Exactly one year after the worst of all days, they return. There are seven of them now. There were six when it happened. Five of them have returned every day since it happened. Three hundred and sixty-five times they have retraced each step. Three hundred and sixty-five times they have relived each dreadful moment of this four hour hike while lying in bed, while sitting in class, while talking to friends and family and pretending that, yes I am okay, no I am no different than I was before. One of them--the seventh, the one who was not there a year ago--has retraced and relived a different story altogether. Three hundred and sixty-five times she has regretted that afternoon spent in the library, writing papers, being responsible. Three hundred and sixty-five times she has accepted that, because of those papers, she will never understand that afternoon or what it did to her friends. Three hundred and sixty-five times she has cursed those damned papers, her damned responsibility. Then there is him, the one it happened to, the one who changed so much. He has tried to return to this place. Three hundred and sixty-five million times he has fought to come back, to be able to recall, only for a second, exactly what it was that happened to make him this way. Three hundred and sixty-five million times, though, he has come up short, and that is why he is here now--to relive, to recall, to return to this place in person so that he may understand, so that he may accept, so that he may move on with his life.
His name is Caleb. He is twenty years old. Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, he was nineteen, he had a strong body with two very strong legs, he was vibrant, he was cocky, and he took risks that more often than not spanned the scope of reason. Today, three hundred and sixty-five days later, Caleb is twenty years old. He has a broken body with two artificial legs--strong because they are made of titanium, but artificial because they are not his--and a left arm that functions better as a paperweight than as a movable, useful appendage. He is still somewhat vibrant, though the things that excite him today are not the same things that excited him then, and he is still cocky. That about Caleb-the cockiness-will never change. Even if he lost his arms, even if another accident made him more metal than flesh and sentenced him to a life of disability, Caleb would still be cocky. And, of course, he still takes risks that no others would ever dream of taking. Today is one of these risks, though it is a different type of risk than before. Caleb won't be playing with snakes or scaling high voltage electrical towers today; instead he will be playing with the emotions of six of his greatest friends, scaling the endless walls they have constructed to defend mind and spirit from what this very date became three hundred and sixty-five days ago.
It is raining outside. The drops are not heavy, nor are they consistent, yet still many thought the rain would deter Caleb and his broken body. Will his legs rust? Haven't his legs been hurting him? Wouldn't it be best to relax, to talk about things, sure, but to relax? Four hours is a long hike, isn't it? Can his legs hold up that long? His legs have been hurting him, haven't they? Hasn't he been saying they've been hurting? Seriously, can those things rust? I wouldn't think so, but they are metal, right?
Walking behind Caleb is Jeff. Jeff is tall, thin, likeable. He loves to hike, at all times, in all weather. Even now, on this hike, even when he knows he should not, Jeff secretly enjoys this hike. Beyond what all of this walking and reliving and remembering means to him and to everyone else, Jeff enjoys the hike for the hike's sake. Jeff was Caleb's roommate when it happened. No one knew Jeff all that well before the accident, but in the last three hundred and sixty-five days, he has become a stable, a constant, a necessity to this group. Jeff is foundational. When all others have cried and regretted and wondered why, oh God, why couldn't have things happened differently, Jeff has been there. Jeff is also an EMT, and when Caleb fell three hundred and sixty-five days ago, it was Jeff, the professionals said, who had saved Caleb's life. Looking back on these last three hundred and sixty-five days, it was Jeff, the others would say, who saved everyone else.
"How much longer you think this rain will go on, Jeff?" Caleb asks his former roommate.
Jeff shrugs his shoulders. His mind pours over the minute details of a million little things that aren't the weather. He has no way of knowing the plans of the sky.
"Another hour at least," Michelle says. "That's what the weather said this morning." Unlike Jeff, Michelle is thinking about one thing and one thing only--NOW. It was not easy for Michelle to arrive at this state of considering only NOW. Many sleepless nights have been spent in pursuit of this position, but now she is here. She has accepted what has happened, she has erased her regrets, and now, for the first time in three hundred and sixty-five days, she is alive once more. Michelle is the most active of the five. Not only did Michelle run cross country before the accident, and maybe she will run again now that things are finally blowing over, but she also held pressure on Caleb's bleeding artery for half an hour, she ran the three miles back to the ambulance to retrieve the gauze which the paramedics had not brought enough of, she cried with the others, even after she was beyond crying herself, and she is here now, three hundred and sixty-five days after the accident. Even though Michelle only wants to live for NOW, even though she is terrified that returning here will spawn another year of sleepless nights, she is here because Caleb and everyone else need her to be, and because staying home and being okay with everything that happened was never an option.
