My brother Teddy died on December 11th, 1999 during our annual family Christmas party. He was 12 and I was 9. I wish I could say it wasn’t my fault, but at the end of the day, the whole thing had been my idea.
I’m from Woodbury, Minnesota as is my entire extended family. Every Christmas my parents would host a holiday party to eat, drink and gossip. It was always a boring event but I loved seeing all my cousins. The adults usually stuck us kids in the basement or the loft but that year my brother convinced them to let us go sledding at the park instead.
We bundled up in our purple Vikings parkas and loaded up the sleds with blankets and our pockets with hand-warmer packets. Then me, my brother, and our cousins Mike and Jeff set off for the sledding hill which was about a half mile down the road.
As soon as we were out of view of the house, Teddy stopped.
“You guys wanna do something fun?” He asked.
“I want to go sledding.” I muttered.
“Yeah, well, sledding is for babies,” said Jeff.
“That’s what I was thinking too!” His brother added.
Teddy smiled. “Good. Because I want to take you guys somewhere way more awesome.”
“Where are we going?” I asked nervously. “Mom and dad will get mad if they look for us in the park and we’re not there.”
“They wont look, they’re too drunk,” Teddy laughed.
“I think we should go to Rocking Horse Creek.” He added coolly.
Rocking Horse Creek was actually more of a small river than creek but it had been called that for as long as I can remember. The creek had been named by neighborhood kids who’d found an almost life-sized rocking horse sitting abandoned and half submerged in the water. No one knew where it had come from just as no one knew the actual name of the river. Because no one had ever been stupid enough to tell their parents that they went there.
“But Rocking Horse Creek is almost an hour walk from here!” I whined. I was already cold and didn’t feel like walking that far.
Mike snorted. “Pfft, don’t be a baby. There’re extra blankets if you’re cold plus hand-warmer packets in your pockets.”
“Yeah,” Jeff added, “and if you want we can pull you along in the sled just like the baby you are!”
Mike and Jeff laughed. But Teddy didn’t and he punched Jeff in the arm.
“Stop it, you guys! I’m not a baby! And why go to the creek anyway? It’s probably ice.”
“Because it will look hella cool!” Teddy said.
“Yeah, I want to go!” said Mike. “We could tie our jacket strings to some sticks and go ice fishing!”
“Well, I‘m really good at ice fishing,” I lied, “So I have to go so I can help you.”
“Sure you are.” Jeff rolled his eyes.
The walk didn’t take an hour; it was more like 35 minutes, though it did feel longer due to the cold. When we approached we saw that the river was indeed frozen over. The ice looked several feet thick, though it was hard to tell. Jeff and Mike were really excited about it and kept testing their weight on the thinner ice of the riverbank.
I sat down on my sled and drew a couple blankets around me. I’m smaller than them so I’m colder, I justified to myself. Ted, Mike and Jeff stood on the riverbank and threw rocks onto the ice to see if they could break it. When they failed to produce even the smallest crack, Jeff announced it was time to play Ricochet Dare.
I hated Ricochet Dare. As soon as Jeff suggested it I felt a cold stone drop into the pit of my stomach. Ricochet Dare was something we’d been playing since we were little kids. The rules stated that if you were dared to do something and you didn’t do it the game would end and you would be the new “Wuss” (and this ridicule would go on for weeks or even months). However, if you did do it then you got to dare someone in return. Generally, the dares start off mild but with every round the stakes get higher. The game would only end when someone inevitably wussed out. And, of course, that person was usually me.
But not this time, I thought as I shrugged off the blankets and stood up, pushing my hat up from my eyes. I had to redeem myself and make Teddy proud. I had to show them I wasn’t a baby.
“Come on!” Jeff yelled at me. “You go first!”
“Okay. What’s the dare?” I asked with false bravado.
“Hmm…”Jeff said. “Okay, you have to take 3 steps out onto the ice.”
I eyed the frozen river warily. “Three steps?”
“Yep, and not baby steps, real steps.”
“Stop it, I’m not a baby!”
“Then prove it.”
I took my first step lightly and paid close attention to the give of the slippery mass beneath me. There was none that I could feel and the ice made no sound of protest underneath my feet. I took the two last steps quickly and then turned around and half-skated back to shore. My brother gave me a huge smile and a high five.
