Up the Mountain We Go: A Short Story by Author Jennifer Arnett
A Short Story Challenge from Bill Holland (Billybuc)
Up the Mountain We Go is an official short story response to Bill's Sept 10, 2016, challenge.
- "Mountain" must appear in the title
- All four photos Bill donates must be used
- Email Bill when finished
- Turn it in by Sept 10th
- It must be a short story or piece of flash fiction
We Go Up the Mountain
A cold wind blew in from the north.
Norbert stopped, took off his pack, and wrestled his hands down to where he felt a fleece jacket. He pulled it out and fluffed it, then supporting his weight against the fence of a cemetery, he lifted his body upward.
Crickle, crack. He wasn’t sure if only his knee popped because he suddenly felt a searing pain just above the back of his hip. Steady now, he thought to himself.
Reaching into a pant pocket, he pulled out a bottle of painkillers. With a swig from a water bottle, down went three of them; two as prescribed, and one for good measure.
As he waited for the pills to work their magic, he looked up towards the mountain. From his backyard, it always looked like a picture, but now it somehow seemed bigger, less approachable, less friendly, perhaps. Often, he had enjoyed the nightly spectacle of the sun’s dance upon her reflective peak— a glass of wine in one hand, and Margery’s in the other. It was always present, yet distant—that thing he could always see yet never touch.
He heard the sound of a truck engine coming around the corner. Its breaks screeched as it stopped in front of him. A window rolled down and a man in a cowboy hat yelled out, “Sir, would you like a ride?”
Norbert hesitated, then picked up his pack. “Thank you,” he said. Carefully, he slid it into the cab and climbed up, watchful of every step.
“The name’s Kip,” the man said, in a southern accent. He put out his hand for Norbert.
“Norbert,” he said, returning the handshake.
“Where you headed?”
Norbert looked out the window towards the mountain. “Up there,” he said, pointing.
Kip let out a laugh as he pulled back onto the road. After a long silence, he tugged at the rim of his hat. “Oh, you’re serious?”
Norbert looked down at the pack between his legs and fussed with the straps, tightening them meticulously. “Yep.”
“You know there’s a storm coming in?”
“It’s supposed to be the last storm of the year. They say you might get 80 mile-an-hour winds.” Kip took a sip from a green thermos and fussed with nobs on the dash.
Norbert felt a blast of warm air. Then the radio came on.
“After an unusually warm summer, snow is expected above 5,000 feet. Two feet expected on the higher peaks. It’s going to be a cold one, folks. Better off staying inside, if you can,” a woman’s voice said over the radio.
“Climbing season ended a month ago,” Kip said, turning the radio nob to a classical station. He turned down the volume so it was a low hum.
“I know. A little snow is better than none. When the snow melts, the rocks fall; that’s what you don’t want.”
“You’ve climbed before?”
“Not this mountain.”
The next ten miles went by in relative silence. As they passed a silo, Norbert said, “turn here,” and the big rig made a wide turn onto a one-lane road. The flat farmland turned into rolling foothills, then evergreen forests. As the grade got higher, the rig slowed to a crawl, and the first few snowflakes fell onto the windshield.
“I guess the radio woman was right,” Norbert said, his eyes intently watching the passing scenery.
Norbert grabbed the shoulder straps of his pack and sat up high in his seat. “We can stop here,” he said, waving his hand at a rusty train track.
Kip put on the brakes and the rig jostled back and forth as it slowed onto the dirt shoulder. “You sure about this?” he asked.
Norbert could hear the concern in his voice. It didn’t matter; he had to make it up the mountain. It was his only chance. “You’ve been really kind. Thank you for the ride.”
“So there’s no convincing you otherwise then? I’ve got a motel 20 miles up the road with hot sheets and a soakin’ tub….”
Norbert looked into his eyes. “I better be on my way.”
“So, there’s no changin' your mind?”
Norbert set out on the train tracks. When he was a kid, the train carried gold and other minerals down the mountain. Now, it was a rusty reminder of a time long passed, the tracks often disappearing under weeds and blown dust. Even though its purpose was long gone, it now served him as a guide through the darkening mountains.
After two hours of walking, the last color of sunlight fled behind the mountain. Darkness fell with unmatched haste, and with that came the eerie sound of silence.
A stick popped, and Norbert shined his light towards a thick group of trees. A futile endeavor because the light reflected off each snowflake as it fell, creating a whiteout effect. No time for this, he thought. Quickening his step, he hurried on, digging his hiking poles into the soft ground.