"But there's a hole in the sky up there. I don't think it will last much longer," says Katie.
Caleb smiles as he trudges on. "That's just like you, Katie. Always so positive."
Positive, though, is the last thing that Katie has been for the past three hundred and sixty-five days. If anyone took it the hardest, besides Caleb of course, maybe it was Katie. Katie has cried more than any of the others, maybe even more than the others combined. She does not smile the way she used to. She does not live without dread the way she used to. Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, here in these woods, Katie's eyes witnessed the worst thing they had ever seen. This is true for the others too, but what separates Katie from the rest is that Katie had never seen anything. The others had been through things--divorce, broken bones, heartbreak, car crashes, burned down houses--Katie, though, was fresh, unblemished, pure in the eyes of the world and all the terrible things it was capable of creating. For Katie, then, Caleb's fall from the top of that high voltage electrical tower three hundred and sixty-five days ago affected in her a bigger fall than it did for anyone else. Katie hides it, though. Or at least she hides it from Caleb.
"For him," she argues with herself. "It would kill him to know how much this has changed me. I hide it for him." That's why Caleb still thinks Katie is always so positive, the way she once was, before his fall turned her around.
The seven continue along the trail for another half hour or so without uttering a sound. Words, they mutually decide without discussing it, would be unfair at this point. Words cannot describe what we saw. Words cannot describe what we are feeling here.
"I remember that rock," says Jacob, though he does not know why. It is in Jacob's nature to mediate, to try his very hardest to facilitate comfort and ease of conversation for all. If Caleb knew what was really taking place within his friends' minds, he would have called Jacob the positive one, for it is Jacob who has looked towards this day for months with the least amount of dread, the most amount of hope. Jacob is a man. He has cried the least in all of this. He has also shared the least. Jacob has felt the same things the others have felt, of course, but from the very beginning Jacob has allowed himself to see the good. "At least he's alive. At least he's alive," Jacob had said as the paramedics relieved Michelle's tired hands from the tattered flesh of Caleb's left arm. "At least it's below the knees. At least he still has his knees," Jacob had said when the news hit that Caleb's legs were going to be amputated. "At least he's alive. At least he made it here alive," Jacob has said these past few weeks as everyone has gradually picked up on how much Caleb has changed in the last three hundred and sixty-five days. For Jacob, this day was determined long ago to be a day of celebration, not a day of mourning. He knows that this day, this very hike, will bring peace and much needed closure to six of his closest friends, and to him, and this is why he tries so hard to maintain some degree of lightheartedness. This is why he mentions the rock shaped like Nebraska he remembers seeing three hundred and sixty-five days ago.
"So do I!" Caleb shouts. His eyes are gleaming, his arms twitching with excitement. Memories of this trail are hard to come by for Caleb. So much of what happened here three hundred and sixty-five days ago was erased. He has talked about it with the others. They have told him the story of how everything happened many times through, and there are a few details that Caleb has managed to revive. The important parts, though, those that really make the story what it is, are gone. Even so, each memory remembered, each tiny fraction retrieved from that vast emptiness three hundred and sixty-five days ago brings Caleb one step closer to piecing it all together, and for that, even the memory of a rock shaped like his home state is worth shouting.
"That kind of looks like Nebraska, doesn't it?" asks Carmen, the seventh, the one who wasn't there. If Carmen had been there, if Carmen had been irresponsible and left behind her work and joined her six friends on this trail three hundred and sixty-five days ago, she would understand that everyone already knew this rock looked like Caleb's home state. But Carmen wasn't here. She was back on campus, in the library, being responsible, inadvertently avoiding what would have been the worst thing her eyes had ever witnessed. Carmen is aware of this. She understands that, in missing out on this hike three hundred and sixty-five days ago, she lives with a freedom that none of her six friends will ever feel again. Even so, Carmen wants so badly to have been here. She wants the pain. She wants to know what it was like. She wants to understand what her friends have gone through, what they are still going through, and, in spite of what it would mean, Carmen wants more than anything to go through all of it with them. Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, Carmen was diligent, determined, dedicated. Now she can't even see the point.
