“Race to the summit”

This story of mine first appeared in the Beacons of Tomorrow, second collection anthology. That is a print-only publication, and while I welcome you to visit the site and purchase a copy — small presses needing every dollar of support they can get — I realize that isn’t likely.

Although I’d written dozens of stories (and at least two novels) by the time this story appeared, it is only my second piece of published fiction.

I suppose it falls into the young adult fantasy genre. I’ve always liked fantasy stories that are just a half step outside of our world. Solidly recognizable characters is everyday situations, with a sudden window into a greater world. I hope you like it.

__________

Race to the summit

by

Paul Lamb

I’m as swift as a deer. As clever as a fox. I can run for miles like a coyote, and I have the eyes of a hawk. I knew I could beat them up the mountain, and they’d never know I was there. They’d never know, but I’d see what that rat was up to.

They took the old logging road. I was surprised Gabe drove his precious pickup on that mess of a road. He washes it in front of school, out in the parking lot where everyone can see him. Then he waxes it, and anyone who wants to can help him. But what he really wants is for everyone to see that his daddy gave him a brand new pickup for his 16th birthday to go along with his perfect teeth, his good looks and nice clothes, his easy A’s, his popularity. Gabe likes everybody, and everybody likes Gabe.

Everyone but me. I knew there was something odd about him. Nobody could be as good and nice and friendly as he seemed. He has another side that he’s really good at hiding. Except from me. I have a sense about people.

The old logging road is the easiest way up, but it’s indirect and takes time, winding along the side of the mountain with lots of switchbacks. Sometimes you have to get out to clear the rock falls that spill across the road. You have to creep over the ruts and washes so you don’t bang the teeth out of your head. That’s why no one much goes up there. It’s just too hard to do. It was going to take them all morning to get to the summit, and Gabe’s truck was going get some scratches along the way. At least I hoped so.

But I’m a friend of the mountain. I know its secret ways, its hidden trails and turnings, its impassable thickets. My dad brought me up here when I was little, and now I come on my own. It’s a caldera, an old collapsed volcano, with a valley wedged into one side of it. I’ve been all over the mountain, so I knew a faster way up. Even on foot I figured I could race to the summit before they did. It’s a hard climb, and to beat them to the top I had to keep pushing one foot in front of the other. I could do it, though; I would have sprinted up the mountain that day.

That’s something that Gabe can’t do. He can’t run very well. He can throw a football but not run a play. No one is better at the standing high jump, but he can’t run hurdles. He’ll go to the soccer games and cheer, but he’s never tried out for the team, even though everyone knows he’d make it just because he’s so popular. He can win a game of chess, then he’ll trip when he gets up from the table. It’s like he’s a stranger to his own legs.

Not that it’s really obvious. He covers it by acting reserved. As though he isn’t going to dash around like an idiot, flying from this to that. I guess everyone else just assumes it’s his essential cool. But I see something more to it.

He was headed to the most secluded spot on the mountain. A place where you can be alone. An open meadow high above the valley where I’ve camped many times. You can see for miles, and when the eagles are flying, it’s almost like you’re up in the air with them, soaring over the trees in the trackless sky.

He was taking Angie with him to the secluded meadow.

I don’t know the right words to describe Angie. She’s beautiful, of course, but in an otherworldly way. The silky strands of her hair dance on the slightest breeze and frame her eyes so big and blue. Her open smile. Her soft, clear voice. The kindness of her words. Every guy is school has fallen in love with her. I have. I would do anything for Angie.

She always waits for me after track practice, and we sit in the stands and just talk about anything. She asks how I did and remembers my times. She tells me I’m graceful on my feet and I laugh because graceful describes everything about her. She likes my stupid jokes. She doesn’t mind sitting next to me even though I stink after two hours of track practice. We talk about homework because we’re in a couple of classes together. We talk about the people we know. About teachers. About college after high school. Sometimes after we’ve been talking and the sun’s going down, I don’t even recall what we’ve said exactly, but I know we had a nice time. And sometimes, she lets me hold her hand while we talk. She could have any guy in school for her boyfriend. Even Gabe. But for some reason, she pays attention to me.

