Take Five

Next Up

There wasn’t a day when it didn’t happen. Dirty socks, yesterday’s clothes in a lump next to another lump from the day before like cow turds in a pasture. The walls felt like they were closing in, the heavy moist air overworked the lungs and the anxiety festered like an inner ear itch. Breathing deeply, gritting teeth, trying to suppress it; they’re only clothes after all.

Desperately trying to shake the mood he snuck out of bed and flossed his teeth in the white glow of the fluorescent bathroom.

Although she wasn’t perfect, Maddie was the girl of his dreams. She worked two jobs, painted, wrote and sang beautiful songs. She was amazing, the maple syrup to his pancakes, the yin to his yang, the love of his life.

But she was a mess…lost keys, lost phones, possessions and clothing littered throughout every room as if a bomb had gone off in the apartments center. It didn’t bother her, she preferred things be this way.

It was a constant battle keeping the space in his image. Organized, efficient, calming; but the chaos would always return. The clothing bomb exploding in between frantic productions and the hectic demands of two crazy bosses in jobs that paid her too much to leave. She was impervious to the stress while he absorbed it. Every item lost was money gone. Money gone was a step backwards. One less thing they could buy to make life a little better. Every minute picking up her stuff precious time wasted. Each piece of clutter provoking the gnawing claustrophobia. It drove him nuts.

It was a common fight but today that road wouldn’t be traveled. He would swallow it. There was eighteen inches of dry fluffy overnight snow waiting in the mountains. It was going to be a good day…no matter what. The pressure of the brush increased and squeaked across the slimy teeth until they were smooth.

He slipped back into bed and the weight brought her rolling into his arms. She kissed him and smiled innocently in the morning light; she was so beautiful. The frustrated vibrations receded like cockroaches scampering away from sunrays. It was going to be a good day. They kissed again. His fingers gently caressed her face, the warmth of her body covering him like an electric blanket.

“Let’s just stay in today, I’m tired,” she said squeezing her thighs tightly around him.

He smiled and delicately moved a strand of hair from her face. “Eighteen inches babe, winter doesn’t last forever.”

“Yeah but last week we got a foot, and the week before it was blue bird. There’s always a reason and it always lands on my days off. I’m tired,” smiling she rolled around in the sheets playfully. “We could just stay in and you could play with me all day long.”

“C’mon baby,” he smiled. “We can play when we get home later. It’s not every day that we get a foot and a half of fresh.”

She huffed and jettisoned from the sheets furiously searching piles of clothes for her gear. “Fine let’s just go…God forbid you choose me over snowboarding.”

“Are you mad?”

“You’re a jerk Scott, don’t talk to me…I need my space.” She continued searching, throwing things about the room. The mess grew, the anxiety returned, teeth grinding, frustration building.

He rose from bed and located the gloves, goggles, snow pants, and jacket she had pulled apart the room for. He threw them down in a heap in front of her.

“What the Hell is wrong with you Maddie!? You don’t think I work hard too!? You don’t think that I want to enjoy my day and use a pass I paid over a thousand bucks for!? You don’t think that I get sick of picking up your stuff all the time!?”

Her bottom lip trembled and she raced to the bathroom and locked the door. “I’m not going, you can go by yourself.”

