The Day We Climbed the Mountain
Every day on the way to school, the flat roads of Indiana stretched out before Anna, disappearing into hazy oblivion. Even the slightest incline or curve in the road came as a blessing, something to break the mirage before her. Sometimes she took the long way to school, just to drive past the asphalt plant with its pile of recycled black ruble reaching higher into the sky than anything else in the landscape. That’s why everyone called it the mountain. But even up there, there was nowhere to hide, no way to sneak up on anybody. If they looked down the road, they saw you coming as a little black dot getting bigger all the time. They had time to figure it out, to stare at you long enough to read your mind.
The land was so open, so exposed. Maybe that’s why everybody felt that the eyes of heaven upon them. Anna’s mother and father had her convinced that God could read her thoughts and would punish her for those in equal parts to her actions. Actions were easy to tame, thoughts were not. She sometimes liked to believe that if she could find a hidden place, like the alleys and tunnels of New York city she saw in the mob movies, that the interference from the surrounding structures would make her thoughts ricochet and shatter like splinters of fiberglass in the air.
Granted, some people carried on doing what they did anyway. They didn’t care about the eyes of God or anyone else for that matter. They were unapologetic about their creaturely desires. Anna thought that since they couldn’t hide their vice they displayed it in defiance. She had a sort of perverted respect for them. They owned their shame and made no apologies about it. In a way, she wanted that for herself, to feel comfortable in her own skin, but she always felt the eyes upon her and felt guilt at even the notion of something as sinful as desire or jealousy.
But then she too got tired of living like a rodent in an open field with a hawk circling above. She grew tired of the taste of fear in her mouth.
The day Anna met Will, she had no idea that she would take such a bold step in defiance of everything her mother had ever taught her. What she didn’t realize was that the seed of disquiet was already planted in her, waiting for someone to water it.
Anna first met him at church of all places. He came in with his grandmother one week at the beginning of the summer. She could tell he was not the church kind by the way he awkwardly kneeled for prayer and by how he struggled to sing the words of even the most common hymns. After the second Sunday sermon, he came up to talk to her.
After two weeks with only his grandmother for company, Will was craving the friendship of someone his own age.
Anna felt a rush of excitement when Will first came to talk to her. He told her that he was from Tennessee, and that he was there for the summer to live with his grandmother. Anna noticed that Will had this way of putting all his weight on one foot and leaning back when he talked. He always looked as if he was on the edge of taking off in the other direction.
After the standard introductions, both faltered for words. Anna desperately wanted to think of something to say, but all she could think of at the moment was church since that was the most recent happening of the day, but somehow, she felt embarrassed speaking about religious matters with someone who was clearly not religious.
Despite their awkward silence, Will got up the nerve to ask Anna what she did for fun. Will wasn’t expecting much of an answer in a town like this, but he wasn’t expecting her to say nothing at all. She turned beet red and had nothing much to say, and when she tried to start saying anything approaching an actual answer, she immediately dismissed it by saying, “Oh, but that’s not very fun really.” For Anna’s part, she felt that nothing she did could offer the kind of fun he might be looking for. As a matter of fact, she hadn’t realized how boring she was until he asked her that question. None of the things she did seemed all that fun when someone bothered to ask her about them.
He came to church with his grandmother every weekend after. Every week he would come to chat a while, while his grandmother socialized with the other old women. They talked about random little things. Mostly Anna wanted to know what Tennessee was like, but occasionally she talked about her home town too, always feeling a little embarrassed by it. Will never seemed overly interested in the particulars of her town either, but one day while explaining how to get to the diner on Mooney Street she found something that did interest him.
“You have to go down past the mountain and turn right at the next stop sign,” she told him.
“Mountain? What do you mean mountain? This place is flat as a pancake.”
“You know the asphalt mountain near the plant, on the road that leads to the school.”
“Oh that?” he asked laughing. “That ain’t a mountain.”
Anna laughed too, realizing what it must sound like to him, coming from Tennessee. She had never been there herself, but she remembered the postcards her grade school teacher Mrs. Baum brought back from her hiking trip in the Smokey Mountains with her husband. She pinned them on the corners of her chalk board where everyone would be sure to see them. They looked beautiful.
“Where I live, the mountains are so high that when you drive down the highway it feels like you’re driving into a wall of green, and going up the hills, the road looks like it ends in the sky.”
Anna tried to picture what he meant by that, but she couldn’t imagine driving anywhere where the sky didn’t swallow the landscape like it did in Indiana.
“Well it’s the tallest thing around, so we call it the mountain,” she offered.
“I guess that’s fair,” he said, thinking a moment. “I’ve heard the Rocky Mountains out west are two or three times taller than the ones at home.”
She had seen those mountains too, on television. They looked like grey giants looming over the earth. The green Appalachians seemed less severe, like they were part of the land, not in conflict with it. Or that’s how the pictures looked.
“I’d like to climb a mountain like that someday.”
“Me too,” he said.
“Have you climbed any mountains near you?”
“What does it look like from the top?”
“That depends on how tall the mountain is.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have to climb the tallest one if you want to see everything. Otherwise you’ll just see more mountains.”
