Peter opened the car door, taking a deep breath of fresh air. As a kid, he had always loved the outdoors: there was something about endless miles of forests and mountains that could make you lose yourself. And yet now, he couldn’t seem to calm the beating of his heart and the whirring noise in his brain.
“Are you sure about this?” asked Ella, gripping the steering wheel. She was looking at him, but his eyes were stuck on the vast forest ahead of them.
Peter nodded. “I’m sure.”
Ella still looked skeptical. “Look,” said Peter, trying to ease her worry. “I’ll be fine. I have everything I need, all ten essentials.”
“You have plenty of water?” she responded.
“Two of them.”
“Is your phone fully charged?”
“Charged it this morning.” Peter pulled a sleek cell phone out of his pocket, then turned it on as proof. “And I know the exact point where the cell service gets spotty, and I have signal flares just in case.”
Ella relaxed her grip on the steering wheel slightly. “I will be back here at exactly 10:00 tomorrow morning. I’ll probably be early. Don’t be late.”
Peter took that as a cue to get out of the car. “I won’t be. I’ll see you at 10.”
“On the dot.”
Ella was giving him an odd look again, a mixture of worry and pity. He flashed her another smile before swinging his backpack over his shoulder and heading towards the trail.
“Peter, wait,” Ella shouted through the open window. He turned around.
“Be careful,” she said. “Please.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be careful.”
She rolled up the window, pulled the car into reverse, and backed out of the parking lot. A part of him wanted to scream at her to come back, but she was already gone.
He began the trek down the trail, passing landmarks that had once been familiar: the cluster of ferns, the moss in the shape of a heart near the base of a tree, the winding creek that tripled in size after every heavy rainfall. Peter couldn’t seem to calm the sense of unease that had plagued him since he had first decided to return to the mountain. It had been a spontaneous thought that had turned into a careful decision, and then had quickly spiraled into a month of constant planning and rethinking and gathering supplies and checking supplies and re-checking supplies and re-checking supplies again. His parents had thought that he was going crazy. Even Ella had confronted him multiple times, trying to figure out what was going on.
“I haven’t lost my mind, I promise,” he had said after she asked for the tenth time why he was pursuing this. “I just need to do this. For closure.”
Ella had given him another sad look, the kind that had become tiresome over the course of the past year. “At the very least, you don’t have to tough it out by yourself,” she’d said. “Let me come with you.”
“What, you think I can’t handle it?” Ella had said, indignant. “Just because I’m your little sister doesn’t mean I can’t protect you, ok?”
“No, it’s not that,” he had cut in quickly. “I just…I have to do this alone. You weren’t there when…”
He had choked up suddenly, out of the blue, the way he used to right after it had happened. Ella took one glance at his face and understood. “At least let me give you a ride,” she had said. “I can drive you there and pick you up. So you at least don’t have to spend two hours in the car alone.”
Peter had agreed. At the time it had felt like the right option, a way to compromise, but as he passed the third trail marker, he couldn’t help but wish that he had let Ella win the argument, so that she would be walking next to him right now.
Peter took a ragged breath before veering right, his feet hitting dirt instead of gravel. It had been a spontaneous decision to leave the trail. Now, even after all his careful calculations, Peter couldn’t understand why they had been so stupid.
The hike up to the cliff wasn’t too bad. Peter found himself catching his breath with every stone that came loose under his foot, every slight trip on a root, every small slip on the coarse vegetation. As he rose above the trees, he kept his eyes on the vast sky and let himself feel small and lost. He pulled out his map, comparing his location to the black star marking his destination.
“Almost there,” he muttered out loud, jumping a bit at the sound of his own voice. Deep breaths, he told himself. He hadn’t felt this jittery in ages.
The weather was starting to turn by the time he reached his destination. The sun, which had been shining when he’d exited the forest, was now hiding behind the bank of clouds that had drifted into its path. The temperature was beginning to drop in preparation for an inevitable rainstorm. Peter shivered as a cool breeze blew straight through his core.
This was the exact spot, he thought.
He set down his backpack and began pulling out the packable tent he had bought at the nearest outdoor equipment store, along with everything else he had brought with him. Although he’d been hiking forever, Peter’s family hadn’t ever been big on camping.
Ironic, he thought bitterly.
He couldn’t remember the exact moment when the storm had started, only that it had caught them by surprise. Later he saw the thunderstorm warnings, but for some reason, perhaps a cosmic joke, he hadn’t even checked that day. It had seemed so peaceful when they had left, and he’d had no reason to believe that anything would go wrong. But then the rain had kept falling, and falling, and they’d realized that they were trapped on top of a mountain in a lightning storm, with no supplies and no way out.
Peter pushed through some of the brambles until he found the mouth of the small cave and entered. He unrolled his tent and began the process of putting it up, occasionally consulting the paper instructions.
Several minutes, two nearly broken pegs, and one crumpled instruction sheet later, Peter stepped out of the cave, running his fingers along the smooth edge.
“I never thanked you,” he whispered to the cave. “For saving me back then.”