The day was slipping away from him; there was no more suppressing the anger. The words spilled out of him like an avalanche. “Sometimes I just hate you. You really know how to spoil a wonderful day before it even begins.” He got prepared in silence and slammed the door on his way out into the white wonderland.

~~~~~~~~~~

It was an extremely lucky thing that Bryan was standing in the lift line with light fluffy flakes coating his body like powdered sugar. Today was a day for backcountry riding and it wasn’t Scott’s forte. He was mostly a park guy and subscribed to the culture of throwing tricks and being a part of the cool crowd. It felt good to lap the park while everyone watched and applauded. Nobody won medals in the trees; there was no audience off the beaten path. Scott reserved backcountry for days when the powder made terrain parks too slow for a productive session.

Bryan was a completely different animal. He looked more like a motocross racer than a snowboarder. His full faced helmet and body armor signified dedication to the steep and deep sections of the mountain. The gnarliest backcountry lines had been mapped out by his turns for nearly a decade.

Bryan laughed as Scott approached with board dragging in the weightless powder. “My favorite skittle thug, what brings you out on an epic day such as this?” he chided. Scott’s bright blue and green clothing reminded Bryan of tropical skittles, and the baggy urban style of freestyle riders was reminiscent of hip-hop culture. He referred to most park riders as “skittle thugs.”

Bryan wasn’t a fan of most “skittle thugs” but one day he’d made a mistake while riding alone. He boarded into a tree and knocked himself out. Scott had found him unconscious and buried in a tree well in an out of bounds area that wasn’t patrolled. Ridden with frostbite and barely clinging to life rescuers revived him in the nick of time. Scott saved Bryan’s life, and from that day on they ignored differences and enjoyed the mountain together whenever the opportunity presented itself. Bryan showed the backcountry secrets he’d cultivated for years and Scott revealed tips for freestyle moves on hand rails and jumps. Regardless of the philosophical differences they always had a lot of fun snowboarding together.

“I’m here to shred pow with you my brotha.”

“Perfect, I need a buddy to go out of bounds with.” They slapped hands and dapped fists in the custom snowboarder greeting.

Scott strapped in his front foot and they skated to the lift. The chair carried them upwards and the frigid mountain air rushed through them in a refreshing blast. The fresh blankets of snow glimmered in the sunlight like an endless cascade of diamonds. The previous night’s storm had done its job and then some; the mountain covered in soft fluffy pillows.

Bryan eyed him intentionally and cracked a wry smile. “You seem tense today hombre, what’s with the bad vibes?”

Scott shook his head and told the story. When it was over Brian laughed out loud.

“What would you have done?

“I would’ve cuddled her good and then made coffee. Your girl wasn’t going to keep you in all day; she just wanted to feel special. Give them what they want and usually they return the favor.”

Scott ran his fingers through his hair “I really screwed up this time.”

“You just lost your cool. Happens to everybody. You just gotta remember when you start seeing red that you catch more flies with sugar. Your girl loves you…don’t worry she’ll get over it.” Brian paused in contemplation. He looked Scott over in his bright flashy gear, the hipster stickers on the board, the headphones over the beanie instead of a helmet. The only reason the kid even had a transceiver and probe was because he refused to take him to a legendary line on an amazing powder day. After that Scott ponied up the cash for an avalanche safety kit and Bryan showed him how to use it.

“You got your transceiver today thug life?”

“Yes Obi-Wan.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Scott’s lungs heaved as he trekked towards Brian’s silhouette on the ridge. There were at least a few football field lengths to go in the hike. Earning turns was especially hard in the deep snow and thin air. He always questioned whether the hike was worth it but the view at the top of the chute always erased those doubts. On a day like today it was going to be unforgettable.

Brian was smiling from ear to ear in wait. His helmet was strapped to the avalung backpack, beads of sweat coiled in his wind tossed hair. Hiking at that elevation required a lot of energy and made the body hot even in freezing temperatures. Scott’s heavy winter coat was unzipped flapping gently in the breeze.

Everything around them was beautiful, a playground submerged in forgiving soft blankets. The breathtaking spectacle of the mountain drove a gnagging regret into Scott’s stomach. Maddie should’ve been with them enjoying life in the astounding powder. It was his fault she wasn’t.

“Don’t look so glum kid.”

“Sorry man can’t stop thinking about it.”

Brian shook his head and laughed. “It’s so hard to be liberated sometimes, I feel for you buddy.”

“Liberated?”

“Yeah liberated. It’s crazy to me that the stresses of life always find a way to distract and remove our minds from what’s happening to us right now. Stress about money, stress about jobs, girlfriends, family, kids. The apparitions of tomorrow and yesterday making themselves known to remove you from the one thing you can never get back; the moment that you’re living right here right now. The regrets from the past and the anxieties of the future constrain us from the now. But if we can somehow rise above it all and submerge ourselves fully into an experience liberation becomes real and the feeling is unforgettable. Don’t address your mistake this morning by making the same mistake twice. Life is too short for that kinda stuff.” He placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder and continued to ascend the ridge.

With head down to keep feet in line with the tracks, Scott decided it was a good thing that Brian was riding with him. The guy seemed to have his life together. They should ride together more often. Maybe the park was taking up a little too much time. Maybe he was a little close-minded, strung out on a kool aid he didn’t even bother to fight. A deep breath and suddenly the sun shone a little brighter, the air more crisp, the steps less of a struggle.

They finished out the hike in determined silence. The top of the chute was a true spectacle. Jagged white mountain peaks littered the horizon in a tremendous display of nature’s grand vastness. The chute concaved inward between mountain spines. Cliff drops of varying heights were arrayed in a confusing randomness throughout the steep slope. This was no place for the faint of heart.

Scott laughed triumphantly. The energy of being at the top of the world was inescapable. This was his favorite view and it always made him feel invincible like when he was a kid; when it seemed like nothing bad could ever happen.

There were only two ski tracks breaking up the snow in the chute and Brian was apprehensive. He smiled sheepishly and gave Scott a solid fist bump. “Tread lightly, things may be a bit looser than I thought,” Scott’s grin tightened and he nodded in understanding. “I’m gonna take the line first and break it up some more...” ‘click, click, click’ Brian strapped his feet in.

“Stay in the moment kid… and I promise you that it will be one of the best you’ll ever have,” he grinned and dropped into the chute. Waves of snow sprayed from his edges as he careened back and forth calmly and smoothly like the graceful strokes of a Zen samurai’s calligraphy. Then suddenly he leapt into the air, grabbing his board as he spun over a tiny cliff. Upon landing he spotted the biggest drop in the middle of the chute. He approached aggressively and then pulled on the brakes a little before sending it over the edge. A few seconds after he plummeted from view, Scott saw Brian’s tiny black form emerge and come to a halt at the tree line below. It was an epic descent that was executed perfectly. Brian’s expert turns formed the pattern of an erratic series of s shapes. There were several gaps in between where he left the ground…the final piece of the track ended at the cliff.

Scott was awestruck by the run; he sat there and surveyed the tracks over and over. Finally the line he wanted came to him…’click, ‘click, ‘click. The intense reality of the mountain left no space in his mind; nothing existed except for right now. Even amidst the adrenaline and fear there was stillness, a calm within the chaos.

