Base Camp. Mother and Jennifer collapse on the slope as Father stands on a rock and gazes back down the trail. Two of the hired Sherpas are already unpacking and setting up tents. The mountains are a huddled mass of white-robed gods, the upper level winds blowing auras off their pointed skulls. The cold thin air dissolves like a wafer on the tongue. It’s like nothing back home, a lofty spirit-walk their bodies are privileged to have joined, if only for a few weeks.
Minutes pass. At last Father spots William, droop-shouldered, eyes to the rocks, trailing the third Sherpa and a yak. He slowly claps his hands. “His Highness at last!”
William says nothing.
“It’s one thing to be late for school or soccer practice, but do you have any idea what happens if you fall behind on Everest? Monsoon season is coming!”
“I don’t care,” William murmurs.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“What happens is, you can forget the summit. You can forget soccer practice, too. And all those precious afternoons alone in your room with stolen liquor and dirty magazines and World of Nerdcraft. Up here, timing’s a matter of life and death. Do you know what a white-out’s like on the Lhotse face at 24,000 feet? Do you have any idea what hurricane-force winds can do to an exposed climber? Do you?”
“I don’t care either,” says Jennifer. “I hate this. I’m eighteen and I’m not even legally obligated to spend time with you people. And I’m missing the Alterna-Prom. I finally had an outside chance at High Priestess!”
“Quit whining,” Father says. “All of you! Does anyone even understand what this is about? After your mother here put her hand down the pants of the office temp and squeezed his Johnson in plain view of pretty much anyone driving slowly past the office window and not even spying but casually glancing inside, the fate of the family fell to me. Me. I could have just let us all fall apart. I did not. I regrouped. I planned. I understood the need for desperate measures. I went for broke.”
“Did you ask me?” Jennifer says. “You never ask me. Nobody does.”
“We didn’t ask you if you wanted to be born, either. But here you are. Deal with the consequences.”
“Everyone else does,” says William.
“Shut up, pimple-butt.”
“Haven’t we come far enough?” Mother asks. “My legs are so tired. I think my organs are failing. My ears are like a Play-Doh factory for my swelling brain.”
“Buck up. You of all people. William, did you load up my Lucky Katana ice axes with the solar-heated grips? The ones those equipment brokers sold me in Gorak Shep?”
William shrugs. “I don’t know. We have the other ones.”
“I don’t want the other ones. Now go back and get them.”
“What? That’s like three hours each way!”
William kicks the ice and hurts his foot. “Can’t I do anything right?”
“You tell me.”
“Does he really have to go?” Mother says. “This whole thing is ridiculous.”
“He’s got to learn.”
“Then let’s go with him. And not come back.”
“Not a chance. Hustle up, Will! Back by nightfall!”
William slumps back down the trail like he’s dragging a rock. The others watch. Father shakes his head.
“You know the Sherpas are laughing at us,” Mother says. “They’re pointing and laughing. They’re enjoying themselves at our expense. We paid two hundred thousand dollars and came all the way to Nepal just to give them a show.”
“Nonsense,” Father says. “They’re laughing at Jennifer’s vampire make-up. Couldn’t you leave that junk behind?”
“God! I can’t even breathe up here and you’re telling me you hate my make-up! Don’t even talk to me ever again!”
“Fine, I’m the hater. I hate everything. That’s why I’m spending my retirement money on family time.”
“Oh Christ,” says Mother. “Always the martyr.”
The Khumbu Icefall. A slow-motion flood sweeps house-sized ice sculptures downstream in the glacier. The enormous blocks and pinnacles crack and split without warning. New crevasses open between them. Older crevasses, hidden by thin bridges of snow, make deep, narrow punji pits for unwary climbers. Aluminum ladders are bound together and placed over the crevasses. Guide ropes are stretched. Climbers step carefully across the ladder-bridges, their attention on foot placement rather than the chasms between rungs. The wind blows. The ladders bounce and sway. The ice towers crackle like someone’s twisting them.
“Are we there yet?” says Jennifer. “Are we even close?”
“This is more about the journey,” Father says.
“Can’t we just get this done and go home?” says Mother.
“You agreed to this. The least you can do is have a good attitude about it.”
“You gave me an ultimatum,” says Mother. “I’m having serious regrets.”