His echoed whispered back to him. Then…then…then…
Peter walked out of the cave into the pale pre-dusk sunlight, finding his way towards the edge of the cliff. He took a moment to take in the vast cliff, the horizon in the distance. Then he sat down, carefully keeping his balance despite the uneven surface, gripping a tree root with his free hand to make sure he wouldn’t fall into the void. He kept silent for a while, trying to relax with the sound of the wind whistling through his ears.
“Hey, Jake,” he said finally, breaking a long silence. “It’s been a year now since we came here, and I just thought…I wanted to come out here. To talk to you. I think there’s still a stupid part of me that thinks that you might be down there in that chasm, alive, somehow. It’s dumb, I know. I guess I still can’t believe that you’re gone.”
He could feel the tears building up. A while ago, he would’ve tried to repress them, but here he could let them come. There was no one here but him and the mountain, unforgiving but not one to judge.
“I tried to wait for you, you know. After you fell I screamed your name probably 100 times, and I waited for you to answer. I just stayed out in the rain, waiting for you. I forgot that there was lightning and I knew we had lost cell service, but the absolute last thing I wanted to do was leave to call 911 and end up missing you saying something back. I waited for hours. I was praying the whole time that you would ask for help or tell me to say something to your family or anything like that. They told me later that you probably died on impact, and that even if you had said something I wouldn’t have heard it over the storm. But I still waited. They never found your body and for all I know, you managed to survive somehow and you’re living in the forest with amnesia or something like that.”
Peter let his eyes slip out of focus. “No,” he said bitterly. “I can’t keep thinking like that. Because you’re gone. And it’s all my fault. We should have never come out here, but I was feeling impulsive and stupid. And then there was the lightning, and my ankle had gotten screwed up, and even though we were fine in that cave for a while you still wanted to go out and get help but it had been raining so much and it was way too slick to be safe—”
Peter felt the choking feeling in his throat, restricting his breathing and making him feel like he was dying. A panic attack. His first one in ages had been about a month ago. That’s when he knew that he needed to come back, to apologize.
“I’m so sorry, Jake,” he said, choking out the words. He let the tears out, letting the cluster in his throat slowly, ever so slowly dissipate. “I screwed up, got reckless, and you died because of it. I should’ve stopped you from going or I should’ve caught you when you went over the edge or something. All year I’ve been killing myself over this. I need to tell you…you were the best friend I’ve ever had.”
The clouds, which had so recently been threatening rain, suddenly drifted away and let the sun break free. Peter squinted in the sunlight that had appeared out of nowhere. He smiled, in spite of himself, the panic starting to fade away. He checked his watch: 7:23 p.m. There was still some time before he’d make himself dinner and go to bed.
“Life’s been shitty without you here, to be honest,” said Peter, rolling a loose stone between his fingers. “I bet things are a hell of a lot better where you are. Still, if you’re listening somehow, I have some things to say.”
Peter reached into his backpack, full of essentials. His fingers closed around a small notebook.
“I talked to some of the people from home and they wrote down some messages for you,” he said, opening the notebook to the first page. “They thought I was crazy for coming out here, by the way. I got a lot of weird looks. They just don’t get it. They never will.”
He took a deep breath, then looked out to the crevasse below. “Ok, here goes.”
And he sat in the warm sunlight, gazing out over the vast landscape and talking to his best friend.
Peter woke up at 6:33, blinking as he adjusted to the pale light filtering through the tent. He unzipped and unsheathed himself from his sleeping bag, putting on a jacket and his shoes before venturing outside the cave.
The sky had painted itself with reds and oranges, the clouds soft. And in a single, spectacular moment, the sun broke the horizon.
“I hope you’re watching this, Jake,” he said out loud. “Wherever you are, I hope you have a front row seat.”
He let his gaze linger for a few more minutes. And then he turned around and prepared the trip back down the mountain.
Ella was leaning against her car by the time Peter made it back to the parking lot. He checked his watch: 9:58 a.m.
“Hey,” she said timidly. Peter couldn’t tell if it was obvious that he had been crying for most of the night, but he didn’t really care. Ella would understand.
“Hey,” he said, walking up to the car. “I’m right on time.”
Ella let her mouth curl up into the smallest of smiles. “You are, I’m so proud.” She hesitated for a fraction of a second. “How are you?”
Peter thought about the question for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “At least, I will be. Eventually.”
And he wasn’t sure if it was the anniversary of his friend’s death, or the fact that he had been alone all night, but something made him pull his sister into a hug. Ella stiffened at first, surprised, and then sank into it. How long had it been since he had hugged his little sister? Five years? Eight? Ten? How long had it been since he’d told his family he loved them? Maybe never.
He didn’t realize how long they had stayed like that until he felt Ella pulling away. “You ready to go then?” she said, opening the car door.
Peter took a final glance around at the forest and the mountain, a place that he had once loved and then feared and now had such a complicated set of feelings about that it would take hours to disentangle them. Then he finally nodded. “Yep,” Peter said. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”