~~~~~~~~~~

Brian’s body hummed with inspired vibrations as he struggled to catch his breath. His heart beat like a jackhammer pounding concrete. What a ride! Even the thirty-footer felt soft. The snow had held together pretty nice too. The chute would be good for a couple more laps.

Everything was vivid, mind full. The descent was “the now” in it’s purest form of experience. Every sensation felt with greater magnitude, each moment carrying a deeper significance. There was nothing left to do except smile. No drug could match this feeling.

He stared intently upward at Scott’s antlike form on the peak. It was always fun to watch anyone ride the chute. The terrain was legendary, and today the snow was perfect.

The tiny dot began to move downward in swift arcs and it was clear that Scott picked a good line. Snow sprayed and Brian saw him launch off of a twenty footer and land cleanly keeping the momentum and fluidity of the run at pace. He was cruising and slashing turns, navigating the steep mountain pitch like a veteran. The kid was feeling the flow and it showed with each movement.

In the middle of the pitch Scott veered hard left on a heel-side edge and sprayed snow over an embankment, then cut hard right on a sharp toe edge in approach for another twenty-foot cliff. While leaning back and running fingers over the fluff a large shelf on the bank gave way. Brian watched intensely as the tumbling wall of snow chased Scott towards the cliff. There was nowhere to run. Just before reaching the edge of the drop the kid was swallowed by white. In a powerful torrential stream the cascading snow buried the lower chute and tore into the tree line with devastation just to Bryan’s left. Even as the ground shook and trees snapped around him Bryan kept his eye to Scott’s trajectory and tried to imagine where it may have taken him.

~~~~~~~~~~

For a moment everything felt warm…really warm. Like the sun was shining from all directions equally. As Scott’s eyelids fluttered open the pain set in. Head was pounding; a sharp agonizing feeling from the left leg and lower back took his breath away. He feebly attempted to struggle against the snow but it may as well have been stone. There was nothing he could possibly do to move. He was encased in ice just as Han Solo had been sealed in carbonite. Scott’s legs became restless and the pressure of the snow against his body drove a deep fear into the nerves that shivered through the skin. There was nothing he wanted to do more than stretch his limbs and breathe the open air. It wasn’t going to happen; Scott was trapped.

He whimpered like a wounded dog and the breathing grew frantic. He could see the hot air slowly dissipate into melting ice crystals as the carbon dioxide rose. There was a soft crackling as the snow set in and the small crystals melted away. It was like a maddening symphony of microscopic pieces of glass shattering endlessly.

But the breath was rising and from Brian’s impromptu avalanche safety lessons Scott knew that this meant he’d been buried right side up. This would be good for blood circulation, and if he could struggle past the grip of the dense snow there was a chance of digging out.

Scott tried to focus on the positives and fought the growing restlessness of the smothering pressure. Breathing had to be slowed; suffocating was the biggest threat. He grasped for control of his mind against the actualization of his worst fears. To help drive it away Scott took solace in wiggling his fingers and toes. This helped him become mindful of how his body had been mangled into its current position. He had been tossed like Gumby tumbling down every stair from the top of the empire state building. This was probably why the back and left leg felt useless with numbing pain. But the whirlwind blender of the avalanche had also created an unlikely miracle. Scott could feel that his elbow was twisted awkwardly upward and his hand was in front of his mouth. He used his fingers and wrist to dig a tiny pocket of air in the dense snow in front of his face. Without somewhere for the exhaled carbon dioxide to go Scott would’ve suffocated in minutes. Now he’d have at least half an hour if he could somehow remain calm.

‘Breathe, just breathe. Nice and easy now.’ Breathing gradually slowed but the anxiety continued to shiver through every nerve. It all started to feel like a bad dream and then suddenly something told him it wasn’t real. This was just a fictitious nightmare. The cold setting in from the skin diving through to his bones was all too theatrical; the pounding of the head all too familiar. This was a simulation, or probably some type of weird test or something. Pretty soon he’d wake up in a warm bed and reflect on the things the dream taught him. Maybe it was to show him something important that would make life better. All the “in the now” spiritual stuff, the lesson of managing Maddie’s feelings better. Death stuff was always what they used in movies to relate inspirational life changing messages. His brain was probably replicating it.

