Even by lax cultural standards of the 1990s, my sister and I were probably too old to be rocketing down the hill at Virginia Ave Park. Jenny was 16 and I had just turned 14, but an impromptu afternoon of sledding freshly fallen snow was one of the last bastions of pure, unadulterated joy in our increasingly complicated lives. We were in the 8th and 10th grade at Lestershire High, coming of age during the peak of MTV’s generational influence—thankfully, we were still a couple years away from voluntarily tethering our social lives to AOL and its Instant Messenger. And even though we were glued to MTV and reruns of 90210, our worldview was still largely shaped by our family, friends, teachers, and small town.
Our passage into adolescence had been a rocky one. Our mother, Helen, had only been gone for a couple years, but her eulogy and burial still felt recent. Jenny and I were young enough that her absence was omnipresent in our daily lives—an empty seat at recitals, a dearth of home-cooked meals, missed rides to and from sporting events. Yet, there were moments between the two of us, here and there, which recalled the blissful innocence and wide-eyed optimism that had defined our childhood. We could still enjoy the holidays and looked forward to seeing our extended family; there were birthday parties, presents we hoped to receive, sleepovers and dances that we planned for months in advance.
Our idyllic, storybook village had not yet been laid to waste by layoffs and plant closings. Main Street still felt like the center of town. Everyone I knew had been at the Christmas parade, only weeks prior. It seems alien now, but there were two roller skating rinks, at which I had recently attended birthday parties; and this was the same year that I had started high school.
I was a nostalgic kid. Always looking to recreate monumental moments from my past, even though I was still just that—a kid who’d only just found his postpubescent voice. I was taken aback when Jenny brought up sledding. We only lived a few streets away from the best sledding hill in the county, and it had been such a centerpiece of our childhood winters.
We’d dug out my dad’s old wood runner sleigh and a beat plastic sled that most people would have tossed after a season. A layer of fresh, powder snow had fallen that late-December morning, just right for speedy trips down the slick slope. The hill at Virginia Ave was already a canvas of intersecting lines and boot prints, but the park was largely empty when we got there. There were a few stragglers who were trying to erect a small snow ramp, but it kept flattening each time they hit it. We watched them while we made a few runs of our own, until they finally gave up and went home, and the park was ours.
“Maybe we should try down there,” said Jenny, pointing to a smaller slope at the northern end of the park, running alongside one of the softball fields.
I just shook my head and laughed. Jenny always had to take an innocent outing and find a way to make it a little more dangerous, or at least involve some sort of trespassing. I had gotten scraped up by too many ledges, dogs, and thorn bushes to follow her blindly into another misadventure.
“Why not?” asked Jenny.
“It just goes down to the crick.”
“C’mon, dude. I bet it’s steeper.”
“What if we hit the ice and fall in?”
Jenny snickered. “It’s frozen over and the water’s probably only ankle-deep, anyway.” She began toward the other hill, dragging our dad’s antique sled behind her, ignoring my warning. She didn’t even look back to see if I’d follow. “If you fall in, I’ll call Captain Kirk and you can be on Rescue 911.”
I can’t lie and say I didn’t hesitate, but ultimately, by age 14 I had largely grown tired of playing the wimpy younger brother—especially since I now towered over her. I picked up my crappy, red sled and jogged to catch up.
This second hill was mostly forested, but there was a broad path that led from the edge of the softball field to the bank of the frosted-over creek—it certainly looked like it would be a fun, fast ride.
“There’s no way that you won’t go onto the ice, Jenny.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “I’m practically an Olympic-caliber sledder. I’ll just turn before I hit the ice.”
“Just be careful, okay?”
She set the sleigh at the edge of the hill and took a seat. But instead of pushing off down the steep embankment, she hesitated and looked back at me like she had been struck with a brilliant idea.
“You get on the back,” she said. “More weight is better with these old sleds.”
“No. You do it first.”
“Don’t be a wuss, Joey.”
I sighed and got on the back of the sled. I knew she’d torment me for days if I didn’t comply. She was great at telling everyone we knew about how much of a little bitch I was. I took some comfort in the fact that if we crashed, I’d likely land on top of her.
Jenny grabbed the rope and placed her feet on the steering board. “Ready?”
“No.” I just assumed that with her at the helm things wouldn’t end well.
We shot off from our position and down the unmarred path. As we glided down the hill, we carved out two deep tracks in the snow; it really is amazing how fast runner sleighs can go. The sled picked up speed as we made our quick descent, and Jenny screeched with glee. Despite my initial trepidation, I couldn’t help but crack a smile.
The slight bumps on the way gave us brief rushes of weightlessness, and a large stone or root sent us airborne. We only got a few inches off the ground, but tufts of snow shot up in our faces when we landed, and Jenny had to redirect us away from the trees that lined the left side of the path.