“Oh, so what does it look like from the top of the tallest one?”
“It kind of looks like a green blanket. You can see whole towns and patches of farmland.” Will looked as if he were remembering them fondly. “You can also see the shadows of entire clouds move across them.”
“Wow, that sounds really cool.”
“Have you ever been to the top of your mountain?” he asked her. Anna liked the way he called it her mountain even if it really wasn’t.
“Well no,” she said.
“Do people ever climb it?”
“I think so, sometimes.”
In fact, Anna knew that people climbed it to go drink or smoke on the top, but she wasn’t really friends with those kids, so she had never been invited to go, and she would never dare go alone. She knew that those kids thought of her as a Miss Priss Goody Two-Shoes. Of course, they didn’t want anything to do with her. She pretended to her mother and most everyone else that she didn’t care for them either, but she secretly wondered about their life. She wondered how they went about all their sins without fear or shame. She also knew that a year or two ago some kids had been caught up there with firecrackers or something like that and faced charges for destruction of property. Anna wondered then, as she had many times, why Will had come to Indiana for the summer. She thought the only likely explanation was that he had gotten in trouble back home, but he never mentioned it so she had no idea.
“We should climb it,” Will said, pulling Anna from her thoughts.
“Um… I don’t know Will,” she said.
“Why not? We can go at night, no one will see us.”
Anna’s immediate gut reaction said no, but there was something in her that wanted to climb that mountain and add her footprints to the others who had climbed it before her. It was a small defiance after all. Anna glanced around the church in search of her mother. She found her chatting with the other respectable church ladies. Anna felt her gut turn inside her with anxiety and worry. The wanting scared her.
“So what do you say?” he asked.
“Okay,” Anna said quietly, although no one was paying attention to their conversation anyway.
“When?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“How about Friday?” Will suggested.
“Um, alright. How will we get there?”
“I can borrow my grandma’s car.”
“Are you sure she will let you?”
“Yeah, I’ve been good, she’ll let me.”
“We can’t park near it though.”
“Yeah I know, don’t worry about it, I’ll figure it out.”
“Okay,” she said.
Shortly after that Anna’s mother came over to take her home. On the car ride home, her mother chattered endlessly about the town gossip, not even offering pauses between her speech to allow Anna to respond. Not that she cared, Anna had little interest in gossip about old ladies and married men.
“You are so quiet today,” her mother said finally.
“Sorry mom…I’m just tired.”
“I’ve noticed you’ve been talking a lot to Mrs. Quell’s grandson. What’s his name again? It’s Wwww…” She trailed off, unable to complete the name.
“Yes, Will,” she agreed as if she’d known all along. The car fell silent as her mother waited for Anna to offer some sort of explanation. Anna wondered irrationally if her mother knew of she and Will’s plan to climb the mountain. Her palms began to sweat. She rubbed them on the skirt of her church dress.
Finally, her mother could not take the silence any longer. She cleared her throat.
“I think it’s very Christian of you to befriend him dear, but I wouldn’t let him too close.” Anna froze in fear and embarrassment. When she didn’t offer a response, her mother shook her head vaguely.
“I heard that he got into some kind of trouble in Tennessee and that his mother sent him here for the summer to get himself straightened out.”
“What did he do?” Anna asked tentatively, curious herself.
“I’m not sure dear, Mrs. Quell won’t say.”
“It can’t be that bad, he isn’t in jail or anything.”
“Yes, but he is a minor, it takes a lot to put a minor in jail. But regardless honey, I’d be careful.” Anna’s mother took her eyes off the road to steal a meaningful glance in her daughter’s direction.
“We just don’t want any trouble,” she continued.
In the days leading up to Friday night Anna debated whether she should actually go through with the plan or not. She worried about her mother’s suspicions, but she couldn’t bring herself to text Will and tell him she wouldn’t come, because every time she thought of standing on top of the mountain with Will her fear transformed into an addictive little thrill. She tried to imagine the way her town and the surrounding farmland would look from the top. She hoped it was high enough to look the way that Will described.
Finally, when Friday night came, Will texted her telling her he would pick her up at 11:30. Anna knew that she would not be able to come up with any convincing reason for her to leave the house that late, so she resolved to sneak out after her parents went to bed. After dinner, and watching some TV, she excused herself to bed. She went to her room and tried to read, but couldn’t focus. She paced around, waiting for the minutes to pass. At 10:30 she could hear the sounds of her parents getting ready for bed. She heard the electric zap of the TV turning off and the distinctive creak of her parent’s bedroom door opening and closing. Once everything was quiet she waited, wondering if her parents really were asleep or not. At 11:32 Will texted her that he was outside.
She felt a surge of adrenaline as she tried to quietly put on her shoes. She stuffed some pillows under the covers to make it look as if she were sleeping there in case her parents came in to check on her. Then she opened her bedroom door as silently as she could. She crept down the hall, past her parent’s room, through the foyer to the front door. She turned it carefully and pushed.
A rush of cool night air hit her body. She looked out into the yard and saw that a car was waiting with no headlights on. With one last glance at the house, she raced across the yard. She pulled the door open feeling adrenaline course through her body. Will was waiting inside, grinning up at her. She settled into the passenger seat, still electric from her escape.