“Be quiet,” Father says. “It’s Family Time. Remember when we all joined together and made the biggest Alan Greenspan sand sculpture Nag’s Head Beach has ever seen? Or when we sang ‘I’ve Got Snow, Snow, Snow, Snow, Down in My Boots’ all the way down the Highline run at Vail, even though your mother wiped out twenty-six times and the ski patrol had to tow her the rest of the way in a sled? Remember at Bryce when we all split up without rations and the game was to find our way back together before sunset?”
“Big fun,” Jennifer says.
“Frankly, no,” says Mother, “I don’t remember a thing. But that only means the pills are working.”
“Okay, I want everyone to say what they think is special about our family,” says Father.
“Can I start?” says Jennifer. “This family’s a joke. An actual joke. Except there’s no punch line, so it’s like the set-up for a joke someone else has to finish. After we’re all dead. Which is soon.”
“Can we at least wait till William gets across the ladder?” Mother asks.
“Hustle up, Will!” Father calls. “We’re having a family powwow over here!”
William’s knees are shaking. His crampons scuttle the sides of the ladder like nervous crabs. He can’t help but imagine a fall into the deep, narrow blackness—how he could lose his balance from wind or nerves or icy metal and tumble into the wedge, where he’ll be popped and crushed like an egg between tectonic plates, sort of a cosmically apt illustration of the way he’s been ground between angry parents his whole life, but terrifying nonetheless. He grips the guide ropes tight with his thick black gloves. When the ladder trembles in the wind he freezes, and for a moment it looks as if he’s going to go over like a toppled statue. He finds his balance, takes another step, another. William’s always been the cautious one; didn’t take the training wheels off till he was ten. But is he really so cautious, or is everyone else just a reckless idiot?
Father claps his hands. “Another grand entrance from Will the Great!”
“I nearly died,” William says.
“Life is full of challenges. Buck up.”
“Or off,” mumbles William.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Listen, I told the Sherpas to go on ahead and fix the ropes and ladders for us. That will give us some time to ourselves. Why don’t you start?” he says to Mother. “It’s only appropriate.”
“Let’s get something straight,” Mother says. “My guilt has limits. My guilt does not reach the Everest summit. My guilt goes up approximately 19,000 feet, which if I’m not mistaken is right about here…”
Mother takes one step up the snow bank in the shadow of a leaning pinnacle and stabs the ice with her crampon points to steady herself.
“What new stunt is this?” Father asks.
“Guilt requires oxygen, and there’s not enough at this level to support it. Look.”
She takes a step down.
She takes a step up.
“Here, no guilt. I’ve entered the guilt-free zone. It’s that simple.”
The icefall makes a muffled noise like there’s someone chipping away from the inside.
“Mom, quit making a fool of yourself,” Jennifer says.
“That comment would have an effect under 19,000 feet,” says Mother.
“Kids, remember how we learned that oxygen deprivation causes dangerous delusions? That’s what your mother’s experiencing now. Pay no attention to her crazy talk.”
“I’ve never felt more clear-headed,” Mother says.
“See, kids?” says Father.
“Can we keep moving?” Jennifer asks. “I mean, has anyone even noticed how extremely ridiculously cold it is and how the air is like negative air that actually vacuums the oxygen out of your blood and how we’re all going to die anyway because our Sherpas are about thirteen and can’t even tie their shoelaces?”
“I’m finally seeing everything as it really is,” says Mother. “It’s only the latest in a long line of guilt trips that began when I married you in the first place.”
“Mother’s talking too much and wasting her oxygen,” says Father.
“It’s true,” says Mother. “You kids might as well hear the truth.”
“Lalalalalala! Stupid family revelations! I’m not listening!” Jennifer says. She puts her North Face gloves to the side of her head. She decorated them with glittery silver skulls.
“I felt guilty that I’d rejected your father five times already,” Mother says. “So I finally gave in and married him. He knew I’d give in because I was pliable back then. I knew he knew, and I took the easy route anyway. It’s all clear to me now.”
“Lalalalalalala,” Jennifer says. “Tell your family secrets to someone who cares!”
“Great,” says Father. “Well now that that’s all cleared up, how about you, William?”