Even for a dream the pain continued to prove itself quite intense. The cold drumming aches and contorted pressure was a new kind of agony. Scott closed his eyes and tried to imagine something different. Caribbean beaches, puppies wearing sweaters, a wide open field of prairie flowers, Maddie’s naked body covered in oil…maybe he could change it and control the dream. But when his eyes opened the compact snow was still there trapping him in a chilling vice grip. Perhaps his brain was going to make him struggle through it until the golden secret was found. Maybe it was a good thing.

As the time passed slowly in eerie silence Scott’s mind grew busier. Thoughts invaded him all at once and collided together like a hive of bees at war with itself. As he wheezed a breath the cold air passing through his nose delivered no smell, only a wet and dank chill that began to sting the rapidly drying skin. The assumption of a dream was fading with each doubtful thought. But it had to be; he wasn’t supposed to die today…This couldn’t be happening to him.

The constant chill was becoming all too real. Scott’s gloves and most of his gear were becoming damp as his body heat continued to melt away the tiny ice crystals. The moisture helped the cold seep in and then the numbness started to invade the fingertips, then the hands, then random parts on his body. The anxiety rising, nerves tightening, it started to feel too vivid to be a dream. Maybe it wasn’t? Maybe he’d really done something stupid and gotten himself trapped in an avalanche.

Spurred on by the endless stream of questions and nagging restlessness Scott tried to struggle against the walls of snow again…this time something gave way in his back and the sharp pain returned with a vengeance.

He let out a muffled moan and tears welled. The pain made the world spin and Scott felt like he was floating. As vision started to fade to black he desperately fought against the temptations of a comfortable rest. That was when Scott knew it was real. There was no more hiding from it. If he passed out now he would die.

The pain started to recede but was only lulled. It continued to burn with a deformed agony. How could he have been so stupid!? Why did he choose to hike the chute for a first run!? Why would Brian even take him there in the first place!?

Scott’s mind drifted to the day he could’ve bought an airbag system for his backpack but didn’t pull the trigger because it cost too much money. It could’ve kept him floating on top of the walls of snow during the avalanche; he might have walked away in the open air. A lot of good that money was going to do him now, the anger started to consume him and suddenly Scott was mad at everything and everyone.

There were so many things that could’ve prevented it. If Maddie had come he wouldn’t have been out in the backcountry on the first run of the morning. If she hadn’t been such a jerk there wouldn’t have been an avalanche and they’d be out snowboarding around the resort in three feet of powder having the time of their lives. Brian’s chute would be forgotten and they’d be cruising the inbounds trees. What the heck was her problem anyway? Why was that so hard to do?

And the MONEY!!! It was bullspit! That was what drove him to say he hated her!? That was what prevented him from buying the equipment needed to save his own life!!?? And then some zen idiot comes riding in with the whole ‘mightier then thou’ spiritual stuff and brings an avalanche down on the whole thing! For heck’s sake he saved the guy’s life, didn’t God owe him some karma! Was there no justice in this sick world!?

Scott started to think back to the boring Sunday school classes. The pretentious smiles of the crazy Jesus freaks. The rage he felt watching his mother place a neatly folded five dollar bill into the collection bin each week when she claimed that a Nintendo simply wasn’t affordable on their budget. If God wasn’t the biggest lie in the Universe he was one of the best grifters the world would ever see. People giving hard fought offerings to an invisible guy with a white beard that didn’t grant any wishes. “God works in mysterious ways” is what his mother would argue.

Scott didn’t take to religion well as a kid but his parents thought a good Christian upbringing was important for morals and character development. The stories didn’t make much sense and the way they made him sing and act happy seemed forced and awkward. When told to pray as a young child Scott would bow his head and keep one eye open to find out if anyone else found it a waste of time to try and talk to a God that never seemed to talk back. There was one man; Mr. Jennings a good-looking middle aged farmer that never bowed his head and looked sternly forward as if defiant during service prayer. Scott liked Mr. Jennings and started to follow suit, rather than disguising that he was praying; a stern look forward was the new move. It made Scott feel as though he had power over the situation, like he could somehow rise above it all and be the better for it.

It was clear that God had failed to protect him when he needed it. THIS was HIS fault!! He’d been a good enough person; he never did anything to hurt anyone. He wasn’t deserving of punishment! After saving another man’s life how could that same man lead him to an agonizing and lonely death!? God was a sadistic diety. He was probably sitting on soft white clouds being fed grapes while laughing at the cruel irony. What a joke. Everything about life seemed to be hopeful yet meaningless, like pieces of cheese lurking in the depths of inescapable mousetrap dungeons.