Anna gave Will directions to a small service road parking lot where they would leave the car to walk the rest of the way. Will pulled into the lot and parked the car.
“Now what?” she asked.
“I don’t know, you tell me.”
“We have to walk the rest of the way,” she said.
“Do you know the way?”
“Not exactly, but it shouldn’t be hard to figure out.” Will grinned at her again and she felt another surge of excitement. He reached around the back and grabbed a bundle of something that looked like sticks.
“What are those?” Anna asked, straining to see them in the dark.
“Yeah to mark our territory, to let everyone know we were there,” he said smiling. Anna laughed, the idea of flags poking out of the top of the asphalt hill was hilarious. She smiled to herself, knowing that when the people in the town noticed the flags they would talk about them. She could imagine them saying have you seen those flags up on the asphalt mountain? Some kids must have climbed the darn thing. She would be able to say Oh no I haven’t seen them! All the while knowing it had been her and Will. She loved the idea of a secret they shared.
“How many are there?” she asked.
“Six, three for me and three for you.” Will handed her three little flags. She looked at them with a sense of giddy excitement.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“I’m ready.” They both got out of the car. Now that they were out in the night a sense of deep, electrified silence grabbed ahold of them. Anna led the way into the forest of honeysuckles that covered the land between the parking lot and the asphalt plant. She had never seen a forest of honeysuckles like this. The bushes had thick branches and trunks as big and round as her calf that reached up to form a canopy so dense that no underbrush could grow. The moon became fragments of light passing through the leaves and branches above them as they darted their way through the forest.
Anna had no idea how long they had been running, but when they finally came upon the asphalt plant, it felt as if they had been running through that enchanted wood for hours. They both stood at the edge of the woods staring up at the piles of asphalt rising before them scattered among steel equipment and bulldozers.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” asked Will gesturing up to the tallest pile.
“That’s the mountain,” she answered. At the sight of the spot lights and the heavy equipment she was surprised by her lack of fear. In its place, she felt only exhilaration. Her heart pounded in her chest; she felt more alive than she ever had before. She looked down at the flags in her hands and then up at the mountain.
“What are we waiting for?” Will asked.
“Nothing.” Will took her hand gently.
“Then let’s go!” They ran boldly through the spot lights and past the machinery and bulldozers. Their bodies leaped like fire across the earth, illuminated in the unnatural yellow glow of the spotlights. When they reached the base of the mountain they paused only for a moment to grin at each other before scampering up the side. The mountain was steeper than Anna had imagined and the recycled asphalt jutted out in odd ways. She found herself stepping on rocks that would crumble with the slightest pressure. Whenever she glanced up, Will was only a few steps ahead of her, partially illuminated by the moonlight.
Once they reached the top, they sat heavily on the rubble. It was dark, but the moon was large and almost full. Little stars peppered the sky. The land stretched out before them in every direction flat as a pancake. The road lights ran off in various directions creating a glowing grid of stars. They could not tell where the sky ended and the earth began, everything faded into the darkness of the night the further and further it stretched away from them. Anna felt as if she were standing on a floating island in the sky. She wondered how this compared to Will’s view from the Tennessee mountain tops.
Will was more amazed by the scene than he thought he would be. The land was so flat that even a small hill like this one let you see for miles around. He loved the way the highway lights marched on into the distance until they faded into the darkness of the sky. He looked toward the east and the south, wondering which highway he would take home when the summer ended.
Both knew there was no need for words just yet. For a long while they just sat up there staring off into the distance. Finally, Anna broke the silence. “How does it look compared to the mountains at home?”
“It’s beautiful,” he said honestly.
“More beautiful than home?”
“I’m not sure, it’s just different.” He thought a moment before adding, “It’s wider.”
They were quiet again for a time, each imagining other worlds similar to this one. Finally, Anna stood up. She took a flag in her right hand and raised it to the sky. To Will, she looked like a girl calling the start of a NASCAR race, but she was more beautiful than that.
“I hereby claim this mountain to be my mountain!” she exclaimed. She then drove her hand straight down to plant the flag in the rubble, but the stick splintered on contact. She looked down at her splintered flag pole sheepishly embarrassed.
“Oops,” she said laughing nervously.
“I think the ground is a little hard to just plant your flag,” Will commented, smiling in the dark. He got up to stand beside Anna. He bent low over the ground to inspect the terrain. He began to gather pieces of rubble and to stack them around the base of his flagpole until it could stand on its own.
“There,” he said. Anna did the same with her flags and soon they had neat row of little flags on the hill. After admiring their work for a moment, they decided to head back down. At the bottom, it was difficult to see the flags because of the dark, but if you stood at just the right angle, their silhouettes stood out against a cloud illuminated by the moon.
Anna stared up at the flags, remembering the way it had felt to be on top of her mountain. Will took her hand and pulled her closer to him. When their lips met, Anna was shocked by herself, and at the ease with which she kissed him. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. She understood now why others could defy decency in the eyes of God and everyone else. It was only natural.