“I kissed that office temp out of guilt, too,” Mother continues. “He reminded me of Brian, the boy I was going to marry if he’d only had the nerve to ask me all those years ago. I should have married him and didn’t. The office temp was sweet and shy like Brian. It didn’t matter that they looked nothing alike. Brian had those thick lips and the constant pout. He had the turned-up eyebrows and the small ears. The soft hands too big for his wrists. The office temp, I don’t even remember his name but I could tell he liked me, and so I kissed him because I felt guilty that he was too shy to ask. Shyness has a smell I’ve come to love. I wasn’t really kissing him anyway. I was kissing Brian, a whole army of Brians—the ones who bag my groceries in the supermarket or hit balls against the practice wall at the tennis club, the ones all over town that throw quick shy glances at me before they climb onto their bikes and motorcycles and ride away, all those Brians who always just barely lack the nerve to tell me they love me. They’ve always needed a little help, and for once I gave it to them.”
There’s a pause. Jennifer lifts her gloves away from her ears. “Done yet?”
“Well,” says Father, “squeeze a boy’s Johnson and he’ll tell you anything you want to hear. Awfully generous of you.”
“Shit!” says Jennifer.
“One thing led to another,” Mother says. “I don’t feel guilty about it.”
“Your mother’s intent on ruining this vacation,” says Father. “Just like all the others.”
“I don’t remember the others,” says Mother.
William’s not listening, his mind still deep in the crevasse. Falling, falling, then stuck. He feels now the glacial movements, the ice walls pressing against him, rolling him and squeezing him like a hand-rolled joint. And there’s no way out. He’ll die like this, fully conscious, his ribs snapping one by one, organs collapsing in on one another. Heart constricted until it flutters like a crushed moth. And then he remembers the special tools he went all the way back to the tea house in Gorak Shep to retrieve. The solar-heated grips would warm his hands. It’s not too late! There’s still room to grab them from Father and angle a swing at his head! Still time to free himself of the slow torture!
Someone else’s head appears from behind an ice block. Then three more. Another expedition team, heading back down the mountain. They use the fixed ropes to descend the ice.
“Excuse me!” says the first, a tall man with a thick dark beard. “You all are making an awful lot of noise. You’re endangering the other climbers in the icefall.”
“We’re just pausing a moment to reflect on our family,” Father says.
“Well could you do it somewhere else?”
“Ah, I see. Didn’t make the summit, I guess,” Father says.
“That’s none of your bloody fucking business.”
“Take me with you!” Jennifer yells. “Please! They’ve kidnapped me! They’re trying to kill me!” She pulls on the man’s parka sleeve.
The man shakes her off. “For God’s sake, your lips have turned black,” he says. “Get some help. All of you.”
Two more men appear at the top of the ice block, carrying a stretcher between them. Two others climb halfway up to help. There’s a careful handoff and some whispered words. The man on the stretcher groans softly.
“He’s looking worse,” says the first man. “We’d better hurry.”
As they pass, the man on the stretcher writhes in slow motion. His face is puffy and dark. His swollen lips are split, his eyes bandaged.
A moment of quiet as the other expedition negotiates their first steps on the ladder bridge. Even the icefall shows respect.
“At least we’ve got our health,” William says.
“Suck-up,” says Jennifer.
William lifts his trembling arm and meets his dad’s glove for a high five. He’s certain he’s going to free himself. He sees a glimmer of light now, a way out.
“Anyone see how our Sherpas up there stopped on the ledge to watch?” Mother asks. “They’re thinking they should be paying us for this trip. They’re wishing they had us on film to show their whole village.”
“Let them laugh all they want. Who’s going to laugh when we reach the summit and plant the family flag?”
“Family WTF?” asks Jennifer.
“It’s tucked into my pants for safekeeping,” Father says. “I was going to make it a surprise at the summit, but it looks like you and your mother need the extra motivation.”
Mother feels a pang like a tiny crash in an empty warehouse. It’s encouraging that she still had anything left to break.
“I think we’ve rested long enough,” Father says. “What say we get a move on?”
“Hey, Dad,” William says. “Want me to carry your ice axes for you?”
Nightfall. Jennifer lies awake staring at the red nylon ceiling, its color fading in the deepening twilight. There’s no wind, and she can hear the voices of other expedition teams. Mother, Father, and William are asleep. Eyes shut, breathing deep like there’s nothing wrong with this stupid world or their stupid places in it. Jennifer knows better. It’s stupid. The trip’s stupid, the mountain’s stupid, pretty much everything to do with climbing is stupid. Why risk your life to be cold and out of breath? To stand at the top of a stupid mountain just so you can tell everyone you did? Like everyone’s going to be so impressed. Hey, we took a family vacation just so our father could try to kill us without going to jail for it! Awesome! As soon as she graduates, she’s moving out.
