Here’s the first part of a short story I’m working on. Right now it’s called After the Top. I have a feeling that name will change by the end of the story, or by the end of the week. Whichever comes first. Enjoy!
After the Top
By Ada Ireland
The climb to the top of The Mountain was brutal. Five hours of grueling trails that seemed to always go up. Who called this a trail, anyway? Maya muttered. It was a death trap … or a trail for suicidal people at the very least. A two feet wide line between life and death. And Maya was scared of death. Of anything that could bring death, especially her death.
She was scared of the razor sharp rocks that jutted out of the side of the mountain, ready to cut through her flesh at the lightest touch. She was scared of the twisted, gnarly tree roots, slick from the heavy mist, weaving through the dirt and threatening to make her trip as soon as she took her eyes of the path. She was scared of the steep grade that dropped on the other side of the trail and brought images of tangled limbs, blood, and disfiguration.
She was scared of The Mountain.
She heard Ella’s labored breathing behind her followed by a low curse. “Screw this!” Ella said and dropped her backpack with a heavy thump. “I need a break … Your Highness. I have to stop. Just enough time to puke again and then we can keep going.”
Maya looked back. Her best friend was hunched forward, hands on her knees. She looked like a mess. Clothes damp from the mist and sweat, and dirty from the many times she fell while climbing. Her bandana skewed, erratic tendrils of hair plastered on her temples and face.
Ella wiped her forehead with the back of the hand and looked up. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. But we need to stop, OK?” It was her turn to look back now. “Let’s give the others a chance to catch up. Then we’ll get going again.”
Maya gave her a blank stare. They couldn’t see anyone else on the trail but seven more people were behind them. She couldn’t remember breaking away from the group. Her recollection of the whole trip was just as hazy as the mist surrounding them. She couldn’t see much or think much either. She just knew she had to keep going.
For hours now her whole body had been burning. It wasn’t a fever. It was the deep burn that intense physical effort brings. The kind of burn that gets hotter and more painful the harder you push yourself. Until you finally hit a wall and your whole body shuts down.
That scared Maya also. She didn’t want her body to shut down. She wanted to be done with this cursed trail. The faster, the better. And she needed to get to the top.
For the hundredth time that day she looked up to the top. She couldn’t see it. The fog was too thick. It didn’t matter though. She knew exactly how far they still had to go. She knew that, just fifty feet further up, the trail bent to the right and an even steeper climb followed. She had never been on The Mountain before, yet she knew the trail’s every bend, its every rare descend, and all its torturous climbs. And she knew that something was waiting for her at the top.
She fidgeted with the straps of her backpack and fought the urge to keep going. With a resigned look, she slowly lowered her backpack and sat on the ground next to her friend.
Ella sighed with relief. She reached for Maya’s hands and looked at the fresh scrapes. “Let’s get these cleaned, okay? We have at least a couple of hours before the others get here. I don’t think anyone has climbed The Mountain this fast before. Are you sure you weren’t a slave driver in a previous life?”
Maya didn’t say anything. She closed her eyes and let Ella get busy with the first aid kit. She didn’t want to make conversation. She just wanted to keep going. She felt Ella’s hand on her face and realized that she must have had scratches there too. Another thing that didn’t matter.
“Will you tell me what’s going on? Why did you want to come here? You’ve never wanted to climb with us before … never …” Ella hesitated. “What made you change your mind?”
Part of her wanted to tell Ella everything. The dark dreams that had started just a few weeks ago. The panic attacks. The times she found herself in her backyard, staring at The Mountain, without a clue about how or when she had gotten there. The certainty that … something … was waiting for her up at the top.
Instead, she chose to keep those thoughts to herself. No need to worry Ella. She tried to keep the guilt and the fear out of her voice, and forced a smile. “It was about time, wasn’t it? I thought you’d be proud of me. I’m finally fit enough to climb the darn thing. Plus, what better way to celebrate our birthdays? Turning twenty-three and taking on the world. Why, we’ll turn twenty-three at the very top of the world.”
Even as she said that a cold shiver went down her spine. The top of the world? Not for her, it wasn’t. She knew it just as she knew that she had no real choice but to climb today. That sometimes you have to get the bad things out of the way, so you can get to the good ones. Or just because you need to get them out of the way, so you can breathe. So you don’t feel like all your fears and your pain are drowning you. Sometimes you have to climb a mountain … no matter the price.
She looked up towards the top again. What was waiting up there? Another cold shiver travelled down her spine.
Ella pulled out of her backpack a handful of nuts and a bottle of water and handed them to Maya who shook her head. She forced them into Maya’s hands. “Eat these or you’ll end up like Murphy’s dog.”
“Yeah, Murphy. He trained his dog to live without food and, just when the training was done, the poor dog died. I haven’t seen you eat anything since yesterday. You’ll end up like Murphy’s dog.” Ella chuckled but there was an edge of worry and determination in her voice. “Eat your nuts. They’re barely enough to keep a squirrel alive.”
Maya started eating. “Are you OK?”
