The Ascent (9 page)

“A couple of the guys,” I told Andrew. “John Petras and Michael Hollinger.”

He winked. “Good guys, yeah?”

“When did you get in?”

“This morning. I’m jet-lagged like a motherfucker.”

“Listen,” I said, “I need to talk to you about something.”

“It’ll have to wait.” He scanned the sky, one hand shielding the sun from his eyes. “I’m on the hunt.”

“For what?”

“For whatever’s out there.” Andrew placed the binoculars to his eyes and took a series of steps backward. Gravel crunched under his Timberlands. “Tonight,” he said, still examining the sky, “in the main lounge. The food’s on me. All the guys will be there. I’ll make an appearance to go over the itinerary. We’ll leave at the end of the week.”

He pivoted in the dirt and stalked toward the woods, the heavy binoculars still at his eyes. I watched him weave through a stand of spindly trees until he was nothing more than an orange neon dot getting lost in the woods.

Asshole
, I thought.

Not for the first time, I wondered what the hell I was doing here. The answer I’d given Petras that first night in the lounge was true enough—that I had been slowly dying in my little apartment back home—but that didn’t necessarily mean I had to come here, did it? There were plenty of other interesting places on the planet, many I’d already witnessed. I could have gone anywhere. But now I was here in Nepal, preparing to scale a mountain. With Andrew fucking Trumbauer.

As I walked to my cabin, I couldn’t help but recall that evening in San Juan when he and I jumped off the cliff into the shocking black water below. I also remembered how Hannah had pressed her warm, little mouth against my ear after I told her where I’d been. “Oh,” she’d said, “the cliff-diving thing.” It was our honeymoon, yet I’d remained awake in bed for maybe half an hour, wondering if she’d ever gone naked cliff diving with Andrew.

“Fuck this,” I said now, not wanting to deal with those old thoughts, those old feelings. After all, it was the reason I was here.

I opened the door to my room slowly, as if anticipating a burglar, ready to split my skull with a crowbar, hiding behind the door.

For all I knew, this wasn’t too far from the truth; I was still concerned about the open window from two nights ago and the fact that someone had gone through my luggage. I’d assumed it was a robbery, but nothing had been taken … which, in a way, bothered me even more.

Why would someone break into my room and rifle through my belongings if not to steal? It made me think about James Bond movies and how bad guys always planted venomous snakes and deadly scorpions under his pillow or in the pocket of his bathrobe. At first, this notion caused me to grin, but then I thought of Shomas, the mysterious hulkwho’d materialized outside the cabin on that very same night, preaching about danger and turning back. James Bond, indeed …

But no one was here. The windows were still closed, and my luggage was just how I’d left it. While this helped calm my heartbeat, it did little to soothe the shakes I could feel rumbling up through the core of my body. I needed a drink. Bad.

I decided to shower and take my mind off my withdrawal. The water wouldn’t get hotter than lukewarm, which was fine by me, because by the time I stepped under the spray, I was sweating like a hostage.

2

ABOUT TWO HOURS LATER. I WATCHED AS A

caravan of nomads rolled through the clearing on horse-drawn carts. They reminded me of the old paintings in high school history textbooks of the carpetbaggers traversing the flatlands of a blossoming new country. There were children among them; they shouted and laughed and hopped down from the carts to sell vegetables to whomever they could.

I felt a lower eyelid tremble. The withdrawal shakes were coming, all right.
Easy
, I willed it.
Easy now, boyo
.

As I watched the caravan, a man appeared above an embankment. He was deeply tanned with feathered yellow hair and wraparound sunglasses. He carried a backpack over one shoulder, and his strides were long and well defined.

The children hurried over to him, proffering their goods. The man smiled, exposing what appeared to be—at least from what I could see while standing on my cabin porch—two rows of perfect white teeth. The man tousled the hair of the nearest child, then lightly slapped the underside of the child’s hand that held a plump, red tomato. The tomato hopped into the air, and the man snatched it before it could fall back into the child’s hand. He nodded at theyoung boy, and even though he was wearing those wraparound sunglasses, I got the distinct impression he winked at him, too.

As the children looked on, their giddy playfulness fading, the man’s two rows of perfect teeth reappeared for an encore performance before disappearing into the fat skin of the tomato. I could almost hear the snap of the bite and the patter of the juices down the man’s chin.