I knew that we were traveling too fast for her to steer us hard in any direction, and I think she recognized it soon after—though I now suspect that it had always been her intention to take us onto the ice. But she made no move to halt or alter our progress as we passed over the creek, the runners hissing beneath us as we traversed the ice. I suspect we even picked up speed over the twenty-or-so-yard-width of Little Choconut Creek, because we were propelled into the woods on the other side, narrowly avoiding a few gnarled maples and elms before slowing among a field of glacial erratics.
Jenny fell back against me and we rolled off the sled as it came to a halt. I yelped as I landed elbow to rock. “Get off!”
She sat up gingerly and shook some snow from her scarf. “Holy crap. That was—”
We were both startled by a loud groaning and then a series of pops from the ice behind us.
“See, I told you we wouldn’t break through the ice,” said Jenny, grinning. We got up and took a few steps back toward the creek to have a look at the source of the noise.
Our sled had evidently cut a section of the ice like a knife, because there was now a large gap which exposed the running water below.
“C’mon! How are we supposed to get back across now?” I instantly regretted not having the guts to just tell her no.
“Relax. We’re still in Lestershire, bro. We’ll just head this way until we get to Airport Road,” said Jenny, pointing toward the rocky clearing where the sled had come to a stop.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “I think I can hear a truck nearby.”
We wandered the forest, trying to determine the direction of what sounded like an idling engine. We had never been in that part of the park before and, though I knew our house was still only a ten-minute walk, it suddenly felt like we were miles from civilization, shut off from the world. It was exhilarating—that adolescent call to adventure and exploration—we didn’t get out of Lestershire all that often.
“Some of these rocks are pretty cool,” I said. The landscape was unique, like something you’d find in the Catskills or Adirondacks, not smack in the middle of our little village. “I’ve never seen anything like this around here.”
“I think it’s this way,” said Jenny, ignoring my comment. She started up a steep incline.
“Wait, Jenny, check this out,” I said, approaching one of the larger stones in the field. It was between four and five feet tall but wasn’t as round as the others; it reminded me of one of the smaller monoliths I’d seen in books about Stonehenge and other megalithic sites—I’d been obsessed with Stonehenge since elementary school. When I got closer to the stone, I first assumed that it was covered in faded graffiti but was pleasantly surprised to find out that the lines were carved into the rock.
“What?” She came back down but took her time in doing so.
“It looks like pictures, but like it’s some sort of writing…”
“On the boulder?”
I looked at the squiggles and characters from different angles, tried to make some sense out of them. There were animals, people in conflict, indiscernible swirls that seemed to say something that I couldn’t quite grasp. “It’s like hieroglyphics, I guess.”
Jenny came up beside me and examined the markings. “Yeah, wow… They’re not hieroglyphics, though. They’re called petroglyphs.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
“It just means someone made inscriptions on the stones. Probably Iroquois.”
“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.
“Mr. Verity,” said Jenny, referring to one of our school’s more eccentric teachers. He had been her history teacher and now he was mine.
We dusted off as much snow as we could around the rock to get a better look at the carvings.
“So, you think this is really old?” I asked, tracing some of the intentional lines with my finger.
When she didn’t respond, I leaned over to see what was occupying her attention, and was spooked by her now-frozen, emotionless expression. “Jenny?”
But I didn’t have time to wait for a response, as I began to feel a vibration through my gloves, emanating from the monolith itself. A sudden wave of nausea swept over me and I felt a sickening fear of losing consciousness—the sort of stimulation where in the midst of the experience, you come to the conclusion that ‘this is what it’s like to die.’ My racing thoughts only subsided when my vision narrowed to the point where I blacked out. What I experienced then is still difficult to describe. Because, in essence, I merely collapsed next to a rock in a snowy forest. I knew it to be all the same symptoms of passing out. I’d fainted in junior high shop class, during a grisly discussion of bandsaw and drill accidents; I knew the feeling well. But this experience had one noticeable difference, in that, between my loss of consciousness and the cloudy recovery of my faculties, a window into some sort of special knowledge was briefly cracked open and then swiftly slammed shut.
I sat and stared at my black snow boots for some time after coming to, trying to recall the fleeting image. It was an identical loss to the times I’d awoken from a nightmare but had no recollection of the terror I’d just experienced. For some reason, I felt like my boot was the only tenuous connection I had to the vision. My boot. A soldier’s black boot. Soldiers walking through the desert during the Gulf War, in their hot, heavy gas masks.
“Joey?” came my sister’s voice, shakily.
I looked up, immediately losing my train of thought. She was sitting too—with this pale, dazed expression that I’d only seen on bite victims in vampire movies.
“I don’t hear the humming anymore,” she said. Neither did I.
We both silently got up and headed up the incline, eventually finding our way through the woods and reaching the street that joined Airport Road and Virginia Ave. We didn’t speak of our encounter with the vibrating, thrumming stone on our walk home either. I could tell that she was drained, though I didn’t dare mention my vision, or ask her whether she had experienced anything uncanny at the monolith.
I think we both understood that the other had undergone some sort of trauma, and that the best course of action was to just leave it be.