Amanda and Forest circa 2002
The day was perfect for swimming but too late in the day to go to the pool with its short hours. My friend Ash, whom I’ve known since we were nine years old, picked me up in her big SUV. Where are we going to swim? I asked. Brevard, she replied. We chatted about the silly things a twenty-one and twenty year old girls talk about. She told me she knew a swimming hole where a friend had taken her recently. We passed the National Forest sign and wound our way up a gravel road into the woods. Thunder rolled in the distance. It was just before 4 pm.
We spent an hour or so splashing in the river, our feet frozen in the icy mountain water. Ash shimmed off her shorts and top so she could sit in a natural dip in the stone. I pulled out my camera and recorded the water running over my feet. We explored the nearby tributes where the water ran under massive stones and moss carpeted the stones’ tops. Our feet led us down the sides of the rocks to walk amongst the shallow ponds on the edges of the river. Ash made a face as my camera rolled. “Slimy?” I called. She nodded. In the near distance we could hear the shouts of a family at play.
We were mountain girls who had waded in rivers every summer. In elementary school our classes had taken us into the National Forests to see the wonders of nature. As a kid, the summer day care programs I had attended took me to the rivers as well. I had hunted for crawdads, ran barefoot across the mossy stones (some larger than houses), ate black charred hot dogs as sat bundled up on picnic benches in my towels. Going to the river to wade was what you did to escape the summer heat.
Just after 11 pm that night, I was sitting at my desk when I received a call. My friend Jess told me that Forest was dead. Check the news. The world shrieked by in blinding streaks as I stumbled into the living room and cut on the tv. It’s not true my mind screamed. There was his name. The videos of the paramedics carrying his body away on a stretcher. The friends he had been with at Big Bradley Falls were being interviewed, shivering with their towels around their shoulders.
Forest Preston Westbrook died twenty days past being twenty and a half years old. We met because we rode the same bus. Forest and I lived on the outskirts of what we dubbed “The Neighborhood Kids,” whom we spent every school afternoon hanging out with from 7th till sometime in 10th grade. The fringes of the group would change but the main group of five — Steph, Jess, Forest, Bobby, and I — stayed the same. In the snowy 8th grade mornings, sometimes Forest and I would trudge from our opposite directions to join the main bus pick up group at the church. Now two of my clearest tactile memories of Forest are ruffling his outrageous hair with my hands and leaning against his shoulder while waiting for the bus in 9th grade.
His coffin was closed at his funeral though his mother told me later that there was not a blemish on his body. It rained throughout the service and where my elbow stuck out from under an umbrella where Jess’ mom supported me, a lady behind leaned forward to wipe the rain from my arm. I visited his grave each month on the 22nd for six or seven months. Each year on the anniversary right before 4 pm –the time he died– I visit. This year I cannot. I am moving to Connecticut and I do not know when I will be able to visit Forest’s grave again.
Forest was funny, clever, and strange. When I spent Thanksgiving morning visiting and meeting his mom for the first time, she let me walk through his room. On his dresser laid his watch. The overly huge, silver, chunky watch that was always sliding up and down his skinny arm. We girls had taken it from him a hundred times and played catch with it. It laid there silent and still where he had left it that day.