bracken on the left bank. They turned towards it with apprehension when a small fawn appeared from the tangle, followed by what could only be its mother. The newborn wobbled along the edge of the river, while the doe patiently followed. The brothers both exhaled with relief and found themselves captivated by beauty. They watched the fawn look down at its reflection in the flowing current. Seeing itself for the first time, it danced around in excitement until its clumsy legs tripped up and fell. The mother gently came up behind her baby and joined it in the grass. There they cuddled, completely oblivious to the brothers floating by.
“You know,” Bruce began, “it has taken me my whole life up until this moment, to realize that life is beautiful,” the words came out of his mouth in a tone of wonder and reflection. He said no more and held his eyes on the deer. It reminded him that life and beauty are just as prevalent in nature as death and darkness. All daylight must die, yet for every night there’s a brighter day. This comforting thought set him at peace.
Distracted, the brothers were slow to hear the rising din of approaching rapids. Around the bend and coming into sight, was a small waterfall. Beyond that were violent rapids that wove around smooth boulders and under sharp branches of fallen trees.
Jason looked forward and saw the falls. He breathed deep. The deer no longer mattered. There was oncoming danger. Adventure. The calm sound of flowing water rose into a thunderous din that warned incoming travelers. Jason gripped his paddle tight, feeling his adrenaline begin to pump through him.
“Get ready! This is what you wanted!” Jason roared. He looked back at Bruce with excitement. To his surprise, Bruce remained unchanged. He sat, showing no effort to prepare for the dangers ahead. His eyes gleamed and Jason saw he was at peace with himself.
Bruce stared forward at Jason while their raft slowly accelerating to greater speeds. Jason now saw
Bruce looked very healthy. The sorrow of his soul was shed and the darkness cast away. His once pallid complexion now radiated color and vitality. Bruce looked ten years younger, but the wisdom in his eyes was sagacious. Instead of grabbing a paddle, Bruce held his brother’s gaze and shed a single tear.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Jason screamed before he felt weightlessness and his stomach in his throat.
The raft tumbled over the edge. It came down violently into the lower river before bouncing back up.
Forcefully Jason thrust forward but his firm grip kept him aboard. He yelled out his brother’s name only to be silenced by the torrent of water crashing down all around him. Before he could look back, the raft approached a fallen tree trunk. Instinctively Jason snatched his paddle and plunged it into the dancing water to steer them out of harm’s way. Paddling hard, he managed to sneak past the trunk by mere inches. More obstructions approached, but Jason used this small moment of opportunity to look behind him. He turned, and his brother was nowhere to be seen.
His heart stopped.
“BRUCE! BRUCE!” Jason yelled.
Still looking back, he only saw bouncing water rippling in every direction. He frantically searched until the vessel hit a large boulder. The raft smashed to a complete stop, throwing him headfirst into the surging rapids. Trying to find which way was up, Jason desperately flung his arms around. Rushing water blurred his vision. The deafening thud of his skull hitting a rock blinded him. Darkness flooded his vision and his panic ceased.
No more cries on the river were heard that day.
Tanya Orvis awoke the next morning to the sound of her alarm. She got dressed and began to prepare breakfast. By the time she finished, she had grown impatient with them for sleeping in. “I guess I’ll just have to go wake them. Maybe I’ll find myself having more than just breakfast in bed with the older one,” she spoke aloud to herself. She became quite lonely over the years running the Inn alone but was optimistic otherwise. Tanya grabbed the keys and went to go wake them.
She approached room five and knocked. Nothing. She waited a while longer then decided to let herself in. The food would get cold otherwise. Unlocking the door and opening it revealed an empty room.
He was gone.
That’s weird. They must have been drinking and passed out in the same room. Stranger things have happened here in my time. Eager to be a pleasant host, she went to suite six and rapped on the door.
“Rise and shine, boys! I’ve got your breakfast right here! Biscuits and gravy!” she said. Tanya listened but heard nothing. “I’m coming in, I hope you’re clothed,” she lied.
The lock clicked as the key turned. She pushed the door and it creaked open, light flooding into the darkened room.
“I hope you guys are hungr”--
Her voice caught in her throat. Deep in her chest, her heart thundered. Tanya stood and gaped in horror.
Bruce dangled limp in the center of the room; his own belt fastened around his neck.
In a matter of hours, a search party embarked to find Jason. Eventually, to everyone’s amazement, he was found alive. Lying unconscious on a sandy bank, the authorities airlifted him to the nearest hospital. Two days later he awoke to find himself lying in a bed with Susan sitting across from him. She smiled, but apprehension marked her face. Jason tried to sit up but almost passed out from his efforts.
“No. Don’t sit up,” Susan said. “You have stitches in your head, a broken collar bone, and a broken wrist. You’ve had a rafting accident and almost drowned. When they found you, they thought you were giving in to exposure. You should be dead, my love.” Her eyes began to water as she finished, but she maintained composure.
“Where’s Bruce?” Jason asked. “He fell out after we went down the waterfall.”
Susan sat and said nothing. Now her tears came.
“Where is he?” his voice wavering.
“Please tell me!”
“Prepare yourself,” she looked at him gravely for a few seconds. “He’s dead.”
Jason said nothing for a while and placed his head in his hands. “He drowned,” he wept through his fingers, “didn’t he?”
“Bruce wasn’t with you, Jason. His body was found in his motel room. He hanged himself, my love.”
She grabbed one of his hands and cradled it in hers comfortingly.
“What? He was there when I arrived and we went rafting right afterward! It isn’t possible!”
“The police found his suicide note and everything, honey.” She spoke through her tears. “They speculate that he did it the day before you arrived.”
They both fell silent.
He wept for hours while Susan consoled him. Looking back on that day with this new knowledge disturbed him. Not only disturbed him... but utterly confounded him. A discontinuity lied somewhere.
“If what the authorities say is true,” he said, “then Bruce was dead the whole day I spent with him… correct?”
“Yes. That’s right.”
He held his breath. The room stood still and all was silent. An uneasy feeling overwhelmed them. Jason stared in a reverie which made Susan’s blood run cold.
“Is there something I’m missing?” she asked.
“No,” he answered as if to himself, clearly in deep thought. He now began to understand.
A grim awareness chilled him, the awareness that Bruce had kept from him. Bruce was reconciling their brotherhood after his passing.
His passing into whatever waits for us in death.
Every year Jason leaves flowers at his brother’s grave. More often than not, a full-grown buck is seen grazing near. He believes it is the fawn from that profound day. The deer prances away, its white tail tracing its path, each time he approaches his sibling’s resting place. Etched in the dark granite, reads his brother’s last spoken words:
Life is Beautiful.
Tristan Miller is a 23-year-old Michigan State University student studying Physics and Mathematics to become an educator. Along with reading and writing, playing drums and other instruments in metal bands has been a lifelong passion of mine. "Closure" is Tristan's second publication, but there will be plenty more.