Part One - Back to the Summit
By: Jacob 'J. B.' Arnold
The moon was full, illuminating the sky and the fresh paint on the faded asphalt. The yellow line separating the two lanes meandered north, away from town and into the surrounding forest, climbing higher with each twist and turn. Why would the county paint this old road? No one lived out here or used this stretch anymore. Not since they completed the new highway last spring. But there it was. An aging black sedan, flying down the road with only the red of its taillights, hinting that a soul was alive in these woods.
The bellows of nostalgic rock echoed through the cab as the car slowed and veered off the road onto the soft shoulder. Before it came to a stop, the passenger side door opened, revealing the occupant. A twenty something, male and heavyset. He remained seated, but his torso hung out from the opening, gripping the door frame with his left arm, where he commenced spilling his guts to the earth. It’s not a party until Tequila shows up, right?
“Jimmy, what the hell, man?” Sean slammed on the brakes, throwing the vehicle into park. “Dude, make sure that doesn’t get on the carpet!” He leered at his friend, keeping some distance, a look of disgust on his face. “How much did you drink, anyway?”
Jimmy slowly lifted his head and turned towards his friend, a string of drool hanging from his grizzled chin. His bloodshot eyes glassed over as he attempted to focus. There was no verbal response, though. Just the lifeless stare of inebriation.
“One shot, idiot. That’s what we agreed to, remember?” Sean held up his index finger. “One.” Shaking his head, he leaned out the window, admiring the moon, before averting his attention again. “Town’s still thirty minutes out, and I’m not stoppin’ again. You Better be done, man.” After turning off the car, he reached down and opened the door, sliding out into the chilly night. He closed the door and stared up into the sky again, back against the open window.
I can’t believe it’s already been a whole year, Pete. Where the hell did you go, man? What happened that night? He dropped his stare to the ground, searching for answers.
While in thought, a mild breeze picked up, flowing from the south, ushering dried leaves in Sean’s direction. His eyes followed the largest one, observing it roll and twist in the air before it came to rest against his right pant leg. He stood there a few moments, watching it flap loosely against the denim before fluttering to the ground as the breeze dissipated. “Hmm?” His eyes took to the moon once again, taking in the luminescence. “I miss you, man.”
The slamming of the passenger side door brought him back from his thoughts. As he looked behind him, Jimmy’s beefy arm reached out of the passenger window and slapped the top of the roof.
“I’m good, man.” He paused, coughing up some phlegm and spitting it out the window. “Just get me off this mountain, bro. Let’s go get…”
A smirk crossed Sean’s face as he listened to the drunken words pour out of Jimmy’s mouth. He still had one best buddy, and he loved that guy. These two had been nearly inseparable since middle school, but things had changed since that night. Since Pete.
This was the first time they had been back up the mountain since the incident. They decided it was finally time on a whim earlier in the week while sipping on beers in Jimmy’s backyard. In fact, that was the first time they had even discussed it. The holes in their memories were too hard to make sense of. But they had to face the truth, accept that he was gone and not coming back. As hard as that was.
Sean leaned down, peering into the cab. “Yeah, Jimbo. Let’s get off this rock. We did what we said we were going to do. We said goodbye.” He opened the car’s door and slid inside, taking one last glance at that magnificent moon before addressing his friend again. “Hey, I know we said we wouldn’t talk about it, but was the moon out that night? Do you remember?”
Jimmy’s second wind was kicking in, coherence returning with a dash of his regular sarcasm. “Isn’t it out every night?” He paused, acknowledging the trouble in Sean’s eyes as he spoke. “Man, I don’t know. I really don’t remember.” His eyes strayed to the tree line outside his window. “Let’s just get back to town.”
Sean dropped his eyes to his lap, trying to think. Trying to remember. “I don’t either, Jimmy. I don’t either,” he claimed after a few tense moments. “Screw this, man. Let’s go. I hate it up here.” The car’s engine roared back to life as he turned the ignition, throwing it back into drive and swerving back onto the asphalt.
The next few minutes were quiet, still, not a word spoken as they glided down the lifeless old mountain road. Neither even bothered to turn the radio back on. Sean’s mind wandered as he hugged the yellow line, twisting with each turn.
Think, Sean, think. What the hell happened after we got to the summit that night? After we set up camp. Jimmy brought out the bottle of booze, right? From his pack? Or did Pete bring it? I know we all took a swig and then… Why can’t I remember? He shook his head, frustration digging in with its claws.
Jimmy reached into his pocket and removed a pack of cigarettes, placing one between his dry lips. After lighting it, he finally broke the utter silence. “Hey man, I forgot to tell you what happened the other night.” He opened the window, releasing thick smoke from his nostrils. “I met this chick at the pub. She was there with a bunch of friends, celebrating or something.” Another deep drag on the cigarette. “But she didn’t leave with them, if you know what I mean.” He reached over and jabbed Sean’s arm.