“Are you kidding? I stopped being OK five minutes after we started hiking this morning. When I first saw how fast you started I couldn’t help laughing. Typical beginner’s mistake, I thought to myself. I was kind of looking forward to making fun of you.
“A couple of hours and several bouts of puking later I couldn’t care less about making fun. I started praying instead.” Ella rolled her eyes and made one of her famous silly faces. The kind of face that made friends, enemies, or complete strangers alike forget all their worries and laugh out loud. “ That didn’t work either.” She paused for a second. “I even considered putting a sleeping pill in your water bottle. I just couldn’t catch up to you.”
Maya couldn’t help laughing. “Sleeping pill? Why would you even have a sleeping pill with you?”
“Because of Luke, of course. For weeks now he’s been driving me crazy. Always in the mood, if you know what I mean. That guy could do it anywhere. I bet he’s looking forward to trying something new tonight. Push my limits again.”
“He loves you. He wouldn’t do anything to make you uncomfortable.”
“Oh, he loves me all right. That’s why I let him get away with so much. But he makes me uncomfortable all the time … the cute bastard.” Ella touched her wedding band without even being aware of it. “You’ll see. You’ll find your Mr. Right soon too. And he’ll make you fall madly in love, make you feel like you’re on cloud nine, and then he’ll do something dumb and drive you crazy. It’s Romance 101, you know? It happens to the best of us.”
Not to me, Maya thought. That was another thing she had become sure of these past few weeks. She tried to suppress the new wave of fear and cold shivers she felt coming on. She knew she wasn’t fooling Ella. They knew each other too well for that. They had been best friend’s forever. Each of them was an only child. They grew up spending most of their time together, getting as close as any best friends ever could.
Again, she felt the urge to tell Ella everything. And again, a second later, she decided not to. None of this would make sense to her friend. Less than a month ago Maya had been her regular, nerdy self. Always busy with her studying and her part-time internship at CC Holding Inc, but not too busy to party or go to a club with her friends now and then. She was a normal senior college student. Not too different from most of her colleagues, except that she always got perfect grades. And that she had an irrational fear of The Mountain.
It was awe inspiring. No doubt. Towering at over nine thousand feet, it attracted hikers and backpackers from all over the country. Its top was covered with snow from September all the way through the beginning of May. Even in the middle of the summer you could see random patches of snow dotting its rugged sides. It made for a dangerous hike yet Ella and all of Maya’s friends had been climbing it once a year since they turned sixteen. It took them half a day, sometimes more to get to the top. They spent a few nights at the old cabin and always seemed to come down changed somehow. As if their souls got years older and years younger at the same time, in just a few days.
It wasn’t bad a change. Quite the opposite. They all seemed closer. They spent more time together. They played with the abandon of little children and appreciated each moment with the wisdom old age brings. After a few months, life would catch up and draw them apart again. Until the following year, when they climbed again and came back down with a new sense of wonder and appreciation for each other and for life.
Maya had never been able to climb. She had been scared of The Mountain for as long as she could remember. She’d never been scared of monsters, ghosts, or the dark. She’d never been one to show any strong emotions either. Yet that day, seven years ago, when Ella insisted that she joined them for their first climb up the Mountain, she had a nervous breakdown. She couldn’t breathe. She felt paralyzed with sheer terror.
“Why are you so scared? “ Ella asked her. “It’s not like we’ll be alone. The Smiths and the Carlinis will be with us. Four grown-ups who have been up that mountain many times already. We’re not a bunch a stupid teenagers taking stupid chances. We’ll be fine.”
Maya could tell Ella was really hurt. They had been doing everything together all their lives. Climbing the Mountain was seen as a rite of passage in their small community. A transition from child to adult, and all the kids in her high school looked forward to their first climb. Still, she couldn’t say yes. She started shaking and crying instead, feeling like a complete idiot for having so little control of herself.
For a few moments Ella looked at her like she had never seen her before, like she didn’t know what to do with a crying Maya. Then she came close to her, hugged her, and started stroking her hair with soft, slow motions. The way you would soothe a frightened child. “Shhhh …”, she said. “That’s OK. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go.”
Maya kept shaking.
“You can stay home,” Ella continued, “and keep an eye on Doris for me. I was worried about her anyway. I have a feeling my mom has been plotting to kill her and make it look like an accident. Like I don’t know that tarantulas don’t just have accidents. Not when they’re in a nice aquarium, in my room, safe from all predators … except my mom.”
Ella kept talking in her usual make-fun-of-everything tone, while stroking Maya’s hair until she finally stopped shaking.
“I’m s-sorry,” Maya whispered. She couldn’t look Ella in the eyes. “I can’t go. It’s … I’m … It scares me,” she finally admitted.
“Nonsense. Nothing scares you. Not even my wrath. You didn’t cave in to peer pressure. I’ve very proud of you. Just don’t tell Luke about it, OK? He’s scared to death of me. I like it that way. I’m planning on marrying that boy someday. I can’t have him thinking that he could stand up to me and live to tell about it.”
After that, they never talked about The Mountain again. Every year, Ella and their friends climbed it once during the summer, usually at the end of July. And every year, Maya stayed home and pretended to be there by choice, not out of fear.