But why wait?
She gets to her knees, crawls over William’s chubby legs tucked in the sleeping bag, and unfastens the Velcro flap. Goodbye, family. Their bags are zipped to the chin. They look like mummies. The tent’s just an old chamber full of mummies or soon-to-be-mummies, and she’s going to avoid their curse.
The Sherpas are out in the cold. They’ve got their arms together, singing and kicking their legs like drunk chorus girls. They chant a few words until one of them starts giggling. It takes them a minute to notice Jennifer. The shorter guy stumbles over as he pulls something out of his waistband.
Jennifer takes a step back.
He holds out a stainless steel flask that catches the twilight and glows. He’s all smiles. Jennifer can’t decide if the guy is thirteen or thirty-five. His glistening teeth lean against each other for support.
She takes the flask. If she survives, the smell of alcohol will always bring her comfort and warmth. She already knows it.
The Valley of Silence. Two of the Sherpas lead the team through the Western Cwm. The comparatively gentle incline provides little relief, as the windless valley forms a heat trap that saps a climber’s energy. The cwm’s central glacier is mauled by deep lateral crevasses, forcing the expedition to sidle along the base of Nuptse, where rockfalls and avalanches are a constant threat.
“It’s almost too easy,” says Father. “I’m barely winded and feel strong as an ox. Where’s the struggle? We could use more struggle. The struggle’s what brings us together.”
“In that case we could have quit our jobs and slowly starved to death in the comfort of our own home,” says Mother.
“I’ve already quit mine,” Father says. “Or I’ve been fired, depending on how you look at it.”
Mother is too tired to ask.
Jennifer has fallen behind. Gloves off, she’s holding hands with the third Sherpa, the shorter one. He’s either growing a moustache or has already failed at it. His lower lip is thick with Jennifer’s black lipstick, and someone’s drawn black ankhs under his eyes. Like tears of life, Jennifer told him last night.
“Look who’s dragging this time,” Father calls. “Hustle it up, Jen! There’s a rival expedition catching up to us.”
“Since when is it a race?” Mother asks.
“It’s not. But it looks bad if we can’t hold our position.”
“I can’t possibly move any faster,” Mother says. “My leg meat’s gone rancid and my skin has no feeling. I don’t even remember why we’re here.”
“Think ‘Johnson,’” says Father.
Jennifer keeps her eyes on the mountaintops on either side of the high valley, then turns to her new boyfriend and whispers something in his ear. They share a laugh. His mouth is a starry-night negative, constellations of mysterious black flecks against a yellow backdrop. The two of them stumble in the snow, catch their balance, laugh again.
Father stops, hands on hips, to give her a disapproving look that she can’t see through his tinted goggles. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” he asks.
Jennifer stumbles past. “Excuse me, who are you people?”
The Sherpa laughs. He’s a few inches shorter than Jennifer and wide around the middle.
“She’s doing this to spite us,” Father says.
“You catch on quick,” says Mother.
William watches the rocks rain off the Nuptse face, small black polka dots blossoming against the pale sky and the snowcapped peaks. They are little pieces of fate that fall all over the world in the form of car wrecks, stray bullets, deadly airborne germs, or twisters doodling over the plains and flicking aside houses like stray ants. They’re trajectories of death. Up here it’s just amazing how clearly you can see the black dots falling, as if the air has thinned to a loose mesh, and with every step up the mountain, the gaps widen and the secret nature of the world reveals itself more clearly in the form of those falling shapes. They’re little black holes that swallow up lives. One falls three feet to the right of Father. A bigger one five yards in front. Father’s oblivious. He could have his head crushed at any moment, and he acts like he’s got a shield, like he’s going to live forever.
A melon-sized black rock falls into the snow and ice not four feet in front of Father and splits in two as his head might have done. What is wrong with this world that so many rocks can miss such a big target?
“Shouldn’t we get moving?” William says.
“That’s the spirit,” says Father.
William feels the weight of his new wisdom, the burden of too much insight. Plus, he’s got one of Father’s ice axes hooked around his elbow. That’s a burden, too. The burden of awesome possibility. And the clothes beneath his parka––starting with his two-sizes-too-big Fruit-of-the-Loom briefs and his one-size-too-small GWAR t-shirt––are drenched in sweat. They tug at his skin with each step. Tonight they’ll freeze solid. With every step, he accepts these burdens anew. A continual affirmation of purpose. He can see now how life is sharpened to a dagger on these high peaks. One either uses it to pierce the stupid façade, or else one gets clumsy and falls on it. So it goes.
