Turtle Mountain wasn’t really a mountain. Standing eighteen metres short of the accepted geological classification of 300 metres, it was technically a hill. This was a widely espoused fact in my neighbourhood, square in the landmass’s disappointing shadow. The Turtle Mountain High class of ‘96 famously taped together twenty yardsticks and planted the end into the packed brown earth at the summit so that for six minutes, before a westerly caused it to topple, Turtle Mountain was worthy of its name.
All us kids hiked Turtle Mountain, regardless of age or social status. It was just what you did. It was the centre of our tween-to-teen social life, and the grey and green backdrop to our Facebook feeds. We sculpted our legs on the elevation gain and shot the breeze at the top.
It was where, a year ago, my sister told me she was going away.
Normally, Jean and I hiked the summit with the neighbourhood boys, but that day, it was just the two of us. She was twenty-one, the product of my father’s first marriage, and I was barely fifteen. I was mad at her the whole way up for something I don’t even remember now. Something about car keys or a pair of shoes that we shared. Anger that evaporated at high elevation.
We rested at the summit on the circle of sitting-rocks, their dark slate so scratched over with names and profanities over the years that they were soft and grey. I’d lost count of how many times we’d scratched our own names here too, using keys or coins or chunks of granite, before realizing that they wouldn’t ever last.
Jean tilted her head back, baring her neck to the sky, the slope and curve of it. She was wringing her wrists. I hadn’t noticed until then that she had something to say.
“I’m going away, Kelly,” she said.
I watched her chest’s slow rise and fall, as if it could reveal to me what she wasn’t saying. “Why?”
“I need to be somewhere different.” She lowered her head again to look at me. “I know you get it.”
I scraped my nails against the slate, knowing she hated the sound. We’d always talked about skipping town, though I’d hoped she’d wait for me, so we could get out of here together. “Where will you go?”
“Josh and I are going to stay with his friends in Calgary for a bit.” Josh was her boyfriend who worked out of town. They visited each other on weekends and had lots of sex. “We’ve already figured it out. And then we might travel. I’d like to go to Montreal for a bit.”
“But you hate French,” I said, though it wasn’t what I wanted to say. She laughed at me.
We didn’t talk on the hike down. I walked ahead of her because I didn’t want to look at her back the whole time. I didn’t want her to see me cry.
During her first few months away, my sister emailed frequently, her messages clipped with photos of the city sparkling at night. Eventually the messages became as regular as a responsibility—I suspected she set herself a scheduled reminder—a ping! Email Kelly!
XOXO thinking of u, she would sign off.
I printed one of the photos she’d sent of herself posing glamorously on the walk at Stephen Avenue Mall and taped it to her chair at the dinner table. I really liked the photo, but my mom tossed it in the recycling. Without speaking, she had managed to establish the rule that we don’t speak about Jean. Jean left us. She was out of sight, out of mind. At least she was to mom.
Jean went to lit-up bars full of young people and posted photos of cute outfits with new clothes—mall clothes—on her Facebook. Her status updates were full of platitudes—Find beauty in the small things,and A girl should be like a butterfly. Pretty to see, hard to catch. She had posted a photo of a sunset from a plane window, and then the photos of Montreal began.
Her new life flashed by in digital albums week after week while my first term of high school crept on.
On nice days, or boring days, or just days when I needed to be out of the house, I hiked Turtle Mountain with the boys—Cody, Taylor, and Lucas.
I brought cigarettes pilfered from my parents, and Taylor and Lucas brought yeasty beers from their dad’s garage. When we downed the drinks, we’d crush our empty cans and kick them as far as we could off the summit. Cody once aimed his so well it hit a bird, and we all were chasing that high. Another time, Taylor took a running kick at his and slid on the gravel, falling flat on his back. We scratched “TAYLOR ATE SHIT HERE” into the sitting-rocks while sucking the cigarettes down to their filters, and he swore his way down the mountain that he’d never steal beer for us again.
When it snowed, we snapped our crampons over our boots and summited anyways. My calf muscles were toned by wintertime, hardened from months of pushing up that hill. It was all I had to distract myself. As a result, it looked like someone had strapped a softball to the backs of my legs, beneath the knees.
