The first time
I clutch the frayed rope in my hands and jump over the gap between two switchbacks, cold sweat making the rope slip through my hands. I throw the rope back to Rian, who’s unimpressed by the height. She swings across with ease, maneuvering her way around the tree growing out of the rot before hopping back onto the trail next to Sai.
In all honesty? Walking around would have been faster, but the adrenaline thrill of disobedience and danger coursing through our veins more than makes up for the frivolousness.
The trees obscure the middle school from our vision, affording the illusion of isolation. Spring wildflowers grow on the side of the trail, yellow and abundant. Birds chirp in the distance, recently returned from winter migration.
Rian’s voice cuts through the silence like a butter knife. “Let’s go down *there*,” she says, pointing down off the edge of the hill that the dirt trail is built into. The hill is so full of sticks and bushes that it’s difficult to see the earth. She must be joking.
“No way,” I reply, my eyes widening.
Rian raises her eyebrows and tilts her head back, a laugh escaping her lips. “I think Eleanor’s scared,” she tells Sai.
Sai glances down at the brambles. “I’m in,” she says, an impish smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
“I’m not scared,” I scoff, puffing out my chest. I’m in 7th grade, and intoxicated by youth and hubris. “Let’s go.”
Rian treads down the steep hill. There’s a large tree a little farther down, with roots and branches she can use as handholds. Sai follows after, Rian’s indents in the foliage allowing her to descend more easily. She grabs onto the branch of the tree and wraps her leg around it.
I take a tentative step, carefully grabbing hold of a plant that appears stable. The loose dirt under my feet crumbles and I slip. My heart threatens to explode inside my chest and I scream before I catch myself on the moss-covered branch.
“Shhhh!” Rian shouts, looking at me with disdain. “You’re gonna get us all caught!”
I step onto the branch, which has leveled out above a small stream. I stare at my feet, heart still racing, hands gripping the branch with all of my strength. I cross the stream to a ledge where the three of us can fit comfortably.
I force myself to glance up, and my whole world pivots 180 degrees.
It’s the most beauty I’ve ever seen at once. Almost too much. The whole area is cast in a sea of dappled sunlight tinted with green, the crystal stream rushing through rocks and dirt, catching at some places where small pools form. I have never felt more serene, more secluded, or more at home.
“It’s incredible,” I whisper, unable to tear my eyes away.
The last time
Our mud-stained sneakers compress the grass as we run. Our lungs suck in air greedily like we will never breathe again. At least, we will never breathe this air again, the air tinged with the aroma of flowers and grass, crisp and dry on the tongue like a granny smith apple.
Once we started going here, we couldn’t stop. The time since we discovered this place was a time of hurried lunches and escaping out back entrances, of wild sprints to the trailhead, of skipped classes, of late entrances with leaves in our hair and mud on our pants.
In winter, the water is high and violent, but now, in mid-June the flow has slowed to a trickle. By now, we’ve explored both directions all the way through, but our favorite spot is downstream. There’s a small clearing where the water gets slow and wide, and that’s where we’re headed now.
I go first, pushing in front of Sai and climbing down the hill, well beaten from over a year of use. I swing my leg around the branch with ease and rest my weight on a root, descending until my shoes touch water. I glance up at Iris and wave her down after me, our eyes locking for a second too long.
Iris, the new girl, who we dragged down here three days after we met her and who we had hardly gone without since. Iris, who carried the name of a goddess and always left traces of the divine in her wake, whose golden curls held an ethereal glow under the pine-scented sunlight, who had the sun in her eyes and the moon in her words. Iris, who I dreamed of kissing on a large branch under a canopy of trees. Iris, who didn’t love me back and never would.
Sai slides down next and we continue, more slowly this time. We place our feet deliberately, cautious to step on the rocks and keep our socks dry. As we move, we have to push through branches and brambles, the scratch marks on our arms tokens of pride to show our other, less reckless, friends later.
I insisted to Sai and Iris that this time be the best. We have to explore the farthest, see the most. If it’s our last chance, we might as well make it count, recapture some of the fear and excitement that familiarity and time took away from us. Recreate the past. We don’t. It’s an impossible task anyway.
I duck under a fallen tree and enter a clearing, sitting down on a log in the center. The beauty of this place never ceases to awe, especially at this time of day when the sunlight filters through the trees and casts a soft glow over everything.
I turn to Sai, and the melancholy in his eyes shocks me. Their mischievous glint faded away after his parents sent him to transgender conversion camp and convinced him he was somehow flawed.
“We’ll come back here after we graduate, right?” I ask wistfully.
“Of course,” he says, staring straight ahead. We all know he’s lying.
The first time