The caravan continued down the roadway. The children, collectively expressionless, stared at the man for several moments before catching up to the carts. I could still hear the clop of the horses’ hooves and the creaking of the wooden carts after the caravan disappeared over the embankment.

“Howdy,” the tomato thief said, tipping me a salute as he strode toward the main lodge. “You from the States?”

“Yeah.”

“You look like a Trumbauer experiment.” If this was meant as some sort of joke, I was not in the mood.

“If you’re hungry, they’ve got a pretty decent menu in the lounge downstairs,” I commented.

The man paused and slid his sunglasses halfway down the bridge of his nose. Crystal blue eyes seared me. “I’m Chad Nando. From Miami.”

“You fly out here from Miami or just steal a boat?”

Grinning, he tossed the tomato at me.

I caught it, more out of reflex than skill. My fingers sank into the juicy skin.

“This is going to be an interesting little adventure,” he promised.

Indeed
, I thought and watched him walk into the lodge.

3

THERE WAS LIGHT MUSIC COMING FROM THE

lounge, something prerecorded and full of percussion, and I smelled

steamed meats before I actually entered the room.

Petras leaned against the wall outside the lounge, examining his fingernails while clinging to a pint glass of something dark and frothy.

“Please tell me that’s a beer,” I said, saddling up to him. Laughter boomed from the lounge, and I peered into the room. A group of men crowded around a single table filled with plates of steaming food.
Thangkas
—Tibetan scrolled paintings—hung above them from the rafters.

“No such luck,” Petras grunted. “It’s supposed to be some kind of local juice, but it tastes like motor oil. Want some?”

“I’ll pass.” Scanning the table and the rest of the lounge, I couldn’t locate Andrew. I asked Petras if he’d shown up yet.

“Haven’t seen him. Hollinger saw him earlier today. He told me to come here tonight, so I did.”

“You meet the rest of the guys?”

Petras stared at the dark liquid in his pint glass. “They all seem okay. Except maybe for that Nando guy. He’s got a big mouth and likes to hear himself put it to use.”

“I watched him wrestle a tomato from some homeless Nepalese children earlier today.”

“You okay, Tim?”

“Sure,” I said, suddenly aware of Petras’s eyes all over me. “Why?”

“You look …”

“What is it?” I urged.

He shrugged. “It’s nothing. Your hands, that’s all. They’re shaking.”

In truth, I felt like shit. A hollowed-out husk, a rubbery mockery of a man … “I’m sweating, too,” I commented nervously, thinking—for whatever bizarre reason—that this statement might lessen the tension of our conversation. It didn’t.

“You on something or coming off it?” Petras wanted to know, his voice level and baritone.

I forced a chuckle. “Are you kidding? What in the world would—?”

“Only two reasons a man shakes like that.” He seemed to consider his own words. “Well, maybe three reasons, but I wouldn’t concern you with the third. Just two reasons, and they’re both cause for alarm.”

I felt some semblance of camaraderie with Petras, so I didn’t lie to him. “I’ve just recently quit being an alcoholic, you might say.”

One of his carved-in-stone eyebrows raised. “How recent?”

“Fairly recent.” I forced a grin and felt like an imbecile. “Since I arrived in Nepal, actually.”

Petras gulped down a mouthful of the oily drink, his gaze leaving mine for a second to scale the opposite wall, which was laden with stuffed animal heads. Without looking at me, he said, “Normally I’d say I’m not your father and whatever you choose to do is your own business. As a rule, I stand by that type of thinking. But as I said, come the end of this week, my life—if you’ll permit me an overstatement—will be in your hands. I thought I was clear on this the night we met.”

“Jesus, you don’t have to worry about me. I swear to God I’m good to go.”

Petras stuck out his lower lip and nodded with the lethargy and commitment of someone acknowledging his guilt to a jury of his peers.

“Please,” I said, immediately disliking the whininess of my voice. “Please don’t make this into something it’s not.”

“No, I won’t.” His steely eyes shifted back in my direction, and I thought I felt them sear my soul with one glance. “You’ve got a good heart and a healthy spirit. And I believe you may need this journey more than me.” He cocked his head toward the doorway and added, “More than any of those guys, really.”