For the longest time, no one says anything. There is so much that could be said. We know, Carmen. We talked about it the last time we were here. In fact, this is where we sat down to eat our lunches. Michelle ate a PBJ right there. Jeff ate a PowerBar sitting on that log. We talked about that rock for at least ten minutes. Caleb used that rock to show us where in Nebraska he lived. Of course we know the rock looks like Nebraska, and you would know it too if you had been here with us. You would have known everything if you had been here with us. And what are you doing here now? You shouldn't be here. This is for us, the ones that were with him when it happened, the ones who will have this with us for the rest of our lives. This isn't a vacation. This isn't just a hike that we are doing for fun. This is something that we needed to do, and you will never understand that, and you never should have come. Go home, Carmen. Go home and leave us with the misery that you will never grasp.
"Yeah," Jacob finally says. "Yeah it really does look like Nebraska."
Another half hour passes with nothing more than the occasional grunt or comment about the rain that is still yet to let up. The friendships that formed three hundred and sixty-five days ago after Caleb's fall were the closest of any friendships that have ever existed on this planet. They say that those who experience trauma together are bound to share bonds that could never be created by normal means. Even Jeff, who most did not know very well before the accident, has become a perfect friend. Even Katie and Jacob, the negative and the positive, have fed off of one another and developed something that no one outside the seven could ever understand. There have been so many three hour drives to the hospital to visit a heavily drugged and recently operated Caleb, so many Thursday night dinners with only the six of them, so many hours spent confiding in one another and developing a level of trust and affection that never could have existed without Caleb and his fall. This trust and affection, this ability to confide and to talk and to be heard, is what has got them through.
For none of them is this more true than it is for Taylor . Taylor is the one who smiled. More than anyone else, Taylor smiled. It was her who planned the hike. It was her who smiled enough to convince everyone this side of responsible Carmen that hiking three hundred and sixty-five days ago would be the best decision anyone could ever make. Because it was she who planned the hike, Taylor has more hurt than any of the others. Secretly, they all blame themselves for what happened to Caleb, but none more so than Taylor . She cries just as often as Katie, but she also regrets just as much as Carmen. She has tried to live for NOW like Michelle, but for Taylor , that is almost as impossible as it is to live with Jacob's positivity. So badly Taylor wants to be a foundation like Jeff. She wants to smile the way she did before. She wants to be able to make people happy the way she did before. Taylor , though, is the farthest. She is the deepest in because, even though every one of them secretly blames themselves for what happened to Caleb, every one of them except for Taylor is able to see that there really is no one to be blamed. Taylor wants out. The last three hundred and sixty-five days have been the worst of her life. Thoughts of love and joy and hope and peace have been clouded. Struggles she had before have only been made worse. Taylor wants out. More than any of the seven whom this hike affected three hundred and sixty-five days ago, Taylor wants out.
"Let's sit down," Caleb sighs. "My legs are getting tired again."
"We're really close. Are you sure you don't want to keep on going and rest there?" Jacob asks. The others shoot him a glance that confirms his idea is a poor one.
"I want to be rested when we get there. I want to be able to remember."
A lot can change in three hundred and sixty-five days. Nephews are born, exams are taken, scholarships are won, trips are traveled, new loves are experienced, new flavors of gum are tried, new opportunities arise, old opportunities dissipate. Even with a foundation of friendship as strong as Caleb, things are bound to change, and since that day three hundred and sixty-five days ago, so much has changed with the seven. They are all different people than they were three hundred and sixty-five days ago, they are all doing new things. Michelle and Jacob are applying to medical school. Jeff is preparing for a month-long trip to Guatemala . Katie is serving as a Resident Assistant in a freshman dorm. Carmen is trying therapy. Taylor is trying to forget. And of course there is Caleb. Caleb is back at school, trying to remember why he is here, trying to figure out what he is meant to do. Caleb wants to love his friends, to understand what they have gone through at his expense, but it is hard for him. For Caleb, it is so much more than a question of them. It is a question of him, of his old legs, of his new titanium ones, of his conspicuous scars, of his new identity at the school, of why, of miracles, of purpose, of reason, and, of course, of them.
