Heading up

a short story

He was almost there.
At the top of the mountain, he believed fate awaited him.

        art by Chris Hagan

 

This would be the first of many mountains he would climb. This was his new path and for a change, there was real excitement in his heart. His steps had slowed since he started and the fatigue of this journey weighed on him, but they were no less resolute. He was going to achieve his goal, and knowing this made his exhaustion feel lesser. Sturdy walking stick in hand, boots laced with military precision, his pack with the essentials, his knees pain free because of his weekly regimen. His heart beat steadily in health. He breathed in the crisp thin air and almost smiled. He was ready for this next step, and so he was taking it with ease.

He was walking now, but it felt like he had been running for as long as he could remember. Running from responsibility, from commitment, from change. He had grown up in a small town, moved to a bigger town, kept in line with his peers, outpaced them even, lept from relationship to relationship, out of the service, from career to career. The only constant was this emptiness. His constant companion — this unconscious belief, a fear of himself. That’s really what he was running from. He used to be so afraid of stopping and thinking. He never wanted to be left alone with his thoughts because he feared what they could do to him. These incessant, nagging fears had come to dominate his life. Until the moment they had overtaken him. The only reason he was here, on this mountainous path, was because of that night years ago. Only now did he see the value in that fact.

~

He could see the precipice now. He envisioned himself there, residing within this daydream for many moments while his legs continued to churn upward. Experiencing a sudden shortness of breath, he assumed it was the thin air and tried to continue. But he felt a presence, something was behind him. Expecting some kind of wild animal, potentially dangerous, he readied himself and spun around, walking stick at the ready.

What he saw was not animal, but man. He was short. Black hair, a trimmed goatee. But more remarkably, he was wearing a full suit. A red suit. Starkly bright, astonishingly absurd. The man stared at him expressionlessly for several moments while he lowered his hands. He didn’t know what to think, so he didn’t.

“I am the Devil,” said the red suit.

He said nothing in response. He still couldn’t even gather himself to acknowledge it. Despite the intriguing oddity the situation presented, he couldn’t help being annoyed at this. He honestly didn’t have time for this kind of thing. He couldn’t stop thinking about how close the top of the mountain was.

Red began to speak again, “I have a proposition for you. And it is in your best interest to listen very carefully to exactly what I have t-”

“Prove it,” he interrupted.

“I beg your pardon,” red suit said incredulously.

“Prove it. That you’re the devil,” the man said relatively calmly.
He honestly couldn’t believe this kook. Out here with a red 3-piece suit, c’mon. That stupid fucking goatee. He could barely contain himself.

Almost instantaneously, feelings of unimaginable power, pleasure and pride filled his heart. He closed his eyes for a time. Deeply, he wanted to embrace all of this wholeheartedly, it felt so real. And in a way, he knew it could be. It was a reminder and a memory. It was a promise, and there would be more to come. But he didn’t embrace it. He knew those things were ultimately meaningless, now. He opened his eyes. Red suit was staring at him more intently, he could almost make out flames in his pupils but it was impossible to tell. His smile was as wicked as his eyes, but even more ridiculous than his getup. Again, he almost laughed.

He smiled right back at him. Red stopped smiling. He started to turn his cheek. Red’s eyes widened.

His mind’s eye became filled with the images of blood, suffering, hatred, spite, everything rotten and putrid and dark and abhorrent that couldn’t be imagined by the foulest of Men. It hurt him, his heartbeat sped to an unhealthy rate. He almost dropped his walking stick, he almost bent his knees and fell to the ground, he almost started crying. Instead, now with his back turned to D, he spoke.

“I know that.”

“Yes,” red was whispering.

“I’ve been there. And I know the truth of pain,” he said weakly. But he was lying of course. He had never experienced anything close to the level of suffering he had just borne witness to. This truth was oddly comforting to him. Truly, what had his own experiences been that could even come close to comparing to that? He was fine; there was meaning in his pain and he had drawn from it. It had strengthened him. He opened his eyes again, now facing forward. The mountaintop awaited his footfalls. That was where he belonged, now.

He turned back around quickly to say some final words. But red was gone. The path behind was empty.

He chuckled to himself. Illusion or no, he was especially resolved now. He gripped his walking stick and turned back to the top of the mountain. He looked and stopped in his tracks. Red was there, standing in the distance, right upon the peak he sought.

He blinked his eyes once, and he was again face to face with him. This time right in front of him. Red spoke coolly.

“I can deliver you to either, it is your choice.”

“Why are you here?” he said.

“This is what you want,” red responded charmingly.

“No, it isn’t,” he said.

Red began to walk around him, encircling where he stood, slowly and waywardly.

“That void you felt within for all those years, all those changes you weren’t ready for, all those moments of weakness — I am the solution. I am the escape. I am your unfound strength,” the snake spoke with impossible certainty. That demeanor truly demeaned his words. It anticipated everything he was going to say before he even opened his mouth. You didn’t need to hear his word; his mere existence was the truth of his intention.

“I already walk the solution. Now get out of my way,” he said.

The visions of money, sex, power, and everything in between returned to his thoughts, unbidden and redundant. Red looked more than angry, he looked paranoid. He knew because he had seen that look in the mirror for so many years.

“Just listen to-,” red began, but the man had had enough of the words and instead started to move. He shouldered past the red-suited joke. He walked directly down the center of his pathway heading up.

Red fell to the ground. The man smiled because he had barely touched him and yet wasn’t surprised at his now sprawling form. He took several more determined steps up the mountain before he realized that red was shouting, or rather howling like a madman. He had never heard anything like it.

“He never loved you.

“Her death was your fault!

“Your son has never even seen you and he hates you with all his heart and he’ll never forgive you!”

He stopped. He looked up into the sky above the mountaintop. He breathed in, his eyes remained open unblinking. He breathed out. He stood for many minutes.

Those words were all true, probably. And yet,

“You are nothing without me,” he said finally.

He continued to walk up toward the peak in silence. He didn’t look back, but he knew in his heart the little man was gone. ~