The hatred brought forth sick thoughts of famine and slavery, forced prostitution and genocide…the entirety of human misery swirled in the dark blues of the ice coffin. The world itself had become hate, and then the hallucinations started to take hold.

The wavy patterns in the snow started moving…slowly at first. Then the entirety of their shape transformed into spirits that grew eyes, then hands, then mouths. They surrounded him and seemed to smile with greater satisfaction as his anger and discontent bubbled into an inescapable rage.

WHY WAS THIS HAPPENING!? Why did he deserve it!? Why were there fucking spirits laughing at him!!! The more “whys” he asked the hotter the anger burned. The larger the spirits became. It felt as though he were being devoured by a black hole of miserable evil. This was going to be his final resting place. It could’ve happened to anyone but it was happening to him.

In that moment of insanity Scott felt like a forsaken child of God…like Lucipher himself. Left to die in a pit of despair what else could be imagined other than thoughts of vengeance and retribution. How could injustice not make one fall to hate? Scott wouldn’t wish this on his worst enemy, how could God administer such torture on his most beloved children!? How could there be no other solution!?

Afraid of losing too much oxygen Scott held in the resounding whimpers. He didn’t want to die. The anger was becoming his enemy. It was taking all of his energy and if he passed out it would likely be the last conscious moment of his life. There was nothing he wouldn’t give to go back in time a few hours…to be able to stretch his limbs and breathe in bountiful gasps of fresh mountain air. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to be freed from this cage…to be saved. But when he opened his eyes again the spirits were still there swirling in the snow, mocking him with their freedom of movement.

There was nothing he could do. Scott was powerless and that was what helped drive the anger deep. The fangs of the spirits grew sharper and they began converging as if they’d start eating him alive at any moment. In a way the hatred made him want a violent death…the discontent made Scott yearn to be eaten alive. The frigidness cultivated a strange desire to feel the waves of warmth from his own spewing blood.

The dreams of gory violence again faded to the deepening chill and the spirits disappeared just as quickly as they had come. Scott realized the pace of breath had quickened and he tried counting to help slow it down.

Such intense negativity wasn’t improving the situation. There had to be something else to distract his mind, even while trapped there must be something that could help. And then as if it were a divine gift, the epiphany of his mother’s favorite quotation from Pastor Luke invaded his thoughts: “When all is lost, when it seems that nothing can be done, prayer will heal your soul.” Trapped beneath thousands of pounds of snow Scott could not fight it any longer. The only thing left to do was pray. There were no other options, and if God were trying to punish him; now would be the perfect time to seek forgiveness. If God didn’t really exist then he was going to die anyway. Scott decided there was nothing to lose and closed his eyes in the solemn silence of the ice prison.

As he started the prayer there was a strange feeling of relief in letting go of all the pride he’d felt helped him rise above the religious bullshit through the years. The satisfaction of giving in quickly turned to guilt. Scott looked down on people that prayed and now he was seeking the refuge of prayer during the most desperate time of his life. He was either pathetic or a really big asshole…or worse yet he was both. He felt like he’d been a malicious person on the negative side of the divide. Like a smug, pretentious and close-minded Grinch trying to drag the happy little ginger bread people into a putrid poop house.

All of the unsavory and negative actions of his life began to resurface with alarming clarity. All of the parts of himself that he refused to examine were suddenly on full display. Like the time when he was ten and stole twenty dollars from Grandma, lying about being sick to get out of going to his little cousin Susie’s recital, making Christian kids feel bad about their faith by picking on them, cheating on his first girlfriend with her best friend. There was no hiding from the selfish ugliness anymore. In the bottom of the freezing pit there was only truth.

After beating himself up for all of the transgressions it became clear that everything Scott had been doing with his life carried with it no real value. If he were to die today, what would be the legacy left? Had he truly done anything that would carry over into the time after his passing?

