A Separate Peace opens with Gene Forrester returning to Devon School fifteen years after all the traumatic and life-shaping events that had occurred while he was a student there. The weather on the day of Gene's visit symbolically reflects the fear and foreboding that Gene remembers as being a dominant part of his experience while attending Devon.
He has a specific reason for his visit. "There were a couple of places now which I wanted to see. Both were fearful sites, and that was why I wanted to see them." Upon arriving at the First Academy Building, Gene is struck with new insight regarding how "unusually hard" the marble used for the stairs was. Upon reflection, however, Gene realizes how his relationship with the stairs has changed over time.
I was taller, bigger generally in relation to these stairs. I had more money and success and "security" than in the days when specters seemed to go up and down them with me.
Despite the terrible conditions, Gene presses on to his second destination. "At any other time I would have felt like a fool slogging through mud and rain, only to look at a tree." Upon identifying the particular tree he was seeking, Gene discovers it seems "not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but...absolutely smaller, shrunken by age." He finds reassurance that he has grown and matured with the passage of time since the critical events at the tree and on the stairs.
Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.
The confrontation with the dreadful memories of the past confirmed that those events were in the past. Knowles could end the flashback and begin the story of the events, starting on a beautiful summer afternoon when life was easy and full of promise.