I dared Mike to take 4 and half steps. Mike dared Ted to do 6 steps. Ted dared Jeff to do 10 steps. And then Jeff dared me to walk all the way to the opposite shore. The ice hadn’t made a sound since we had started the game, instead remaining as silent as death. Still, there was something unsettling stringing through the cold air and the silence.
I stalled for as long as I could, trying to decide if I should complain. Jeff’s dare was actually two dares and I didn’t think that was fair. Technically I would have to do it twice: once to get to the opposite shore and once to get back. I was afraid of falling through to the cold water I knew was raging by under the ice.
“Come one, don’t be a baby, just do it.” Mike said.
“Little baby-waby afraid of the icy-wisy?” Jeff mocked.
“Stop it you guys, I’m not a baby! This dare isn’t fair – it’s two dares!”
My voice was drowned out by Jeff and Mike’s mock baby cries. I looked at Teddy for help but he was laughing. Laughing. My older brother didn’t even attempt to stick up for me, he was joining in with them!
I felt my lower lip wobble and tears fill my eyes. Don’t cry! Babies cry, you’re not a baby! I jerked my head back to river so they couldn’t see my red face and traitorous tears. I felt a sob begin to bubble up through my throat and I knew I couldn’t let them hear it.
I would die before I’d let them see me cry.
I took a deep breath and ran across the ice as fast as I could. And for a moment I actually hoped I did fall through. They would be in so much trouble and they would feel so sorry that they’d made fun of me and called me a baby. With every slap of my boot I listened for the telltale sound of cracking ice. But none came and before I knew it I was on the other side.
I raised my fists in the air triumphantly and waited to hear their cheers. When I turned to look back, they were still standing in a circle together, laughing. They hadn’t even been watching me. They missed the entire dare.
And I wanted to cry all over again.
I swallowed the tears and was about to yell that I wanted to go home. But just then, I noticed something dangling from the tree above them. How had I forgotten? I was the only one who’d noticed it and I realized it was my ticket to revenge and redemption. But who to dare?
I stood silently watching them as they joked with each other and pointed at each of them in turn, silently mouthing to myself.
“Eeny, meeny miny, moe, catch a tiger by the toe, if he hollers let him go, eeny meeny miny moe.”
My finger landed on Teddy. Good, I thought. He’s supposed to be my brother, he deserves it the most.
I cleared my throat.
“I dare…” I yelled across the small river, interrupting them. They turned to look at me, almost surprised to see me standing on the other shore. So they had forgotten about me.
“I dare,” I started with renewed anger, “TEDDY to rope swing across the creek and land on this side.”
There was silence as, in tandem, all three looked up at the rope hanging from the tree above them. During the summer we would take turns swinging on it and cannon-balling into the water; and if you pushed off the tree hard enough, you could actually make it to the other side of the creek. I’d seen my brother do it many times.
Teddy’s eyes got wide and he looked at me as if I’d sentenced him to death. Jeff and Mike immediately started prodding him, telling him not to be a wuss. I smiled smugly from the other side of the river. I hoped he’d fail the dare. It’d be just what he deserved.
It didn’t take much name calling for Teddy to climb the tree and grab onto the rope. He tested it a few times and then hung on it with all of his weight. It held like it always had.
“When I get over there I’m going to dare you to do jumping jacks in the middle of the creek!” He yelled at me. That’s when I realized my mistake. If Teddy dared me to do that I would most certainly wuss out and then they’d tease me until Easter. I sent a silent prayer up to God that Teddy didn’t make it to this side of the river.
“On three!” Mike yelled to Teddy.
I watched Teddy count silently to himself and then push off from the tree as hard as he could. He swung in a long, deep arc just like he always did. I watched the scene with my fingers crossed, hoping the rope wouldn’t go far enough and that he would have to land back on the other riverbank, his dare unfilled and the game ended. But I could tell immediately that he was going to make it and somberly stepped backward to make room for him to land.
And then suddenly the loudest sound I’ve ever heard before or since rang through the air like a gunshot.
Teddy broke through as soon as he hit the ice and the rope and tree branch followed him down into the darkness below. I felt my feet moving under me as I slipped and slid my way out to where he’d gone in, sheer panic crushing my chest like a vice. All three of us were on our bellies groping into the angry, jagged hole within 10 seconds. We searched the watery void but all we could feel was the tree branch below us. And within a minute, we couldn’t feel anything at all- our hands and arms had gone numb.
Jeff pulled Mike and I to our feet and started running for the sleds.
“Leave his sled here, we need to get out of here now!”