Somehow, somewhere along the line Scott now knew that the values in life had been distorted. Money, success, fame, these were all lies when it came to happiness. Lying trapped beneath hundreds of pounds of snow brought the reality to light. The moments that had brought true happiness boiled down to love. Being with loved ones, doing what he loved, making love; working in the service of others. Scott remembered the warmth of family dinners, the rewarding feelings of volunteering to coach youth football, long hikes in the woods with Maddie

These thoughts made Scott truly happy even while being tortured by the cold and agonizing pain. Within his self serving existence there was still precious hope cultivated by love. Perhaps this was the lesson God wanted to reveal.

The beautiful thoughts of hope continued to battle with the guilt until Scott’s mind turned back to the argument with Maddie. The last thing he’d said was that he hated her. It may be the last words they’d ever share. The thought of it made Scott want to vomit. The shame made the snow heavier and the bitter remorse tantalized the stinging pain in his back. He was responsible for more than just himself. Not once had he stopped to think about how much grief he’d leave for his mother and father, for Maddie. He had to survive this; letting them down wasn’t an option.

“Please God, I know I’ve been a jerk…I can see that now. I will change every fiber of my being to fit with your plan if you just let me live. You have shown me what’s important. I won’t let them down…I promise. Amen.”

It wasn’t much of a plea but the words were the most sincere Scott had ever spoken. There was so much more to life that he’d been ignoring, there were so many reasons why he was unhappy and they were all things about him. It could all change. He could make Maddie happy. He could stop worrying about money, quit his job; do something he’d always wanted. Find better work that would allow him to make a difference. He could get a job at a kid’s charity or recycling plant or something. It was all so simple; it already seemed real.

There was so much regret; now there might never be a chance to make it right, to make it worth something. He was going to die and be forgotten because the life of Scott Herer meant nothing to the rest of the world. He was just another indifferent spirit floating towards oblivion with the rest of the herd. The largest void of regret came from the precious time wasted. There was so much he could’ve done with it, and yet he’d truly accomplished nothing.

If he survived, Scott decided that there would be no more video games, no television, no vain concerns for fashion or appearance, and no masturbation. Life was serious…It could end any moment. Scott didn’t want to feel the relentless pangs of self-reproach ever again. He would use his time for more important endeavors, for creativity, for kindness, for relationships. How it had taken the presence of death to reveal what life really was; was the most confusing part. Why couldn’t he figure it out before getting buried by an avalanche? Why were the destructive and useless tools of complacency and numbness so hard to let go of?

Many theories and explanations chattered through his brain as the time wore wearily onward. The energy it took to fight off the cold and exhaustion was fading quickly. When the calm softness of sleep drew the eyelids lower Scott would begin another prayer. At first he only prayed for his own survival, but eventually he realized that he truly wanted to live in order to spare the loss for his loved ones. After all dying now would be as easy as drifting to sleep. The agony felt started to make death seem like the easy way out. Scott had to get out of his own mind. He started to focus his energy on the most important people in his life, and then he made prayers for them. It wasn’t long before Scott ran out of people to pray for so he started to pray for strangers too. By the time he finished his last prayer for world peace was about the same time he realized that help wasn’t going to get there soon enough. There was no getting out of this one.

The thought of it drove intense fears into the depths of his heart. Death would also mean the death of those connections. He would be removed from the people he loved the most. There was no going back, there was no changing the horrible decisions he’d made, there would be no second chance. The aching sorrow writhed not only for the death to come, but also for the life that simply wasn’t lived. Scott’s mind tormented itself for the failures committed. Nothing mattered now; none of it was going to make any difference. All that remained was utter disbelief for the decisions he’d made so lightly as if there were no consequence. As if choosing to work as a clerk at a law firm would somehow magically dissipate into a career as a freestyle snowboarding coach, or that choosing to work like dogs as he and Maddie had done would somehow produce enough money to buy never-ending happiness! Scott realized that picking up Maddie’s clothes was trivial in comparison to the years he’d wasted reading documents and filing papers. His entire life had been menial repetition. How much time had they wasted together in the pursuit of a false ideal? Suddenly Scott realized that these “decisions” had been taken so lightly