I steal a sea kayak from the top of a camper van and paddle out into the swell, following the stars. Somewhere over the horizon is the other side, or maybe there isn’t. It really doesn’t matter. This trip ended before I started it; I had no choice in the matter.
The crashing surf eventually becomes a murmur that I can’t hear over the screaming of my arms. Am I far enough out yet? Probably not. I’m not sure how much further I have to go to catch the current.
I sob. This end? Have I chosen this end? Or has it chosen me? The stars twinkle through my tears and I rest my arms for a measure. Somewhere down there is the bottom. How far I don’t know. Just like the other side, it doesn’t matter.
I must try, so I paddle against the endless sinusoidals that carry me up and then away from the inky expanses. Up and away, up and away.
I stand, balancing precariously in the cockpit and fling the oar away in anger. I just don’t care any more. I just don’t care. I sit. I wait, and then eventually I sleep.
I dream of Niagra Falls, roaring and rumbling and spraying like angry concrete. I’m jolted awake as I wash up on some rocks. The hull scrapes with a hollow, plastic-y sound. The wind flings surf in my face, taunting me. This was not to be, tonight.
I feel it before I can hear it.
Almost eight million pounds of thrust start to lift me and one hundred thousand pounds of gear out of the well. One thousand and five seconds later, I’m on my way and unbuckle to take my first good look out the porthole.
Tiny pinpricks of light set in velvet float out there. Billions and billions of them. I settle in. It’s going to be a very long trip.
There’s that sharp buzzing noise again.
I want to sit down. I ask myself again why I’m doing this, and there’s no good answer, none at all. In fact, I know it’s crazy. I take another breath and take another step up, making sure to set my crampon firmly into the wind-scuplted, icy snow.
“Go down,” my brain whispers to me, “go down. This is insanity.” I rest by taking two labored breaths, and then step my other foot up. I look up. I’m almost there. Fifteen, maybe twenty feet to go.
“You’re done. Who’s gonna know if you don’t make it to the top? Go down.”
A sudden gust of wind flips a swirling mass of crystals that scratch noisily over my mask. I take an extra breath. I’m almost there. Almost done. I hear a gentle chime, then another. I can’t remember what it’s for. I do remember there’s a way to find out, but I struggle trying to locate it in my head.
All it tells me is, “See? You can’t remember what that’s for. Go down.”
The buzz goes off again.
It’s time to set my ice ax again. I pick it up and punch it down and up in front of me. I see the cuff notes. They’re covered in snow. I dimly remember they’re for something. I take another step up and rest.
I brush the snow off the notes. I stare at the writing longer than I should. I see the letters, the words, but they don’t mean anything to me. I see a clock below them and watch the numbers glide by. I’m not sure if they’re counting up or down.
I take another step up.
“Go down. Really. This is crazy. You’re tired. Think how nice it will be in the tent, where you can rest. Sleep, even. Maybe you should stop here and take a nap?”
A nap sounds nice. Just a quick one, five minutes maybe. I sag into the mountain. It feels good to let the Earth embrace me. Why have I been fighting it for so long?
I can see the notes from here on my outstretched arm. I wonder if they mean something? Maybe I should figure them out before my nap?
“Sleep. You’re tired. Rest. Rest.”
I stare at the notes. I think of the Apollo astronauts, and remember that their wrist notes were procedures and other things they needed to remember. I try and read them again.
The buzz goes again. It breaks my concentration.
I look hard at the words: “2 chimes: 15 minutes to turnaround”
I don’t know what they mean.
Unbidden, I see the face of the man frozen into the snow below me on the Notch. He was tired. He sat down. He never got up.
I look down and see the gauge. It’s covered in ice. I bang it off. In a few seconds I realize the clock is counting down. There’s less than ten minutes left.
I look at my wrist and see: “1 loud buzz: DANGER – low O2 flow – DANGER”
I struggle up.
Not here. Not today. Not this way.
“Shit beer. Shit beer. Decent beer. Decent beer. Ah, good beer!” I pause before the glass door and peer in.
“Where are you?” I mutter under my breath. I spy the ale I’m seeking. “Aha!” this time a little bit louder. I look around guiltily, wondering if anyone heard me, but there’s no one else back by the cooler.
It’s near the bottom. I pull the door open and bend down. As I’m reaching for it, I hear a commotion that sounds like it’s coming from the front of the store when suddenly the door next to me shatters into a spiderweb a split second before I hear the shot.
There’s shouting up front.
“Give me the money, motherfucker! Give me the money or I’ll blow your motherfucking head off!”
Before I have the time to be even more scared, another shot rings out, and a fluorescent light fixture to my right goes dark, raining glass and plastic onto the scuffed linoleum.
Without thinking, I dive into the walk-in cooler, scattering bottles in front of me across the floor. I gain purchase with a foot in my wiggling terror against the rack’s frame, and launch myself in and bang my head on a stack of cased, canned beer on the opposite wall.
I hear the door slam behind me and then a second later, another report. A stack to my left starts to spray beer. I wonder if I can hide behind some cases but then quickly realize the futility of it.
I scramble back into the corner and on the way arm myself with a bottle in each hand and crouch down. My heart is pounding and I’m trembling like crazy. I wonder if I’ll even be able to throw a bottle if needed.
I wait. The compressor fans right above my head kick into overdrive, blowing a chill wind and filling me with white noise.
I wait some more. There is no sound other than the fans. I start to shiver from the cold. I wait. I don’t know how long. Forever, maybe.
I hear shouting and then more shots. Maybe three. Then it goes quiet.
I see a shadow on the wall at the other end of the cooler, near the entrance. I grip the beer bottles more tightly and hold my breath.
The shadow opens the door and shouts, “Police! If there’s anyone back here, identify yourself and come out with your hands up!”
“I’m here! I’m here!” I cry.