“Where’s your Sherpa,” Father asks later when he catches up to Jennifer.
“God, he’s not my Sherpa. That’s so racist! The Sherpas don’t belong to anybody, especially not us.”
“We’re paying them.”
“Nobody should have to take people like us up the sacred Chomolungma. We’re defiling the holy goddess mother of the world and oppressing their culture just being here! We’re like a walking plague! We suck!”
“He’s already given you the usual boyfriend brainwash,” Father says. “So why aren’t you with him now?”
“I’m giving Tashi his space. I’m not going to invade his life like we’re invading their country.”
“You didn’t even crack the guide books I gave you.”
“In Sherpa society, women can have as many husbands as they want.”
“Here we go.”
“Sherpas barter and share, and no one ever goes hungry. They all care for each other. It’s like a big commune, except it’s not communist. It’s like Craigslist in real life. And the only thing women have to do is give the men a little space to play cards now and then.”
Evening. Sunset crawls up the mountainsides until the cone of Everest stands out like an orange candy corn. Expedition teams huddle around their bright panels of stretched nylon. They light cooking fires and check tomorrow’s weather reports. They chatter on satellite phones in eleven languages and blog on their laptops. They share stories and negotiate rope-setting fees with other teams. They warm themselves on expectation.
Inside the family tent, Mother and Father are already asleep, sucking in deep quick breaths that rattle like pachinko balls before falling down their throats. William lies perfectly still, staring at the glowing red nylon with a slight grin as if reaching one satisfying conclusion after another.
“Brian, is that you?” Mother murmurs in her sleep. She’s dreaming she’s in a large empty vault, possibly a warehouse, though she can’t see the walls, and the high ceiling with its dim fluorescent lights is obscured by a lowering haze. Is it a cloud of poison gas? She’s alone in there, and yet outside the walls (wherever they are) lives a team of Brians, actually a whole society of Brians, whose quiet desire for her is their whole reason for existence, the exclusive subject of their thoughts, even their currency of exchange. They relate their thoughts and fantasies of her in return for sustenance, and they sustain themselves only to think of her. It’s like a commune of unsatisfied desire. How can she tell them she’s not worth it? How can she say that even though someone else led her into the vault, she’s the one who locked the door? It’s not true that she’s lost her guilt, at least when it comes to the City of Brians. The world’s become irreconcilable. How can it go on this way?
“Johnson,” murmurs Father. “Johnson.”
There’s a late expedition emerging now from the Western Cwm, a single-file line of dark figures climbing from the black valley up to the gray plateau. They go unnoticed as they slip into camp. In the fading light, their faces are pale gray, their eyes dark and deep-set. One turns her head to the summit, and something on her lower lip catches the light.
“Trip?” she calls. It’s a young voice. “Trip Six?! Trippy!”
Jennifer squeezes through the flap of the family tent. “Shadowgirl? Are you serious! Oh my God!”
High-pitched screams stir up snow on the high peaks. Lhotse responds with a small avalanche and rockfall, just noise and shadows in the dim twilight.
“Talon! Raven! Lilith! Vlad! Oh my God, I love you guys,” Jennifer says.
There’s a group hug in the snow.
“Trip, we knew you were going to miss Alterna-Prom, so we brought it to you.”
Raven holds out an earbud so they can share her music as they dance in the snow.
“You guys are the best!” says Jennifer. “I want you to meet someone. Hey Tashi!”
Soon they’re drinking and dancing with the Sherpas and sharing gossip from school. Later, they all take hits of oxygen like it’s nitrous oxide.
The Lhotse Face. The slope is like a mounded plain of blue ice and snowdrifts pitched steep. Climbers must kick their points into the glacial ice, pull themselves up on the fixed ropes, and steady themselves with another kick. At 24,000 feet, a climber might not be thinking clearly. His sense of balance may falter. He may lean back too far and slide. He may have thought he’d clipped his carabiner to the rope at the last anchor. He may have thought the rope was secure, or may not have noticed how frayed it was. He may not even notice he’s falling at first. He’s suddenly disoriented, looking up at the sky, and he’s not sure if he’s moving or stationary. He experiences a pleasant floating sensation until he feels a jagged rock tear across his back and starts tumbling. It’s over just like that.