Snow was beginning to gather on the overgrown railway, making his eyes continually downcast. An owl hooted in a nearby tree.
“Who? Why it’s just us,” he said to the owl, amusing himself.
He looked out towards where the voice came from and noticed a dim fire a few feet into the forest. On a whim, he decided to approach the camp to see if he could warm himself before raising his tent for the night.
“Hello?” he called from the shadows of the trees.
A young man jumped and shined his light into Norbert’s face, momentarily blinding him. “Who’s there?”
Norbert stepped into the light of the fire. “An old man wishing to warm himself.” He put on his friendliest smile.
The young man, having braced for fight or flight, lowered his light and put out a hand to shake. “Tyler,” he said. He looked to be about twenty-five, with the boyish looks of an undergrad.
Tyler motioned for Norbert to join him by the fire, gave him the stump he’d been sitting on, and lowered himself to the ground. “Cold night to be out like this, yeah?"
“Dead cold.” Norbert took off his wet gloves and roasted his hands above the flames.
“Would you like some tea?”
Tyler took a hot pot off the small grate, pulled a cup out of his pack, and poured a hot steamy cup. “It’s herbal,” he said.
“Just the way we like it.” Norbert pressed the cup to his lips and felt the steam rising up into his nostrils.
“What are you doing out here? A storm’s coming?” Tyler asked.
“I guess I could ask you the same question.” Norbert stretched out his tired legs, and he could feel the fire through the soles of his boots.
Tyler smiled. “I’ve got two days left of spring break before heading back to school. A beacon has been measuring wind speeds at the top of the mountain. I need it to finish my thesis project. I graduate in a month.” He picked up an ornate-handled knife and whittled at a piece of wood. By the looks of it, he’d been at it for hours.
“That’s a beautiful knife.”
Tyler’s face lit up. “Thanks, my dad gave it to me.”
“I’ll bet he’s proud of you.”
Tyler stopped whittling and stared into the fire. “He passed.”
“I’m sorry,” Norbert said.
“Me too. You know, it sounds silly, but sitting here all night, whittling this stupid piece of wood makes it feel like he’s right here. It’s like we carry the dead with us.”
Norbert closed his eyes for a moment; he had nothing more to say. “I’d better start pitchin’ my tent. We’ve got a big day ahead.”
“I’m starting at five, you’re welcome to join.”
Norbert nodded, walked back towards the rails, and pitched his tent.
Hearing footsteps outside his door, Norbert rolled over in his sleeping bag, stretched out his limbs, and unzipped the tent.
“I’ve got coffee on the fire and some biscuits. Can I use this?” Tyler asked. He reached under the vestibule, towards where a thermos sat on an outside pouch.
“No!” Norbert’s joints popped as he knelt in the little two-man tent. He pulled his pack into it, unconcerned about the snow coming in with it.
“Sorry,” Tyler said, I was going to get you a cup of coffee. It’s ten degrees out; thought you’d want some.” He walked back towards his camp.
Norbert sighed and then inspected his pack; all was as it was the night before, untouched. He layered himself with fleece and waterproof clothing. It was still dark enough that he kept his headlamp on while he repacked his bag for the journey ahead.
Tyler was a hundred yard up the tracks, adjusting the weight of his pack, when Norbert approached.
“Morning,” Tyler said. He paused as if to see how Norbert would react.
“Morning. Shall we?” Norbert said, his voice slightly less friendly than previous encounters.
“Here’s the rest of the coffee,” Tyler said, handing Norbert the cup he’d lent him the night before.
Norbert took the cup, and upon seeing a small trail of steam rising, warmed his tone. “Thank you.”
For three miles they walked, each man on either side of the tracks, trying to distinguish—if at all possible—where they lay buried. The cut trees on both sides gave clue to their general parameters. When the track turned, the man’s boot on the inside curve would hit steel when he stepped down, forcing him off to the left or right.
The task of rail following became increasingly difficult when they reached above the timber line. With no treeless pathway to follow, they relied heavily upon the sound of their hiking sticks hitting metal as they walked.
Chink, chink, chink. They made their way up to a rundown station, where the smaller mine cars came out of the old now blocked mine. Norbert surveyed the landscape. “I guess we’re at the end of it.”
“Yeah, must have been too steep for the train to make it any higher,” Tyler said, his words coming out in big white puffs.
“That northern ridge looks the most passable.”
Tyler pulled a water bottle out of his jacket and took a sip. “We should put on our crampons. It’s getting pretty slick.”