because they never even questioned them. These were all choices that they were taught to make since the beginning. Even from the earliest days of school the priorities were outlined. Get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job, start a family and live happily ever after; with all of the lies gaining reinforcement from the loving care of well intentioned parents. How many had digested the fairy tales as he had? How many others were fluttering through life unhappy without having any clue as to why? It seemed that people were working to live by living to work, comfortable in their morality through veils of blissful ignorance. Concerns limited to money and status, safety and comfort, the institution evolving into the minds and spirits of countless generations of smiling good people that happily laid free will at the feet of the prevailing order.

The intense revelation rose Scott’s hopes for a moment. Perhaps there was a greater meaning to this debacle. Was it possible that he was being groomed to become a messenger of God’s Truth? Maybe God really was listening! Maybe he would be saved!

But the time continued to pass slowly and the dull pains grew with the agonizing exhaustion. After hours of constriction Scott’s breaths had become short painful wheezes. The dizziness made it clear that the oxygen intake was fading fast. There was precious little time left and he knew it.

The solitary confinement of the prison was creating its own anguish. The loved ones missed was all that he could think about. A cold shiver of loneliness struck his entire body. This would be the end…and there was no one to help him face it.

After a few more agonizing wheezes the fight quickly turned to flight. He didn’t want to struggle anymore, the soft caresses of a warm rest were too much to resist. Death seemed to be less of a feared enemy and more like an old friend.

The most comforting idea was that all the questions would soon be answered. The mysteries of life would be revealed and a transformation would take place. And if there was no spirit, no God, no after life, what was death other than absolute peace? Riddled with physical, emotional, and spiritual agony, this idea resonated and grew more favorable. A final rest; what could be so terrible about that? Why was not existing one of his biggest fears when it carried with it no obligation, no worries, no suffering? Not existing would be the most effortless and peaceful thing ever accomplished.

If there was an afterlife did he even really want it? Was the responsibility and suffering worth it? In all of the equations that he could muster Scott could not imagine any type of existence that would not involve some type of struggle and pain. If there was one thing that this ordeal taught him was that suffering was not desirable. The importance of existence itself was a lie. There was no absolute peace in being, not even for Buddhist monks or the Buddha himself. All spiritual practices seemed like an irrelevant defense mechanism for the challenges of living. But maybe that’s what the eastern mystics meant when they spoke about escaping the cycle of Samsara: the great wheel of reincarnation and Karma. Perhaps enlightenment was what delivered the gift of non-existence; perhaps the cycles of Samsara were a punishment for the un-awakened. If that were the case then Scott knew he would be destined to suffer much much more for enlightenment. He’d only just realized that money wasn’t the key to happiness; what other realizations was he to suffer for?

The cold drove deep, so deep that Scott began to feel warm again. Each pathetic inhalation cultivated the stinging agony in his back and head. As he realized the final breath was approaching his heart beat faster and the wheezes became frantic huffs. The dull colors of the ice coffin swirled together and seemed to envelope Scott just as a sleepy child is tucked underneath a blanket. Suddenly there was no more prison; he was floating happily in darkness. Eyelids fluttered and the blue snow and ice faded in and out of the black. A light grew steadily from the void and the ice slowly disappeared. The outline of a figure in flowing robes reached out to him. There was so much warmth emanating from the form that Scott wanted nothing more than to be received by it. He desperately struggled to reach out and swim through the emptiness but the gap wouldn’t close.

The intense chill of the snow and ice receded and returned with alarming swiftness as if battling the affection of the personage calling out to him. Scott thought he heard the vibrations of footsteps overhead, something in him wanted to cry out, but the reminder of the stinging chill silenced his voice…the warmth of the robed figure grew stronger as Scott’s desire to reach out became the only thought in his mind. The thuds of the footsteps rang clearly through his body. Scott remained quiet and focused on the intense power of the person before him. It drew closer and he became warmer still. Finally the chill fell away like an uncomfortable garment. Scott made it into the soft arms of the figure and felt nothing but compassion. The vibrations of the footsteps faded as the world fell into the void.