The team stands at the base and looks up. The wind has kicked up and the sky is white-gray with swirling snow that whips off the ice.
“You said the Sherpas were already here,” Mother says.
“No, I said they’d already left,” Father says. “I didn’t say where.”
“Who are the Sherpas anyway?” Mother says. “Were we supposed to have them over for dinner?”
“I hate the Sherpas,” says Jennifer.
“Oh. In that case I’ll just rescind the invitation.”
“End of romance?” Father asks.
“Men are the same everywhere,” Jennifer says. “Even the Sherpas.”
“These guys aren’t even Sherpas,” Father says. “I got a discount. I think they’re from Pakistan.”
“Great,” says Jennifer. “You got the discount Sherpas!”
“Hey, times are tough. Our stocks took a hit.”
“I don’t even know who you’re talking about,” Mother says.
“Did you know that Sherpas make their wives sleep outside with the yaks?”
“Say no more,” Father says. “I can put two and two together.”
“Did you know that Sherpa men seem to prefer dumb ugly bitches to intelligent and attractive women?”
“We’d better start climbing. Sun’s almost up.”
“It’s a total fact that Sherpa men are so naïve they can’t even see when they’re being used.”
“More avalanches when the sun warms the ice,” says Father.
“And they act like they like bitchy women, like they’ve got mother issues or something.”
“He’s not even a Sherpa,” Father reminds her. “Will, where’s my other axe?”
A bank of gray clouds darkens the morning sky and blocks the sunrise. A light snow falls.
“The Sherpas took it,” William says. He wonders if he can get ahead of Father high on the Lhotse face and cut the rope with something. He wonders if there’s freedom at the top of the world.
“They really are awful people,” says Father.
“But they’re not even Sherpas,” says Jennifer.
“Either way, we’re not having them to dinner,” says Mother.
The Lhotse Face, Part II. The wind blows. The snow falls heavy. Father checks everyone’s carabiners at the anchor points. A couple of teams have turned back and encouraged the family to do so too: The weather reports are bad. Monsoons are coming early, bringing blizzards and high winds. You don’t want to be stuck on Everest with no visibility.
“We enjoy a challenge,” Father tells them.
“I hope you enjoy killing yourself, too, fucking idiot,” says the leader of the second expedition.
“We don’t even have any oxygen!” laughs Father.
When the rival team has descended out of hearing range, Mother taps Father’s crampon with her ice pick.
“Isn’t oxygen the stuff you’re supposed to breathe?” Mother asks.
“We had a few bottles. They’re missing.”
“I hate that you’re always forgetting things,” Mother says.
“I think the Sherpas took them. Don’t fall behind, Will!” Father calls down the steep slope.
Will is thinking along the lines of the leader of the second expedition, hoping that Father enjoys killing himself. The convergence of sentiment makes him wonder if people can read his thoughts up here. Seems like his skull has become more permeable to take in the air it doesn’t get from his lungs. He’s widening his intake, expanding his head, until anyone within fifty feet of him is part of his brain and thus included in his thoughts. Does that include family? Was that the kind of togetherness Father was talking about when he popped the lock on William’s room, clapped his hands together and said, “Guess what, son? We’re taking a family trip to Everest!”
“I want to kill you,” Mother tells Father.
(Yes, it does; it does include family.)
“Why this time?”
“You locked us in this cold room, and you didn’t even tell me to bring my sweater.”
“You don’t need a sweater, dear. You have thermal underwear. A down suit. Gore-tex. I’m surprised you’re not hot.”
“My skin is plasticized. Someone’s got the ceiling fan on. Turn it off, please. Look at all these stupid Lawrence Welk bubbles like we’re inside Grandma’s TV. So fake. I can barely hear Brian knocking.”
“Get a grip. We’ve still got thousands of feet to go.”
“I’ll get that,” Mother says. “I don’t want to be late to the prom. If you’ll just please for God’s sake unlock the door!”
Mother lets go of the rope and reaches behind her into the gray air.
“What the hell are you doing?”
She takes a step in the direction of nothingness and slides down the rope into Jennifer, who slides into William, who is pushed against a rock. It’s chaotic and slow. The ice chunks from their fall tumble down the face of the mountain into the gray-white air below. Jennifer totters backwards and flails her arms. Only the rope catches her. Father can feel its tug and holds tight to his ice axe, straining.
