Hiking With Angels
by Charles C. Cole
Three days in. We four former college roommates were engaged in a misguided, rigorous fifteen-year reunion event by hiking a steep, barren mountain trail. The others had prepared, had built themselves up at their respective gyms. Out of a combination of pride and rebelliousness, I had refused, which was my first mistake. Now I was falling behind and, worse, I was being unpleasant about it. I had nobody to blame but myself.
Tully, the nicest guy I’d ever met, a momma’s boy in the best way, had tried to encourage me, to keep me company, to keep my attitude light, but instead I had successfully and inadvertently brought him down to my level. It was the first time I’d ever heard him raise his voice or swear. At that point, we both knew it was best that he keep up with the others, even if it meant I would be alone for several hours, often out of sight.
I was short of breath, with no place other than the ground to sit, which at the time seemed a long way down, my eyes stinging from sweat, my “WHS Grad” T-shirt sodden with the remnants of my last potable water, which I had poured over my head in an unwitnessed grand gesture of futile desperation, and the sun closer than ever, with not a single substantial cloud to lessen the blow. With my sunglasses a mile down the trail and some two hundred feet below me, having fallen over a cliff, I pulled my baseball cap down low over my eyes and stumbled in slow motion.
Every action is a choice. My best friends in the world abandoned me because I didn’t want to debate sports trivia or compare the manufactured beauty of celebrity women while carefully concentrating on each uneven step and being mindful of the very real steep drop just twenty feet to my immediate left.
I had recorded a mantra on my phone, and I played it on endless rewind: “Hey, you can do this. What’s a few more miles? You’re the first in your family to graduate from college. What goes up must eventually come down, am I right? Think of the bragging rights. Hang in there.”
That night, after I had finally caught up to the rest of the guys, because there were few better options, I lay in my little tent contemplating destiny and Darwin and gravity. I used my phone as a flashlight and I wandered off for a private function. I turned off the light to do my business.
There was no moon, no context. We could have been camping in someone’s backyard instead of at the edge of the world, except for the deafening silence. Then I had an inspirational idea, a dark joke to get back at the guys for leaving me behind.
At sunset, I had seen a small but solid ledge, or shelf, just six feet down from the top of this imposing cliff with an intimidating drop. I pushed myself forward. What I couldn’t see couldn’t hurt me. I found my ambush. I climbed down. I expected the wind to whip at me, to pull me down, but even nature was asleep. I held myself tight against the rockface and tried not to think of poisonous snakes hiding in crevices. That’s when Tully whispered my name and forced my hand.
“Arvis? You okay out there? Where are you?”
I didn’t want to answer. I wanted to decompress from the afternoon’s struggle. But I knew Tully would wake the others if I didn’t respond.
“Here,” I called.
“Follow the sound of my voice.”
“Careful near the edge,” he warned. “It’s closer than you think. Where are you?”
Closer: “Where here?” Even closer: “You play dangerous games, my friend.” And then, I can only guess, he stepped off. He didn’t scream. His clothes made a muffled flutter sound as he went over me, like a new bird struggling to fly before it’s ready. I saw nothing.
“Tully?” Nothing. “Tully!” I couldn’t take the moment back. He was gone. Even nice boys drop like stones without their angel wings.
That’s when Pietr wandered over. “What are you guys doing?” Pietr was a jock from money. He worked for his father’s firm. He’d had his future handed to him on a silver platter. I sometimes thought he hung out with us in payment for all the papers of his I’d written, to keep me silent.
I didn’t want to answer. I needed time to digest what had just happened. A cold chill went along my spine. My life had just taken an unexpected downward turn.
“Tully! Arvis! What the hell!”
“Here,” I offered.
“Arvis? Come back to the tents. Is Tully with you?”
“I haven’t seen him,” I said.
“What are you doing?”
“I thought I heard something. It might have been Tully.”
“Where are you? I didn’t bring my damn flashlight.”
“Keep coming. You’re almost there.”
“How much further?”
“I’m right in front of you.”
Then the flutter. Another bird that couldn’t fly. He screamed my name. He sounded more angry than scared, I’ll give him that.
Wilson was next. I liked Wilson, but I was committed. College was not his first choice, but his dad had wanted him to be a Marine, and he would have taken almost anything else. Marines are tough and cool and dedicated, none of which described shaggy counter-cultural Wilson, and he knew it.
“Arvis?” He sounded almost on top of my position. “You guys okay? I thought I heard a scream.”
“Here.” And that was all it took. He, too, joined the others. I hoped they fell near one another; that would be a consolation. I listened for crying or moaning but heard nothing.
I went back to my tent and climbed into my sleeping bag. I was so tired, sore. It was hard to keep my eyes open. I thought about sleeping late, not rushing everything ahead of me. It had been a long day.
Copyright © 2019 by Charles C. Cole