~~~~~~~~~~

The sun was bright and the fresh snow dazzled like jewels just as they had five years earlier. Brian’s snowboard felt light in his arms as he trekked the middle path below the ridge. Today was about honoring something important and he wanted to build up to the chute…going to it for the first run seemed disrespectful, as if he’d be repeating the mistake he’d give anything to reverse.

There was only one day out of the year that Brain allowed himself the glory of descending the chute. The hike had become a pilgrimage of thanks, a spiritual retreat into the dimensions of the sincerest gratitude. It allowed him time to reflect on all that had happened, it allowed him time to remember a kindred spirit. A few quicker runs would help Brian build up to the epic peak that had claimed his friend’s life.

At first the tragedy was really hard to swallow…especially for Maddie. For two years she refused to even look at Bryan. She blamed him for Scott’s death, and that was understandable but he just wanted to talk to her and let her know how much Scott had really loved her. She wouldn’t let Brian speak so he wrote a heart felt letter detailing his grief and Scott’s last moments; about how bad he’d felt for the argument that would be their last interaction together. After reading the letter Maddie wrote one back. Bryan was shocked to find that Maddie had felt so guilty herself that she used her hatred for Bryan to cover it up. They decided to meet and ended up having a night filled with laughter and tears; they relived memories with Scott together over dinner and drank by an open fire well into the morning. Since that time Bryan and Maddie became close friends. He quickly assumed the role of an older sibling to help pay his debt to Scott. He promised that he would do everything in his power to protect her. There was no denying that assuming the role of guardian helped alleviate some of the deep seeded guilt.

In many ways there was so much to be thankful for, so many positives that emerged from the untimely disaster. Brian had worked with Scott’s family to create the Scott Herer Avalanche Rescue Fund shortly after his passing. The charity was used to help fund free avalanche safety courses as well as provide top of the line rescue equipment and training for both humans and dogs at the resort. Since the Fund’s creation fifteen people had been successfully rescued after being buried by an avalanche. In fact, during the time since Scott’s final descent there had been no fatalities. It wasn’t long before stories circulated that Scott’s ghost was haunting the backcountry. The locals believed that his spirit was there to protect hikers and riders from avalanches like a guardian angel. Brian didn’t really believe any of the tales but there was no denying the comfort he felt in thinking that his friend might be watching over all of them.

In the years that followed that fateful day Scott’s legend at the mountain grew to mythic proportions. A plaque was made for him that hung over the fireplace at the base lodge. They made a new trail and called it “Heavenly Herer.” There was also the “Holy Herer” banked slalom competition that was in its third year. The proceeds from the race were always donated to Scott’s Rescue Fund. And of course a local beer company decided to capitalize on the story and crafted the “Out of Bounds Ale;” a full-bodied beer that generates a donation of twenty percent of profits to the charity. There was nobody at the resort who didn’t know the name Scott Herer.

With each step that carried him up the mountain Brian felt closer to Scott and closer to a higher calling. The mountain was a mystical and spiritual place that elevated the soul above the body. Out there in the wilderness anything and everything seemed to be connected in the webs of nature. The healing was intrinsic to the experience.

He always did the pilgrimage alone. Everyone thought he was crazy and that he might have some type of death wish but it was the only way that Brian could manage. There was no way he could live with the loss of another friend that trustfully followed him to the dangerous chute. Besides, being alone was what made the experience feel metaphysical and pure.

Brian began to pant against the thin frigid air and stopped for a drink and some rest. He looked towards the peak and swore he saw a black outline on the ridge against the sunlight. It must have been a group of hikers but Brian couldn’t see any other figure out there. What was some other idiot doing all alone in the backcountry?

Brian decided that it was probably a lost tourist so he backtracked to the split in the hiking trails and took the higher path up the ridge. He increased his pace to give chase in hopes that he’d reach the fool before he dropped out of bounds and risked getting lost, trapped, or knocked out.

The figure on the ridge stopped and Brian drove his pace even harder with more urgency. There was only about a hundred feet separating them now. He could make out the bright blue jacket and neon green pants of the climber…

Brian stopped suddenly as a deep shiver rode his spine from tip to tail. Without warning the mountain shuddered and below a large slide began. The waves of tumbling snow buried the trail where Brian was hiking just minutes earlier. After watching the avalanche devastate the slopes below he looked back towards the ridge in search of the lone hiker. The man had disappeared…the only thing that met Brian’s gaze were the warm beams of sunlight that fought against the cold winter’s air.

This story is an excerpt from the collection Merely Players

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