When I can, I sit in on her choir practice. She has a good voice, and she works hard to do well. I’ve told her she has real talent, but she smiles. “You’re just being nice, Sylvan.” And she doesn’t laugh at my name like some people. Nor does she call me scrawny like everyone else does. She says I’m compact and that’s why I can run track so well. She always finds a way to compliment me. It takes my breath away sometimes.

When I hold her hand, I never want to let go. I feel her soft skin, and I’d like to touch her shoulder. Her cheek. I’d like to kiss her, but I’m too afraid. I’d like to feel her arms enfold me, to be in the sweet, sweet arms of a real angel.

She kissed me once. On the cheek. It was a quick peck before she ran off in her coltish way to her mother’s car, but it was electric. I could feel her lips on my skin for the rest of the day.

I know I’m not good enough for her, but no one is. There are just some special people in the world above the rest of us. So why Angie would want to spend time with me is something I can’t figure out.

But I was pretty sure I had Gabe figured out after I heard them talking in the auditorium. I was crawling around in the orchestra pit looking for the extra mouthpiece for my trumpet when I heard someone come in. I can be as quiet as a mouse when I want, and something told me to be quiet then. I have a sense about these things.

From the floor of the pit I couldn’t see who had come in, but whoever it was couldn’t see me either. The person walked down the side aisle, putting a lot of effort into not making a sound, and I held my breath so I wouldn’t either.

After maybe a minute, the door opened again, and someone else came in.

“Are we alone?” said Gabe.

“Yes. Just us,” answered Angie. I’d recognize her voice anywhere.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” he purred.

“More than anything,” she said. “I’m old enough.”

My mind raced. I could picture the confident smile on his face, and I wanted to jump out of the pit and smash that snake over the head with a music stand.

“Still,” she whispered. “I’m a little afraid.”

“Don’t worry,” Gabe said, his voice full of silky reassurance. “It’s perfectly natural. After tomorrow, you’ll want to do it all the time.”

“You have it all planned?”

“You know the meadow above the caldera, up on the mountain?” Gabe spoke with cool confidence. “No one will be around to see us. We can take all the time you want. Nothing will be the same afterward!”

“Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.”

“I’ll pick you up at 9:00 tomorrow morning.”

My heart sank when they left. You think you know someone, but you don’t. Angie. So perfect. So pure. So much above all of that. And there she was, letting herself be seduced by that weasel Gabe with his million dollar smile and smooth words. And it wasn’t even much of a seduction. It sounded businesslike, like he was fitting her into his schedule. I didn’t want to believe this about Angie. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to pull her back from the edge of the cliff.

But I realized I was wrong about her.

Later that afternoon, when I could think straight again, I figured out why he was dragging her all the way up the mountain for his seduction. I’m sure he told her it would be romantic, and that eased her past her reluctance. With the vault of the blue sky overhead and the dense green forest around them, with the meadow brimming with wildflowers and the view of a hundred miles, it’s certainly a setting for magnificent moments. And they would be alone. She could be as carefree as she wanted with no one around to shake a finger.

Part of me didn’t want to believe that she was going to be just another of Gabe’s conquests. I still felt that she was better than that. That inside her was enough strength to resist a guy like Gabe. Which is why I hustled up the mountain that day. I had to see for myself. I had to know if Angie was different from everyone else.

The upper reaches of the valley are inaccessible to all but the hardiest adventurers. Hardly anyone goes there, and aside from the eagles, only jets ever pass over it. The meadow is near the summit, where the caldera is deep but not very wide. Across from it is a ledge I sometimes sit on. You can see all the way down the valley from there, but the overhanging trees keep the sun from getting too hot on the rocks. More importantly, you get a clear view of the meadow but can’t be seen from the other side.

That’s where I was headed. I knew I had to race get to the ledge before Gabe and Angie reached the meadow. There were a couple of times when I spotted Gabe’s red truck far below me on the mountain, picking its way up the old logging road. I kept hustling because I wanted to have enough time to catch my breath when I got to the ledge and to pick the best vantage point.

I thought about bringing binoculars, but that seemed too creepy. I was sure I’d understand soon enough what was going on.

I reached the ledge at midday and finally let myself take the rest I’d needed, devouring a granola bar and a bottle of water. The air is thin up there, but I was used to it. Across the valley, the meadow was quiet. No one had arrived yet, and for a while I hoped that Gabe had given up the difficult ascent and decided to postpone his business for another time.

