October 19: “Retreat” by Nick Ripatrazone

Good evening, Story366! If you’re following along at home, you know I’m in a much better mood tonight than I was last night. Tonight, the Cubs are up 10-2, heading into the bottom of the ninth, looking to tie up this NLCS at two games apiece. Still three outs to go, but I feel good. This win would turn the series into a best two out of three, and considering how I felt just four hours ago, I’ll take a best of three right now. But I’ll update the score as the game progresses and hopefully finishes soon.

I also snagged some time today for Nick Ripatrazone‘s collection Ember Days, out from Braddock Avenue Books. I’ve known Ripatrazone as a writer of poems, short shorts, and nonfiction, namely his work at The Atlantic, but I’m pretty sure these are the first short stories I’ve read by this jack-of-all trades. I liked all the stories I read from Ember Days—I didn’t read the title piece, as it’s a novella—and I’m going to write about the last story in the book, “Retreat.”

Cubs win 10-2, by the way. Series tied at 2. Check back here—or perhaps a major news network—for Game 5 results.

“Retreat” is about this unnamed boy, a high school freshman during the eighties, who’s the youngest of three kids in a New Jersey family. The story actually starts with his older brother, Brian, wanting to kill some guy named Trevor. Brian and our narrator (the story’s in first person, past tense) pull up to the guy’s house, Brian gets out, knocks on the door, and charges into Trevor when he answers, the two of them falling inside the house. That’s the opening paragraph and section of the story, which, as it turns out, is the start of a frame. Okay, attention gotten.

From there, we backtrack, of course finding out why Brian wants to kill Trevor, how we got to that point. Ripatrazone fills us in pretty quickly. We find out that Brian is two years ahead of the narrator (making him a junior) and they have a sister, Meghan, who’s a senior. She works at the Blue Robin, and ice cream and burger joint, along with Trevor, who is her boyfriend, not to mention ten years older at 26. The brothers don’t think too much of it, but that’s probably because they’re naive: Guys Trevor’s age shouldn’t be dating high school girls, but if they are, some nasty things are probably going down. That’s not what these guys are thinking, though, as they actually like Trevor, who gives them his old comic books and plays Bad Company for them in his car.

Eventually, Meghan moves on, dumping Trevor, planning to go off to college to Colby. The story jumps ahead a bit, to the night before Meghan leaves for Maine, as our narrator leaves for a weekend-long church retreat, the type of camp where kids sleep in cabins and work on their spiritual identities. One stop of the daily itinerary is a half-an-hour honesty session, where a somewhat creepy camp counsellor drinks coffee as the kids confess their biggest sins, all of them sitting in a circle, encouraging each other, swearing themselves to secrecy. It reminds me of the Operation: Snowball weekends that happened when I was in high school, some of my friends disappearing for a few days each fall, coming back with weird new friends and getting mad at me for asking what happened, what it was like. He, along with the rest of the family, is kind of bummed that Meghan chose to go to school so far away: This family genuinely likes each other. He regrets not being able to take the trip with the family to drop her off and simply tolerates church camp in the meantime.

At this camp, during these half-hour share sessions, our narrator hears something that piques his interest: One of the other boys confesses that he and a friend of his, a couple of times, had shared a girl, as in, they took turns having sex with her, the girl a willing participant. The kid’s friend? Trevor, as in Meghan’s old boyfriend. At first, it’s clear that this girl wasn’t Meghan, but as the revelations pile up, it’s obvious that the kid revealing all this is avoiding eye contact with our narrator. Tension mounts. The adult who’s letting all this nonsense happen even figures it out.

On the way back from Maine, the rest of the family picks up our narrator at camp and soon Brian finds out what happens, which leads to the two of them to Trevor’s house, to Brian—who’s a track star, a real workout fiend—bum-rushing him into his house. The frame has come back around at this point, and I’ll stop there in terms of plot, making you guess what happens after that, or better yet, sending you off to read Ripatrazone’s story, and collection, for yourself.

All in all, it seems like Nick Ripatrazone writes stories about young people, as all of the narrators I read today were kids, either teens or younger. All of them face not only the basic coming-of-age problems, but some pretty serious issues as well. I can’t say the entirety of Ember Days fits this mold, but three stories in, I certainly see some themes, a lot of intensity, a lot of naiveté, and a lot of talent. Ripatrazone’s a good writer, no matter what he’s writing, and I’m glad I’ve encountered these stories.