I felt cold and dead. I stumbled blindly toward the sound of my cousin’s voice. “We need to save Teddy. I want Teddy. He’s in the ice. We have to get mom and dad.” But I was blubbering so badly by the end that I doubt they understood a word of it. And despite my slurred protests, I followed them through the woods, confused and cold.
But after a while I couldn’t feel the cold anymore. I couldn’t feel any pain, in my heart or my body. In fact, I couldn’t feel anything at all.
Mike didn’t say a word for the entire walk back but Jeff went on and on about the “plan”.
We would just say that Teddy decided to go home before us and that he had said he was going to take a shortcut through the woods – the other woods on the far side of the road.
I just nodded for awhile, even smiled at his plan. God, to this day I don’t know why I smiled. We were almost home by the time I began to process what he was saying.
“No. I have to tell dad to save Teddy.” I told him. I was surprised by how flat my voice sounded.
Mike just kept walking forward in a daze but Jeff whirled on me.
“It’s too late to save him but you can save yourself! It’s your fault this happened because it was your dare. They will take you to jail for murder and put you on death row; it’s an open and shut case. You can’t tell anyone anything. Ever.”
And I don’t know why I believed him, but I did.
The hardest part of the day wasn’t watching my brother die or the long, cold walk home. The hardest part by far was pretending like nothing was wrong when we got there.
What do you mean you haven’t seen Teddy? He should have been back by now, he started home an hour before us.
I couldn’t keep my poker face for very long, though, and I started crying. My dad thought it was because I was so cold that my skin had begun to turn white.
The adults immediately mounted a search of the woods between our house and the park, which of course, turned up nothing. By nightfall they had called the police.
Search and Rescue searched the wrong woods for the next 24 hours because they believed our story. The sledding hill had been crowded that day but a couple of people were sure they’d seen us there.
The day after that they intended to search the other side of the forest – the side Teddy was actually on – but a blizzard rolled in overnight and that search was called off. My parents were told that where ever Teddy was, he was most certainly dead.
Parents in the neighborhood stopped letting their children play in the woods, even in the summer. My own parents wouldn’t let me leave the house for a year. I grew up angry and spiteful. I hated everyone, but no one more than myself. I applied to college just to get away from my parents, whose constant love and support felt vile and wrong to me. I wished they would have another kid so they could give their love to someone deserving and stop talking about Teddy all the time.
I got into U of M. My grades sucked and I drank a lot. My parents pressured me to excel since I was their last horse in the race. I never returned their calls or emails.
I lived with the guilt; just barely, but I lived with it. If nothing else, I could take a bit of pride in the fact that I was surviving.
Drunkenly one night, I finally told a couple of my close friends about it. They agreed that it wasn’t my fault, that shit happens, and that Teddy wouldn’t want me to dwell on it. I made the dare, but he climbed the rope.
That night was a turning point for me. After being validated by people who actually knew the truth, I cut back on the drinking and I picked up my grades for the last two semesters. And somehow, it was enough to graduate.
A year later I got an invitation to an engagement party at my parent’s house. Cousin Jeff was getting married to a girl he’d met in the navy and I was “invited to celebrate their love” with them. As much as I always hated going back home, I wanted to support Jeff. Somehow, just knowing that he was living a full life despite our shared burden made me feel hopeful, like I could too.
The party was quieter and more reserved than the parties my parents threw when we were kids. They had become less fun since Teddy’s death: more refined, more somber. Jeff was quieter than I remembered, too, but he was clearly happy with his new fiancé, who seemed like a very nice girl. And though a wide smile was spread across his face, his eyes betrayed a certain guardedness, especially when he looked at me.
I got up the courage to talk to him only once. We shared an awkward hug and I congratulated him on his engagement and asked him about his brother. Jeff told me that Mike was addicted to heroin and living in Arizona somewhere. I said that it seemed Mike had never really recovered. Jeff said he didn’t know what I was talking about and walked away.
I spent the rest of the party hugging relatives, making small talk and pretending to drink (sobriety is suspect in my family). After awhile I went outside to take in a cigarette and a moment of peace. And in the secrecy of the autumn air, I started to cry.
This party should be boisterous and loud. My parents should be lively and laughing. Mike should be running around the party daring people to take mystery shots. I should be cheerfully telling stories from college and talking about my plans for graduate school. And Teddy should be here instead of lying dead at the bottom of a river bed.
I flicked my cigarette under my car and wiped the wetness from my cheeks. I knew what I had to do and where I had to go.