“I think you’re right,” Norbert said, his breathing still quick and forceful. He reached into his pack and pulled out a pair of crampons from a case. “I could use a hand.” He reached out for Tyler’s shoulder. Balancing on one leg, he got a little tipsy and swayed back and forth.
“Are you sure you’re up for this?”
“Yes.” Norbert tightened his last crampon and walked away as if he’d never need the shoulder in the first place.
Tyler put on his and caught up to where Norbert was carefully digging each foot into the ice. His legs shook as his body weight was forced forward onto his toes. As if by clockwork, he took ten steps, then stopped, looked downward from where he came, then upward at the peak above. He didn’t want Tyler to see him struggle, so he pretended to be admiring the view.
“You married?” Tyler asked from behind.
“Yes.” Norbert said, breaking his rhythm and looking, once again, at the landscape.
“She’s not worried about you out here in this storm?”
“No. She wanted me to do this.” Norbert’s leg punched through an ice bridge. “Darn. Buried again.”
Tyler went around Norbert and reached out his hands. With a heave, Norbert was back upright on two feet.
“No worries. Test your feet before you put weight on them.”
A gust of wind blew in from the north, making the snowflakes stick to any exposed skin on their faces. Within minutes, the visibility was down to a hundred yards, making it hard to plan out a path up the peak.
As they came to a steep section, where one misstep meant a very hasty ride down the mountain, Tyler took off his pack. He unwrapped a rope he had gathered around his shoulder. “We should rope up.”
Norbert agreed and let the young man tie a knot around his waist.
Tyler let out eight feet of rope and took the lead. He quickly climbed several paces ahead, then turned back to watch Norbert make his way up, ready to tighten the rope if the old man slipped.
They continued this pace until they made it up to the final ridge, where Norbert sat down in the snow and panted. “We’re almost there.” He took a bit of beef jerky and offered it to Tyler.
“Thanks.” He sat down next to him and savored the small piece.
“So, why would you want to keep up with an old man like me? You could have been halfway down the mountain by now”
“I guess I didn’t like the idea of being all alone up here.”
“Yeah, me neither,” he said, and then crammed the last piece of jerky into his mouth.
Tyler helped him to his feet. “Last push.”
The nearer the top they got, the harder the wind blew. Norbert leaned into the wind and, with unprecedented determination, finally ran out of higher steps to take. It would have been a beautiful sight, he was sure—but the snow had caused a near white-out effect. All he could see was Tyler’s dark silhouette as he climbed the tower to receive the data chip.
Norbert put down his pack and pulled out the thermos. He took a big breath in, afraid of opening it, afraid that the wind would get to it. This was ill logic, however. So, he opened the top and a fine grey powder whisked away into the wind. He shook more of the dust into his hand, closed his fist, and creeping towards a ledge of certain demise, released the dust off the side of the mountain. Some of the powder fell around him, staining the white snow an ashy-black. He shook the last of it into the wind, screwed on the lid, and inserted it back into his pack. A single tear fell down his wind-whipped cheek, and he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he felt the winds die down and saw the clouds part. A narrow beam of sunlight fell upon the summit, causing the fresh powder to sparkle.
“All done?” Tyler asked, approaching Norbert as a man, not a silhouette.
“Crazy weather, huh?”
“Quite peculiar,” Norbert said, feeling the snow blow up into his face once again. The sky darkened, as if evening, but it was only 11 o'clock in the morning.
As they reached the end of the summit flat, Norbert paused.
“What’s wrong?” Tyler asked.
Norbert took a deep breath and slowly spun around, taking in the feeling of being on top of the world. “I want to remember,” he said. He tested the first sloped step, letting his crampon dig into the ice. For a brief moment, he wasn’t sure the spikes could hold his weight. “I won’t be back,” he said.
The pair walked in silence, Norbert down-slope of Tyler, so Tyler could catch him if he were to slip. It was better that he had the upper hand.
“Where’s your wife, anyway?” Tyler asked, a probable attempt at small talk amidst the monotony of downward stepping.
“Margery? Oh, I left her behind.” A chunk of snow gave way and Norbert slipped. Tyler tugged at the rope and broke his fall.
“You all right?”
Norbert’s heart raced, and he clawed at the snow around him. He wobbled to his feet and turned back to Tyler. “Glad I’m not alone on this mountain.”
"Yeah, mountains can be funny places."
A Fun Literature Quiz!
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Did You See it Coming?
When did you first realize that Norbert was carrying his wife's ashes?
© 2016 Jennifer Arnett