“Thanks.”

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get some food.”

4

WE ATE UNTIL WE WERE FULL. AND THEN WE ATE

just a little more. There were six of us in all, excluding Andrew who hadn’t shown up yet: Petras and me, of course; Michael Hollinger, the quiet Australian; the loudmouthed Chad Nando from Miami, whose voice carried a bit louder and a bit edgier than the rest; a gray-eyed, muscular black man from Ohio named Curtis Booker, who’d been in the Marines but needed to be prodded for a long time before he’d talk about it; and lastly a surprisingly flabby guy named Donald Shotsky who looked to be in his late forties and whose craggy face, replete with acne scars, resembled a tic-tac-toe board. Shotsky had the perpetually rheumy eyes of a career alcoholic, and the calculating little man inside me assumed the chunky little bastard had a bottle or two stashed in his cabin. A good friend to have, no doubt.

“First molehill I ever climbed was the Mount of the Holy Cross in Colorado,” said Chad, who had been dominating the conversation for most of the evening. “I’d just turned nineteen and was with my older brother, Alex, and some of his friends. Me being a novice, the plan was to scramble up the North Ridge—fifty-six hundred feet in over eleven miles.”

Curtis nodded. “I know it. Marked by a white cross of snow you can see for miles. Ideal for extreme skiing.”

Chad snickered and shook his head. “Yeah, well, I had no idea. Wasn’t about to punk out, you know, so after some arguing, it’s decided we’ll climb up that vertical part of the cross, the Cross Couloir route, and then ski straight down the way we came. So we get geared up—man, there must have been six of us that day—and we weren’t even an hour into the climb when I lose my footing and drop straight over a sheer face. Course, I was tied in, but that didn’t prevent me from swinging out over a ravine like a human yo-yo or some shit, the world blurring in front of my eyes. I squeezed that goddamn line so tight it cut through my gloves and caused stress fractures on the palms of my hands.”

Hollinger whistled.

“I swing out,” Chad went on, “and sure as shit, as if in slow motion, I see a fist-sized blade of rock coming right for my face. I brace my feet in front of me to catch the wall, but I’m swinging with too much force now, and I’ve got to keep some spring in my knees, not locking ‘em, otherwise I’d break my legs on impact—”

“Or push the buggers up into your rib cage,” suggested Hollinger.

“No shit. And, see, all this is going through my mind as I’m swinging toward it, which is why I say it was like in slow motion. Probably could’ve sang the whole goddamn theme song to
Gilligan’s Island
, seemed to be so much time.” Chad snorted and ran a hand across the top of his head. Then he pointed to a vague indentation below his left eye. “Rock struck me here, shattering my cheekbone. My eye was like jelly in the socket and filled up with blood. The force of it knocked me unconscious, too, but overall I guess I was lucky. Less than an inch higher and I’d be sporting one fancy little eye patch.”

“Jesus,” Donald Shotsky said in a breathy whisper.

“Split my pretty face like a Halloween pumpkin.” Chad shrugged. “Somehow they get me down and bring me to Alex’s truck. But Alex, who’s panicking like a son of a bitch right about now—I know this ‘cause it’s just about the time I come to, sprawled in the backseat with a blood-soaked towel holding my face together—he gets lost on the trails going back to the interstate. First town we come to is Holy Cross City itself, which is nothing more than a ghost town, an old mining town with a few dilapidated cabins and mining boilers scattered around. Not a soul in sight and certainly no hospital. Then, because God tends to fuck with the hopelessly panicked, one of the truck’s tires blows out.”

Everyone groaned, myself included.

“So we’re stranded in the middle of fucking nowhere and my face is goin’ all spongy and Alex starts slamming his hands against the steering wheel. Everyone’s looking for signs to I-70, but there’snothing but forest and run-down cabins. Then someone starts shouting out the window at some dude passing by. Figured it was one of the ATV bucketheads we’d seen cruising along Mosquito Pass earlier in the day. But this fucker turns out to be a goddamn
Indian
from some tribe in the Ute Mountains, scrounging for recyclable cans and bottles or whatever down here. He comes over to the truck and pops the hatchback and stares at me like I’m an alien species of wildflower he’s thinking about smoking. He’s not even wigged out by the blood, and there was a lot by now.

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