A smile crossed Sean’s lips as he turned and faced his friend. “First time you ever got some, huh, amigo?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hilarious!” The red ember at the end of his cigarette smoldered in the cab's darkness as he took another long drag. “I brought her up because she reminded me of someone, but I can’t remember who.” He paused, shaking his head. “And her name, dude. Her name was Tatiana. Does that ring a bell, like someone that we went to school with or something?.”
Sean cocked his head, trying to think of the past. Ever since that night on the summit, his memory had been so foggy, holes and patches missing. “Hmm. I don’t think so, man. Tatiana? Tatiana? There’s some actress named that, right? Or am I thinking of another name?”
“Hell, probably, man. It’s just that,” he paused, flicking his butt out the window. “That name, man. It’s like something from the past, but my memory is so bad, so dark.”
Sean’s mind continued to work, thinking about Pete, about that night, about Jimmy’s words. None of it was clear, though. Except…
Something flashed in his mind, a memory or a dream. Something he couldn’t explain but felt so real.
“Jimmy, what did you just say?”
He rolled up the window, not turning to face Sean. “About what, man? The chick?”
“Yeah, yeah. But the last part. The part about her name.”
“Tatiana? What about it? Do you remember her?”
“No, no, not that part. The part about remembering. You said your memory was dark or something, right?”
He turned and faced Sean; eyes full of concern. “Yeah, bro. What are you trying to get at, man?”
Sean shook his head, knuckles tightening on the steering wheel as he suppressed the vague memory. “Never mind Jimmy. Never mind. I don’t know what the hell I’m thinking.”
Jimmy reached over and turned the radio back on. “Whatever, bro. It’s cool.” His attention went towards the passenger window, where the aura of lights surrounding their small town was finally visible a few more miles down the old twisting road. “There she is, amigo. Home sweet home.”
Sean turned and looked as well, his grip loosening on the leather strapped wheel as he saw the lights. That’s right, brother. Home sweet home, Jimmy. There were so many unanswered questions about that night, but they agreed to bury it in the past. Put it to rest and move on with their lives. There were no answers to what happened to Pete, just that he was gone and never coming back. We did what we said we were going to do. We said goodbye.
As his eyes averted back to the windshield, the headlights caught something. Something dark blocking the road. Instinctively, Sean swerved the car into the other lane, avoiding a collision, and slammed on the brakes. The rear tires lost their grip on the asphalt, and the car spun in a half circle, finally coming to rest on the opposite shoulder, leaving a trail of black on the faded old road.
“Holy shit, man! You okay, Jimmy?” Sean faced his friend, his body shaking from the adrenaline. “You okay, bro?”
Jimmy’s arms were outstretched, braced against the dash. He slowly looked over, face full of fear and hostility. “What the hell was that? What the hell did you do that for?”
Sean’s eyes went to the road and then back to his friend. “You saw it, right? Whatever the hell it was. On the road?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Sean? Saw what? Jimmy reached down and opened the car door, heavy boots hitting the dirt. “You could have killed us.” He slammed the car door, cursing under the bright moonlight as he strolled away.
Sean followed suit, exiting the car and scurrying over to his friend, trying to explain what he saw and what had happened. The two argued for the next few moments, trying to make sense of the event, trying to rationalize. Until…
Their quarreling stopped.
A strong breeze shook the trees behind them, forcing both to look up into the sky. Sean slowly turned back towards the road, eyes shifty, alarmed. Seconds later, Jimmy joined him, eyeing the road that they were just on. The headlights of the car lit up the asphalt and the bright yellow paint. But something wasn’t right about the view. Something obscured the middle of the road, hazy and dark, like a shadow. Shapeless, but physical.
Sean’s jaw dropped as he gaped at the street, his mind overflowing with trepidation. Something clicked as he stood there, immobilized by the sight of whatever was with them. He remembered something from that night. That night on the summit. There was a full moon as they set up camp, as they walked out on the peak and cheered their accomplishments from the day. But that wasn’t all he remembered. There was something else, too. Something that couldn’t be real, even though he was staring right at it once again. The darkness.
The breeze blowing through the trees ceased, allowing the utter silence to take claim of the surrounding forest. Suddenly, the darkness of the figure faded, revealing radiant light from within. The brightness intensified rapidly, and both had to shield their eyes. All around was white, so potent that it burned. And then, after moments of surrealness, it stopped with a bright flash.
The chirping of jays brought him around, slowly lifting his cheek off of the damp ground. As his eyes focused, he observed the sun’s radiance looming over the mountains to the east. It was early morning, and he was still on this damn mountain. He lifted himself up, dusting off his pant legs with his hands and checking his surroundings.
What the hell happened and what am I doing up here?
His eyes averted to the road and then to the car, trying to remember, shaking his head in confusion.
Did I drive up here last night? Was there a party or something? What the hell?
After a few moments of aggravating thought, he clambered over to the car, opening the driver's door and sliding in. The keys were hanging in the ignition, and he fired up the engine, throwing the car into drive as he made his way down the mountain.
Something was wrong, though. He could feel it as he drove, trying to gather any recollection of the previous night. Any memory that would make sense or bring clarity to what had happened recently. He was lost, though. Alone and incoherent. And then he remembered something as he stared out the windshield at the town he had called home his entire life.