by Marilynn C.
My NaNoWriMo attempt from 2006; now a serial instead of a novel.
|Sara Kelly stood on top of the world with a pair of binoculars and watched her husband disappear into thin air. When 32-year-old Travis Kelly ascended into a wispy cloud that licked the top of Mount Rainier, Sara put down her binoculars and took a deep breath.
This was Travis’ second time climbing to the summit of Mount Rainier, but Sara was nervous nonetheless. They were relative newlyweds, having just celebrated their third anniversary, and both harbored a strong sense of protectiveness for each other.
Sara was blonde-haired and brown-eyed, more cute than pretty, which was how she got the nickname ‘Babyface.’ Travis was also a blonde but his eyes were an unusual teal color flecked with green. He had long, full eyelashes and Sara thought he had the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen on anyone, male or female.
She sat on a large speckled boulder and chewed on some dried fruit, then took a swig of water from her pink water bottle. Her athleticism and high energy level didn’t in any way thwart her feminine traits.
The air smelled of pine even though the trees were below the level on which she sat. Sara was going to stay here, at this place, until she saw Travis and his group reappear. Something stirred out of the corner of her eye, and she saw a marmot sitting on its haunches, looking at her. It was fat and furry, and its nose twitched as it stared at Sara with small, shiny black eyes. It was unusual to see a marmot up this high, since they usually scampered in the green mountain meadows below, but it was not unheard of.
Sara brought her camera up to get a photograph of the marmot. To her pleasure, it kept its pose and she zoomed in, filling the frame. Click, went the camera, and the marmot was captured in digitalized form.
The only reason that Sara wasn’t approaching Mount Rainier’s peak with Travis was that she was recovering from bronchitis. It didn’t stop her from hiking several miles up above the tree line, though. She had watched Travis’ group disappear from sight and then reappear much higher up on a glistening white slope. He hadn’t wanted her to do any hiking at all but she’d insisted, loading up her daypack.
The only cloud in the sharp blue sky was a small white cap that covered the summit. Sara stared at the cloud. She wondered if they were close to the top.
The air was so still at this altitude, on this day, that Sara couldn’t even feel a gentle puff at her cheeks. Insects hummed, breaking the silence, but there was no other sound. She was tired from the bronchitis and the hike, and didn’t want to risk dozing off, so she stood up and did a few jumping jacks, then explored the rocky area around the boulder.
Twenty minutes later, having found nothing more interesting than various insects and some tiny weeds struggling to the surface, she sat on the boulder again and looked towards the peak. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the small dark line of the climbing group, descending below the lone cloud. She brought the binoculars up to her eyes and scanned the climbers. Travis was third in line, identifiable by his bright yellow coat. They looked fine. She smiled and picked up her pack, and started on the hike back down to Paradise.
When Sara was growing up, she hiked what seemed like every square inch of Mount Rainier National Park, with the exception of the peak itself, of course. Many times she hiked with her family; her mom and dad and younger brother, Matt. Other times it was only she and her dad, alone together, exploring the wilderness.
On one of these hikes, when she was nine years old, Sara ran ahead of her father on the trail and found herself enveloped in the dark, moist heaviness of the forest. She stopped, breathing hard, and turned in a slow circle, taking in the vast greenness around her. The groomed dirt trail was soft under her feet, and giant Douglas fir trees stood serenely as far as she could see. Large, feathery ferns cloaked the forest floor, unmoving in the silence. The canopy overhead was so dense that only the tiniest pockets of sunlight illuminated a shrub here, or a branch there.
Sara felt so strongly that she wasn’t alone, that a strange weight seemed to press itself on her chest and she could hear her heart beating in her ears. She waited for her father to catch up, but she had run so far ahead and he always seemed to go so slow.
She heard the sounds of a twig snapping, and of brush whispering as if it had been pushed aside, and she whirled again, full circle, faster this time, whipping her head around.
Something—just to her left—she turned her head, lightning fast, but saw nothing. Another twig snapped, louder this time, and to her right. She turned again.
And she saw something that she couldn’t quite focus on, something that didn’t make sense but was undeniably there. A rippling of the air like you would see rising from blacktop on a hot summer day, only it was cool here in the forest, and the ripple was traveling with the faintest whisper, leaving trembling ferns and berry bushes releasing their fragrance in its wake.
A hand rested on Sara’s shoulder and she whipped around. It was her dad, smiling down at her.
"Don’t run so far ahead, Babyface," he said, hitching up his daypack.
Sara said nothing and continued on down the trail with him. She never saw anything so strange in the mountains again.
Now, at the age of 30, Sara knew these forests like the back of her hand. She was never afraid. The occasional twig snapped or a stream gurgled, these were just the usual sounds of this lush, dark escape that thrived under Northwest skies.
Sara took her time heading back down to the Paradise Inn. The trail was knotted with tree roots, which she navigated with ease in her hiking boots. Strings of wiry black moss hung from the branches of the surrounding Douglas firs. When she and Matt were kids, they imagined that the moss was sasquatch hair, caught on branches here and there as the large beasts crept through the forest.
It was a clear day and the sun tried its best to penetrate the canopy. Occasionally the trail wound out of the forest and Sara was hiking on a rocky slope surrounded by lush green meadows. The sweet smell of mountain wildflowers rose up under the baking sun.
Sara’s throat ached and she stopped and rooted around in her pack and popped a lozenge into her mouth. She felt a little heady, partly from being sick and partly from the thin air.
She crested one more broad, grassy slope and saw the Paradise Inn below.
Sara took her shoes off and stretched out fully clothed on the bed in their room at the Inn and covered herself with a blanket. Even though it was summer and the afternoon was warm, she felt cold. She fell asleep quickly.
When she woke, the room was dark. She had planned on taking maybe an hour nap. Sara looked at her watch. The glowing hands told her that it was 8:30. Before she got out of bed and switched on the light, she knew that she was still alone in the room and that Travis wasn’t there.
Maybe he had come back while she was sleeping, and didn't want to wake her up. He was probably having a hot toddy in front of the lodge fire with the other climbers.
She put her shoes on, closed the door behind her, and went downstairs. As the lobby came into view, Sara expected to see Travis sitting on one of the large couches with a mug in his hands. Instead, a group was gathered near the large stone fireplace. The main room, though it was large and had a high ceiling, felt very warm.
Travis wasn't there.
Sara approached the group. She recognized Sally Cummins, whose husband had been in the climbers' group that day, and a few others who she'd forgotten their names.
Sally looked at her, wide eyed, and took her hands. "Sara," she said, "Where have you been? Something's happened. The climbers..."
Sara looked past Sally and the group parted just enough for her to see that they were gathered around a lone figure on the couch, who Sara recognized as their long-time friend and the climbing leader, Dave Frey.
"Oh my God, Dave," Sarah whispered as she covered her mouth. Her knees felt like they might give out.
Dave sat on the couch surrounded by layers of coat, hat, and gloves. He looked up at her with bloodshot eyes. His face was dirty and he looked much older than his 46 years.