Longs Peak

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Written by: poznati

The first thing I see after I collapse onto the scattered boulders is a knee covered in fuchsia climbing pants, a small hole in the place where the knee stops and the shin begins. I shift away from the knee and its moth-eaten hole, wanting to give the girl next to me more space. Wanting to make sure she doesn't see me cry.

My head is low to the ground, and my hair flies about whenever I swallow back another sob. I'd done it up this morning in the tight braid you said framed my face and made my eyes shine when I smiled. But I'm not smiling now and the wind cares nothing for intricate loops and my hands are covered in scratches that sting whenever I press my palms against the saltwater pooling in my eyes.

And you're not here.

The girl with the fuchsia knee asks me if I'm all right, and I start, pulling my hands away from my face. My fingers are slick with tears. She doesn't seem to mind that I don't answer, because she keeps talking, telling me the trail is easier than it looks. She says once I get past the keyhole, my adrenaline will kick in and, God, it's so beautiful up there, I'll regret it if I turn back now.

I realize she thinks I stopped climbing because I'm tired or scared, not because I'd looked at towering the cliff face, all grey and orange and black in the mid-morning sun, and thought I shouldn't have come here without you. That I didn't think my heart could feel more empty than it already does, like the space you left in my chest would grow and grow and grow until it devoured me whole.

The girl sticks out her hand, and I look up. I know she must see the redness around my eyes and the smudges of tear-soaked dirt on my skin, but all she does is inch her hand closer to me and say she'll help.

You'd like her, I think. Her brown eyes crinkle up in the corners like she smiles so often, her face never really settles. She's smiling now, a crooked grin that reveals teeth a bit too big for her mouth. It looks so much like your smile, my heart flips in my chest. I ask her what she means, and she tells me she's done this hike every year for the past four years and knows all its secrets. She says if anyone could help another person reach the summit, it would be her.

I'm not sure what compels me to take her hand. The promise I made with you all those years ago, maybe. Or the way her grin reminds me so much of yours. But I let her pull me to my feet, and she waits as I wipe the dirt off my legs and backpack.

She says she likes my hair.

I smile.

The climb gets no easier after we pass through the rocky keyhole. Instead, I'm met with steep cliff ledges that lead down to a series of jagged rocks. The stones under my feet are loose and worn, slick as polished marble. The girl tells me to stay high and to the left, where the path is less treacherous. When I thank her, she asks me why I've chosen to hike the tallest mountain in northern Colorado.

I pause, my fingers digging into an outcropping of rough stone. Around us, the wind picks up, and my loose hair tangles in my eyelashes. The air smells of dirt and distant rain. Then, I tell her I made a promise with my sister. I tell her we grew up watching movies about mountain climbing, and we pinky swore to travel to Denver and climb up Longs Peak together, no matter what.

I don't tell her why I've come alone. And why you're not here.

We don't talk much after that. The trail becomes more difficult, jagged rocks disappearing until there is nothing below us but darkness shrouded by low-hanging clouds. The longer I'm up here, and the more my eyes land on—mountains covered in evergreens, and the gradient sky, fading from navy to azure to white along the horizon—the faster my heart beats. It's no longer the slow crawl of too much sleep and too many days staring out the window, wondering how I'm supposed to live my life without you. But the ever-increasing pulse of fresh air in my lungs, solid ground beneath my feet, purpose in my blood.

We come to a vertical rock face, and though the girl tells me all we have to do is climb a bit more to reach the summit, I stop. My legs throb and I'm dizzy from the high altitude, my mouth dry despite the gulp of water I drank a few minutes ago.

I can't do this. I can't do this. I can't do this.

There is a pull on my jacket, and I look over to see the girl, smiling with her hand stretched out.

Together, she says.

I nod and suck in a lungful of air.

And together, we take the final trek to the mountain summit.

The air is clean up here, sweet and crisp on my tongue. I look over at the girl, and she looks over at me, a laugh bursting from her lips.

Our hands are still clasped together. Neither of us lets go.

She asks me how I feel, and I tip my head to the sky, squinting against the glaring sun. I thought I'd never be this close to you again, but now, it's like I could reach up and wrap my pinkie around yours, to tell you that I kept our promise. To tell you that I made it.

I lower my head, looking around at the mountain peaks trailing before me far as the eye can see.

And then, I open my mouth and say, "I feel alive." 

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