by Shelly Kerker
As the smallest sliver of daylight peeked over the mountaintops, Sara and Jack stood at the trailhead looking up. They had the heady feeling that comes with lack of sleep and the excitement of beginning an adventure. In their backpacks they carried the gorp, oranges, and water that Sara had packed for them in the early hours of the morning.
She closed her eyes and imagined them standing on the peak. She and Jack. He would look in her eyes and tell her how great it was that they reached the top together, how proud he was of her. Sara took a deep breath of morning air. It was cold out and the air was hi-test. She loved the beginning of hikes.
The climb began with a narrow path through fragrant pines. Jack set a slow, steady pace and Sara followed behind. They would walk this way, Jack in front, Sarah in back, until they reached the top, where they would add their names to a list they’d find in a metal cylinder. They would challenge the mountain, test their mettle. They would face their limits and go beyond them. These are the things that Jack would say to Sara as they walked along. But mostly they hiked in silence.
Sarah liked being in back. In fact, every so often, she would lag so far behind that she couldn’t see Jack. Then she felt like she was the only person in the world. Most of the time she looked at the ground, carefully navigating the roots and potholes of the path. Her mind was empty as she listened to the beat of her steps, enjoying the exertion of her muscles. Sometimes she would hum old songs to herself. But then she would quicken her pace until she could catch a glimpse of Jack’s back up ahead. She didn’t want to fall too far behind. She didn’t want him to think that she couldn’t keep up.
Now the terrain had changed and Sara was getting winded, her muscles achy. Closer to the top, having passed the last of the stunted, gnarled pines, she looked around her. Below the tree line, the trail had been dappled green and brown, the air soft. Now everything was hard, gray and sharp.
As she climbed further, the trail became difficult to follow. The ground was littered with boulders, rocks, scree, and the path became steeper and more treacherous. She lost her footing a few times, once skinning her knee, once twisting her ankle. She longed to sit down. But Jack, excited by the proximity of the peak, scolded her, telling her that there was no time to rest.
And he was right. They could see rain clouds in the distance, barreling towards them. They heard the low boom of thunder, flashes of lightening on a distant peak. Sarah shivered. It wasn’t safe to be caught in a thunder storm above the tree line.
Looking up, she could sense Jack’s growing excitement by the set of his shoulders, the swing of his arms. “We’re almost there,” he shouted, his words lost in the thin air and the wind. Now it had begun to drizzle. Sara hugged her windbreaker closer around her and pulled the hood over her head, tying the strings tightly around her face. She was wet and her ankle throbbed. She fought to keep up with Jack.
The air was noticeably colder and thinner now, and she found herself having to gasp to catch her breath. As she climbed, she began to mutter to herself about Jack’s relentless optimism, his unfailing ambition, his fucking need to reach the top.
She watched as Jack danced the last few feet to the top of the mountain, as he put his foot solidly, triumphantly, on the highest rock, and looked all around him. Then he pulled the gray metal cylinder from a hole in the rock. Opening it, he took out the pencil and paper and added his name to the list of people who had reached the peak before him. It was proof that he made it, that he had conquered the mountain.
“Come on, Sara,” he shouted gleefully, holding up the pen. “Sign your name.”
Sara continued to walk slowly to the top, but three steps short of the peak, she paused. She looked at Jack.
“No,” she said lightly. “I think I’ll just stop here.”
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Shelly Kerker first began writing short stories when she joined a writer’s workshop in 2013. She has since published short stories in Queen City Flash and Short Kids Stories, and a poem in Poetica magazine.