So much within the lives of the seven has changed in the last three hundred and sixty-five days. Not one of them is the same person that stood there around that high voltage electrical tower three hundred and sixty-five days ago. Each has gone through his own struggles, each has tackled her own questions, and now each of them is moving in a different direction. It is inevitable that they have drifted. It is inevitable that they will continue to drift. They say that those who experience trauma together are bound to share bonds that could never be formed through normal circumstances, but they also say that those bonds never last. Whether by desire to forget, or by inability to remember, the bonds of the seven are fading, and while every one of them can see it, not one of them has yet admitted this to be true.
Sitting there, resting, the seven think. Jeff thinks about the Sociology exam he will have in the morning and wonders if they will get back in time for him to study. Michelle thinks about the rain-it is still going-and wonders if it ever will stop. Katie wonders if she will cry. She does not want to cry-she is tired of crying-but she knows that she will. Jacob thinks about what it would be like to walk four hours in prosthetics. Carmen is trying to figure out why everyone looked at her so strangely when she mentioned the Nebraska rock. Taylor thinks about Caleb. And Caleb. Caleb thinks about three hundred and sixty-five days ago.
"There was a snake, wasn't there?" Caleb asks.
" Taylor saw it on the side of the trail," says Michelle. "You picked it up with a stick and slung it into the woods."
"I remember," Caleb smiles. "I guess I don't really have reason to worry about snakes anymore. They aren't gonna try to bite my legs." He picks up a stick from the ground and taps it against his titanium shins. The clinks ring throughout the woods and remind every living creature around what happened here three hundred and sixty-five days ago.
No one says anything.
Caleb tries again. "My feet are really itching me. I think I stepped in some poison ivy back there." He scratches micro-cellular rubber feet that aren't his.
Again, no one says anything.
"What's wrong with you guys? Lighten up."
And then Taylor speaks up. Not Michelle, the leader, the one living in NOW, but Taylor, the one who wants out. "Caleb, you don't understand, do you? You have no idea what we've gone through. I know you think you do. I know you say you understand. But sometimes I wonder if you're too clouded by how you came out after all of this to realize that we've changed too."
A silent moment passes as everything that was said sinks in.
"Caleb's had this harder than any of us," Katie says, her eyes beginning to water just as she knew they would. "Give him a break. He didn't ask any of us to be here."
"No, Katie. He needs to hear it," Michelle says, her voice calm but firm, just as it was three hundred and sixty-five days ago when she urged a semi-conscious Caleb to stay on the ground, to stay still until the paramedics got there. "This isn't just about him. None of us chose to be here, but we're here."
Katie shakes her head, fighting back the tears. "It's not about us, though. It is about him. This is his day. This isn't about us."
"Of course it's about us," says Taylor . "It's about every one of us."
"But look at him," Katie sobs. "Look at his legs. Look at his scars. Can't you see what he's been through?"
"Don't you think we've been through things too, Katie?" Michelle says, her voice growing more firm.
"Sure! We've all been through things, but not like what he's been through."
"You don't have any idea, do you?" Taylor asks with desperation in her voice.
"Of course I do. I've been through the same things every one of us has been through," Katie says, nearly in full tears now.
"No you haven't, Katie!" Michelle shouts, the calmness gone from her voice. "You haven't been through anything that I've been through, that Taylor has been through. We're not the same. I don't know why you can't see that, but maybe if you were still a part of our lives you could."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Katie cries.
"It's true, Katie," Taylor whispers. "You haven't been here. You've drifted from us. You don't know any of what we're going through right now, and it's because you haven't been here."
"Come on, guys," Jacob tries to mediate. "We've all been really busy lately. We all know that. There haven't been many chances to get together lately, but we can change that."
"Katie has been really busy lately," Carmen tries to defend her friend.
"What about you, Carmen?" Michelle shouts. "Where have you been in all of this?"
"I've had my own problems, Michelle," Carmen says with a quivering voice. "I've been dealing with a lot of stuff on my own. And I'm sorry if that's kept me from being there for you at all hours of the day, but I have some stuff that I really need to figure out."
"I didn't think you would understand," Michelle sighs, and then under her breath she adds, "you could never understand. You weren't here."
And then Carmen explodes. "Do you think I'm okay with that? Do you think I'm happy with the fact that I wasn't here with you? I wake up every day hating myself for not being here with you! I can't concentrate! I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't do my work! I can't live, Michelle. And I'm sorry if I haven't been there for you. I'm sorry if I wasn't here with you last year, but I'm paying for it now. Trust me."