Cody told me I was starting to look like a guy with my thick calves. He meant it in a mean way, to bug me, but I didn’t mind the comment. I liked blending in with the boys, looking like one of them. I shot the shit with them like a boy, and I didn’t want them to forget that.
I secretly did push-ups in my room at night to fill out my arms, my shoulders. My mom caught me, wheezing and out of breath, and accused me of masturbating. I didn’t waste time arguing with her. The truth made less sense.
I don’t think I was who they thought I should be.
The snow was melting off the mountain face when my parents called me downstairs with the news. They were sitting together at the kitchen table in the worst way, hands clasped. I thought I’d done something wrong. I thought maybe they’d noticed the missing cigarettes, or heard from the boys’ parents, and we were going to be grounded forever.
“I didn’t do anything—” I began.
My dad shook his head. “We know, Kelly. It’s about Jean.”
I stood behind my chair, not willing to sit into the conversation.
“She’s coming home, sweetheart.” It was the first time mom had spoken of her in months. She rubbed at her neck before she continued. “She’s had an accident.”
As if it were that simple. I knew people rarely used the word accident for anything uncomplicated. But we wouldn’t ever talk about how it wasn’t really that. Jean had many accidents, but this was not one. Jean had tried to die, and now she was coming home.
My dad picked Jean up from the Calgary airport while my mom and I sat in the living room in front of the TV.
I expected she might look different, but when my sister came through the front door, it was like she hadn’t left. I stood stiff until she wrapped me in a hug, and I let myself soften into her arms.
I didn’t know how to talk to her about it, or if I could. We only filled in the space around what she’d done—her stories darkening the silhouette of a Jean-shaped void.
She wouldn’t let me blame Josh, as much as I wanted to. She left him behind in Calgary when she’d gone to Quebec. I tried to puzzle together her year from the images—Christmas in Old Montreal, the snowy cobbles lit up in blue and white. Spring on the St. Lawrence. Pubs and bars and brasseries. The new shoes, fashion jeans, hipster coffee, all the while I sank deeper into the same old silt. It had all looked so nice from afar.
Dad told me to do anything we wanted, so long as I was around Jean, so I drove her down to the lake. She sat shotgun and didn’t chew me out when I blew through the stop signs while I watched for her reaction.
The lake was at its lowest in August, the water line receding beyond the mud and reeds. The only way to swim was to jump from the dock, and neither of us quite had the heart for that. Instead, we found the old milk-carton canoe bailers sitting on the pebbled beach, and together we laid belly-down on the dock. We perched on our elbows, looking down into our reflections, and we waited for the tiger salamanders to rise from the silt.
This late in the summer, they had grown out of their feathered gills and could stay underwater much longer. When they fluttered up to the surface for air, it was only for a brief second, before they dove back into the shade beneath the dock. That was when you sprung with the bailer and scooped them up in a splash of pondwater.
I remembered once, when she was mad, Jean stomped in the head of a salamander I had caught. I screamed and screamed, and she peeled its flattened body off the dock and flung it into the pond. I could see it through the water, still, trailing a thin stream of blood as it sank, a fluorescent plume of red.
Now, Jean plunged her bailer into the lake, scooping upwards and holding it to her chest to see what she’d caught. We sat up and held the bailer between us, necks craned, foreheads almost touching, as we watched the salamander turn agitated circles inside.
We climbed Turtle Mountain together as summer ended, the first time since that day a year ago.
Jean straggled behind, having lost her leg muscle and definition without our regular climbs.
“In the city,” she said, puffing, “The most exercise you get is when the elevators are being fixed.”
The path of switchbacks wended among crooked bone-white trees. The air was sweet from the scent of sagebrush crushed beneath our feet. It was the kind of hot out that made your skin itch.
At the top, we hunched into the narrow shade of a lone juniper at the summit’s sheer edge overlooking town, my whole world.
“Want to scream?” I asked Jean. She nodded.
We pushed our chests forward and screamed with our full breath into the valley below, so the echoes would carry. We listened to our angry, sad, lonely cries bouncing back toward us, and out again until they dissolved.
We stayed out until the sky turned dusky and the streetlights winked to life.
Kaye Miller is an MFA student at the University of Guelph. Their work can be found in decomp journal, The Maynard, Qwerty, and Grain. They love dinner parties and collecting beach glass.