“I’m coming right down!” Father calls.
He backs slowly down the steep slope. The clouds thicken. There’s no bottom or top to the mountain now. They’re in the steep endless middle of the tallest part of the world. There’s enough wind to swirl the snow, more creepy than dangerous. And the sound carries well. They can hear each other’s breaths.
“My mind is blubbery!” Mother shouts.
“I want to go home!” yells Jennifer.
“My corsage—she’s crushed!” adds Mother.
William keeps his focus. It’s important to be alert. Aware. Alive to the limited possibilities the world offers.
“That was exciting, at least,” says Father. He swings his one Lucky Katana ice axe and jabs his crampons into the ice. “Give me your hand,” he says to mother.
“No fucking way, loser. I’ve got plans.”
“I know you do. We’re making the summit.”
“Not with you, I’m not. I like shy boys. Only shy ones.”
“Mom, please get the hell off me!” whines Jennifer. “You’re breaking my ankle! I want to go home!”
“Tough it out,” says Father.
“I’ve been toughing it out for eighteen years!” says Jennifer.
(They’re me, thinks William. They’re all a part of my brain. It’s going to complicate things.)
The Death Zone. “This is the Geneva Spur,” Father tells them when they climb the anvil rock.
“This is the Yellow Band,” he says later.
Still later: “At last we’re on the South Col.”
“No one cares,” Jennifer says. “No one cares as of a long time ago.”
“At least you’ve got your face covered so I can’t see your blackface make-up anymore,” says Father. “That’s something I think we can all care about.”
“You’re a racist.”
“No one’s a racist at 27,000 feet,” Father says. “Everything’s white!” He laughs. No one laughs with him.
I was just thinking that, William thinks. Which proves he’s in me. My father is in my head. And now the air has gone white. The little black pieces of falling fate have turned white. The wind is drilling them into us. Is this the opposite of fate? All the things we weren’t supposed to do, weren’t supposed to be, weren’t supposed to say, finally catching up to us before we reach the summit?
“This Hillary step here’s a doozie,” Father warns.
At last the summit is in sight. Or it would be if not for a white-out engulfing all the upper reaches of the world. They’re on the exposed ridge in hurricane winds. They can’t hear each other over the howl. They can’t feel their extremities. They don’t know if they’re climbing, flying, or sliding. There’s no one left to rescue them. When they left Camp 4 at midnight, the few other expeditions to make it that far took heed of the weather report and descended.
Mother is the first to leave. After an hour of sitting in the snow mumbling, she stands and steps out over the Kangshung Face. She soars through the infinite white to the City of Brians.
Later, Jennifer attempts to descend and freezes to death when she falls on the Hillary Step and breaks her leg. “Doozie” is the word she can’t get out of her head as the rest of her shuts down.
Now it’s just Father and William. They may be near the summit. They may be on the summit. They’ll never know.
Father is saying some things that are lost in the wind. William has his hands around the Lucky Katana ice axe, the one he stole from Father. The heated handle stopped heating last night. His grip is the only thing keeping him alive.
Father seems to be urging him along. His slow, creaky gestures mean, Almost there!
William has the urge to say things back to him, things he should have said a long time ago. Somewhere, he wants to say, we all became people we weren’t supposed to be. That’s what I mean by the opposite of fate. We made each other say things and do things we never should have said and done. We prodded each other to become who we weren’t. And we made each other into people we don’t like. Because that way we didn’t have to carry the burden of loving each other. It’s easier not to. Just as it’s always easier to be who you aren’t.
William says nothing. He has no breath left for words, even if his father could hear them. Instead, he lifts the Lucky Katana, which is pretty well frozen to his hands.
He holds it out for his father, who has turned to yell something else that will be lost in the wind.
Here, thinks William. You can have it. You can do what you want with it. When I went back and got it, I decided it was for me, not you. But now I’m done with it. Thank you for leading me up so high so I could fall back into myself. Thank you for keeping our family flag in your pants. Thank you for everything.
John Henry Fleming (PhD, University of Louisiana-Lafayette) is the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, Fearsome Creatures of Florida, an eco-conscious literary bestiary, The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially, and Songs for the Deaf, his recent story collection. His short stories have appeared in journals such as McSweeney’s, The North American Review,Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Kugelmass, Better: Culture and Lit, Atticus Review, and Carve.