I had to see the river that had haunted me since I was nine. Had anyone been back to Rocking Horse Creek? Was Teddy’s sled still there? Had they replaced the rope? Had the creek dried up? This was my worst fear. It had secrets I didn’t want to live to see revealed. I lit another cigarette as I walked and began to list all the reasons this was a bad idea. I spent the hike either begging myself to find the strength to turn around or begging for the courage to continue on.
I arrived at Teddy’s grave before I was ready.
The creek was loud and the water was moving quickly – recent rain in the area to blame, no doubt. The rocking horse itself was in bad shape. Only its head was visible above the water now and it was so rotted you could barely tell what it was anymore. No one had replaced the rope.
I sat down next to the creek and took it all in. It was hard to believe this was the same place from which I still woke up screaming. It seemed to have healed since taking Teddy’s life. If it could heal, maybe I could heal too. The tree was so full you wouldn’t think it’d ever lost a single branch. The creek innocently bubbled by, full of life and vigor. Everything here was so different than I remembered.
Even the rocking horse.
Where the toy had once been cheerful, almost animated, it was now just a morbid, misshapen head. Its eyes were pointed directly at me and they bore a soulless stare right through me. It sent an involuntary shudder through my body and I turned away from the horse’s head in revulsion, I immediately saw what the horse had been looking at: a sliver of red plastic jutting out of the ground behind me.
My reaction was visceral and I had to lean over and vomit in the grass beside me. It was real. It had happened. Had I been pretending it wasn’t real? Was that why I had really come here? To pretend that the past was gone and didn’t matter anymore? How could I forget that what this place really was?
I stumbled to my feet and began walking down the riverbank away from the buried sled, pausing every few feet to dry heave. I just wanted to get away from it, that thing that was all that remained of my brother. Everything that used to be Teddy lay at the bottom of the river now. I pulled a cigarette from my pack with shaking hands. As I tried to light it I tripped over something and fell forward, my cigarette rolling down the riverbank and into the water.
It was a rope. And I knew right away that it was Teddy’s rope.
I kicked it away from me, it was worse than the sled. If I had anything left to throw up, I know I would have. The end of the rope lay deteriorating on the riverbank with the length of it disappearing into the murky water of the river. And maybe I am morbid or sick or crazy, but I suddenly I decided that I wanted to know, I wanted to see.
I crawled over to it and picked it up. It felt just as it did all those summers ago when I used to swing from it into the water as Teddy clapped from the shoreline.
I began to pull the rope out of the river.
The water was fast moving and the rope was heavy. The creek didn’t want to give up its secrets so easily and it rebelled against my efforts. Still I pulled harder. Just as I felt I was coming to the end of it, something long and thin breached the surface of the river. I saw it for only a moment before the rotted rope snapped and it sank back into the dark abyss.
I almost dove in after it. But as I stood on the riverbank, my brain screaming at me, I realized what I’d almost done. What if that was Teddy? Would I want to see?
Breaking from my trance, I hurled the rest of the rope into the water and fled into the woods. My lungs struggled to draw breath and the trees began to spin around me. I anxiously lit yet another cigarette and let the shudders wrack through my body as I waited for the nicotine to calm me.
I stood there, in the middle of the woods, the broken rope 20 feet behind me at the bottom of the river and took short drags off my cigarette. And when my breathing had become bearable again, I felt someone watching me.
It was Teddy, of course. He sat with his back against a tree, faded purple parka still bright in the mid afternoon sun, and in some parts bleached almost as white as his bones. Ripped foil from an opened hand-warmer packet was clutched in his hand, still remaining after all these years. He stared at me accusingly; the deep eye sockets of his skull were somehow not empty, instead they held a knowing consciousness that said he knew what we had done. He knew we’d left him to die.
But we hadn’t known that, Teddy! We hadn’t! We didn’t know you crawled out of the river. We didn’t know you were freezing to death as we ran home to bury our secrets! We would have saved you, Teddy, if we had known! You know that. We would have saved you!
I yell this at the skeleton, in my head or out loud I’m not entirely sure. But Teddy just sits there staring me; thirty yards from the rocking horse, twenty yards from the broken tree. And I know he’ll sit here forever. Because Jeff and Mike don’t need to know that our sins are far more terrible than we’d ever thought. I know it is only my burden to bear. And I can tell as he watches at me in the fading sunlight that Teddy agrees.