"Come on guys," Jacob tries his hand at mediating again. "Let's walk again. This will all blow over."
"And what about you, Jacob?" Taylor whispers. "You haven't been here either. We invite you places. We try to be a part of your life, but you never come."
Jacob is at a loss for words. He wasn't expecting his name to come into this. "I. I, umm. I've been really busy. You know that."
"Too busy for us? The only ones who really understand you?" Michelle asks.
"Maybe it's because you are the only ones who understand us that we've drifted," Katie offers with a soggy voice. "Maybe we want to forget, and all your faces do is remind us."
"No. That's not true," says Jacob.
"Maybe it is," says Taylor . "I know I want to forget. More than anything I want to forget what happened here a year ago. I want to be free. I want the memories gone. Maybe Katie's right. Maybe all you guys do is just keep me in it. And I want out. I want out more than anything."
Jeff, silent until now, nods his head. "We all do, Taylor . We all want out."
Caleb, also silent until now, just nods his head and remains silent.
The rain pounds the heads, shoulders, and feet of the seven as they trek the last portion of their journey together in silence. Caleb leads the way, his titanium legs soaked and glistening. Caleb has suffered so much in the last three hundred and sixty-five days, and yes, he has changed because of it. How could he not have changed? Look at him! Half of his body doesn't work, half of the last three hundred and sixty-five days are trapped in a hazy fog, all of the friends he marched along this trail with three hundred and sixty-five days ago have cried gallons of tears at his expense. Of course Caleb has changed. Of course everyone has drifted.
Caleb never wanted this. None of this was ever supposed to happen. Of course he would have preferred to have his own legs. He would have loved to be able to go back in time and convince the Caleb of three hundred and sixty-five days ago that climbing that high voltage electrical tower was probably the worst decision he could ever make. But his legs, his left arm, his scars. they are a minor concern for Caleb. It is what has happened to him, and he has accepted that. He does not know that his friends secretly blame themselves for what happened, but if he did, it would break his heart.
Caleb is okay with what has happened to him. What he is not okay with is what has happened to his friends. One of Caleb's biggest dreams, before the accident and after, was to connect people. He longed to facilitate friendships, to strengthen bonds, to deepen the meaning of relationships. Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, Caleb fulfilled this dream by climbing a high voltage electrical tower, by making the worst mistake of his life. Before today, making the worst mistake of his life was okay with Caleb, because he could see what it had done in the lives of his friends. He had given them something no one else in the world could understand. He had brought them together. He had created something incredible. The sacrifice of his legs and portions of his memory were nothing compared to that.
But today it has become obvious to Caleb that his sacrifice was not everything he thought it might have been. They are not perfect. They are not fixed. They are not one. Each of his friends is broken, each in a different way than the others. It is not right. It is not fair. Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, Caleb had the worst accident of his life, but never has he experienced pain quite like the pain he feels now with the knowledge that his sacrifice was not everything it might have been.
A tear falls from Caleb's weathered face and becomes just another rain drop, just another piece of the sky erased into the drenched trail below. Now, for the first time, he is realizing the scope of everything, that it is not just him who will never be the same, that this entire world will never be the same. Three hundred and sixty-five days ago. That is a long time. That is a very long time. Caleb is here once more. Three hundred and sixty-five days later. Such a long time. Such a damned long time.
"This is it."
Everyone stops. No one speaks.
Cautiously, Caleb steps forward. The others watch. They don't move. They don't speak. Slowly, it all starts rushing back. Caleb can remember. He can remember it all. It was sunny, three hundred and sixty-five days ago, not like today. It was cool, but not cold-his favorite kind of weather. There were six of them altogether, him and five others. They were his friends-his best friends-and things were perfect.
"This is it," Caleb says as he sits down in the exact spot he fell, the exact spot he laid three hundred and sixty-five days ago.
The others say nothing. Instead, they watch. They watch as the clouds begin to part overhead, as the rain continues to fall, but as the sun peers through as if to say, yes, yes it will rain, yes you will cry, yes things will be broken, but always I am here, and always you will be too, and it is then that the seven of them-Jeff, Michelle, Katie, Jacob, Carmen, Taylor, and, of course, Caleb-smile. They smile because it is then, as the sun shines down and illuminates Caleb's broken body and all that they have seen, that they realize how three hundred and sixty-five days have changed them, how three hundred and sixty-five days have pulled them apart, how eternity will hold them together.