Time passed. Far down the valley, through the crystal clear air, I could see a bald eagle circling. A pair of blue mountain jays argued in a tree nearby. Below my feet were the dark green tips of the treetops in the valley. It was a long way down from where I was sitting, and though I’ve never been afraid of heights, I started to feel dizzy. Maybe I was a little dehydrated from my climb. I backed away from the edge and found a spot in the shade where I still had a view of the meadow.

And my fears were confirmed. Across the valley, I saw the familiar red of Gabe’s pickup coming through the trees toward the meadow. When he emerged into the open grass, I saw streaks of mud painted up the sides of the truck and I knew he’d be washing it in front of school on Monday. Everyone will ask how it had gotten so muddy, and he’ll tell them. He’ll tell them who was with him, too. And he’ll wink.

I stayed back in the shade and watched. The two of them didn’t get out right away. They were talking. Maybe Angie had last minute jitters and there was still a chance. But then Gabe’s door opened, and a second later, Angie came out the other side. They walked down the meadow to the precipice, and I saw her looking at the valley. It was obviously the first time she’d ever seen it because she took a step back. Gabe took her hand, though, and brought her forward again. He pointed down the valley and up in the air. All around. Maybe he spotted an eagle. They talked a little more. Then he lead her back to the top of the meadow.

And it began. He didn’t even bring a blanket. The goat. He just pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it aside. Angie hesitated, but Gabe gestured for her to follow, smiling at her eagerly. A moment later she pulled off her top, too. She folded it and set it down carefully. Her white sports bra offered a bit of modesty, but it was clear even to my desperate heart what was going to happen. I wanted to turn and go, but the smallest part of me still held hope.

Yet Gabe didn’t approach her. There they were, the two of them, half naked just a few feet apart, but it looked like they were frozen. And then Gabe did something I couldn’t understand. He raised his arms high above his head and arched backward. He looked like he was stretching, but he stopped and encouraged Angie to do the same.

And then? I still don’t believe it. It couldn’t happen. And it did.

Gabe . . . changed.

Out of his back sprang two immense wings. Like a bird. He flapped them a few times, stretching them.

A moment later, Angie grew wings too.

I wasn’t dehydrated. I wasn’t dizzy. I was wide awake and staring at two people with feathered wings on their backs.

Gabe took Angie’s hand, and together they started running down the meadow toward the cliff. Their wings flapped, and then over they went. And they were flying. Gabe and Angie were flying above the valley.

A few flaps of their wings and they were rising in the air. I lost them in the branches above my head, and quick as a squirrel, I scrambled up the tree and onto a branch so I could see them again. Why hadn’t I brought binoculars?

They soared together for a while. But Gabe pulled away and rose higher. Then he was rocketing down past Angie, only to pull up and do it again.

Angie seemed content just to glide on the wind, flapping her strong wings occasionally to gain more height, leaving all of the flashy stuff to Gabe, who’d obviously done this before. It was a flying lesson. He was teaching Angie how to fly. Nothing would be the same for her after this.

They flew far down the valley, and I had to inch out farther on the branch to keep them in sight. But they turned around and came flying back soon enough. Up and down. In circles and loops. It looked effortless. Of course Gabe is a stranger to his legs! He’s a creature of the air. And so is Angie. She really is special.

And she pays attention to me!

I don’t know how long they stayed up there. It may have been minutes or hours. I couldn’t stop staring at something that made no sense at all and made perfect sense.

And I might have perched on the branch until they tired and decided to return to the world of the earth-bound people if the branch hadn’t snapped. I had to grab frantically or I would plummet into the valley.

I must have screamed. I must have kept screaming. Kicking my feet while I hung there. Too scared to crawl back on the springy branch that was saving me from a fatal plunge. But my strength was gone. I couldn’t hold on much longer. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I lost my grip and fell.

But Angie plucked me out of the air and enfolded me in her arms. I clung to her, afraid to slip from her strong embrace.

“Shame on you. Now you know my secret,” she laughed. “Hold on tight!” she said as she flapped her powerful wings and sent the two of us soaring into the sky. I could hardly breathe as the crisp air rushed past us.

I didn’t care. I was in the sweet, sweet arms of an angel.

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