This short story placed second in the Goodreads Support Indie Authors short story contest. I had posted it in three parts previously but am posting it in its entirety here. Enjoy . . .
“Billie, set some damned anchors,” I yelled up at her. She was high up on the near vertical granite wall, much too far above her last rope anchors for the belay rope which I was holding tightly and anxiously with my leather gloved hands.
Billie and I had taken rented canoes to the far end of a lake in a rugged mountainous area of Montana to do some rock climbing. We could have gotten by with one but, she being the independent woman she was, had to paddle her own. She was always determined to make her own way. I had learned over the eight months we had been together to stay out of her way when she was determined to do something.
She had heard of this place from a customer at REI in Salt Lake where we both worked. After an early start, it had taken us the better part of the first day of our five days off to drive up here, and paddle across the lake to the landing site by the place we wanted to climb. The alternative would be to have a helicopter take us in, but that was way beyond our budget.
We off loaded and carried what we could to where we would set up camp. There were six other climbers already there, probably choppered in since we saw no other water craft. We exchanged pleasantries with them and found a spot to set our tent. We went back to the canoes and got out the cooler with food and beer for the next three days.
I had grown up outside of Santa Fe where I roamed the desert areas from almost as soon as I could walk. I was turned on to rock climbing by one of my friends in high school and was quickly hooked. I earned a degree in education with a minor in literature at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. My goal to be a high school teacher so I would have summers off to play in the desert and rock climb. After graduation, I got a job teaching in Los Lunas, resigning after two years, being disillusioned with the educational system and not quite ready to grow up. I took a road trip that summer exploring and climbing in Colorado and Utah, eventually ending up, out of money, in Salt Lake City. My outdoor experience got me a job at REI where I met Billie.
We got to know each other and became climbing buddies on our days off. We became close friends, then lovers. She was beautiful with her close cropped dark hair, high cheekbones, finely featured face and soft hazel eyes. She was long, lithe, and an excellent rock climber with long strong arms and legs. She was like watching a spider when she climbed. Her climbing was as beautiful to watch as she was beautiful.
It was more and more frightening watching her do this pitch. She was now way above where she should have already set several anchors for the belay rope. Right now she was free climbing. Even though she was wearing a harness, it would do her no good if she fell. She looked in complete control, but, this was not a mapped line where she was. Two of the other climbers joined me.
“Geez Man,” one said, “she needs to set some anchors.” She’s way beyond her last one.”
“Yeah, I’ve been telling her,” I said, trying not to show the panic I was feeling.
Billie was raised in Boulder, Colorado along with a younger sister and an older brother. Her parents were both rock climbers and mountaineers and had all three of their children out in the mountains at an early age. Billie took to the mountains like a duck to water, she couldn’t get enough. By the time she was in high school she already had a name for herself amongst the climbers in and around the Boulder area.
She earned a certificate in Outdoor Recreation Leadership at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. After that she worked at the National Outdoor Leadership School out of Lander, Wyoming for a year, working with young adults. For whatever reason, she left NOLS, moved to Salt Lake and started working for REI.
Billie was one of the toughest women I had ever met. Her mornings before work were at a nearby cross fit center. I would join her a few times a week and she always showed me up with her strength and stamina. She thought nothing of a ten run mile at five in the morning. Her goal, by her thirtieth birthday, was to solo Everest. She was now twenty-three. I had no doubts she could and would, somehow, manage to do it. At this moment, I was wondering if she would live that long.
“Billie, dammit, set some damned anchors. You’re scaring me,” I screamed up to her.
She yelled back down to me, “Shut up Ryan. I’ve got this. You’re making me nervous.”
She reached for her next handhold. Then she stretched out her leg at an impossible angle, found purchase with her toes and swung her body another two feet upward, two feet closer to the top or, possible disaster. She had maybe ten or fifteen more feet to the summit. She now had to be over sixty feet high, her last belay anchors set maybe thirty or thirty-five feet lower.
Another climber had joined us. “Wow, she’s amazing. That’s a really difficult route, gotta be in the 5.12 to 5.15 range. She’s gotta be one of the best climbers I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah, she’s good alright but I wish to hell she’d set herself some anchors.”
“Oh crap! Yeah! Oh my god, yeah, she hasn’t. That’s no place to be free climbing. That’s a dangerous wall.”
More panic was building in my chest. My stomach was churning. I took some deep breaths. I wanted to do something, but was helpless. It was up to her. Dammit, Billie set some dammed anchors. I was wishing her to do something. Anything.
Two more of the climbers had gathered around me, watching, not saying anything. Just when it looked like she had it made, she reached her right hand up with those long arms, feeling around for a handhold, finding it . . . I could almost see her staring in disbelief as I watched her fall, like in slow motion, useless rope coiling in the air above her. She didn’t scream but I saw the look of terror in face, even from so far away, as she clawed to find purchase, but found only air.
Billie and I were lovers, mostly on her terms. I was enamored with her. I really didn’t know about love or what it was, I only knew I wanted to be with her. I enjoyed her energy, her enthusiasm for life, and the great wild abandoned sex.
I wanted to move in together, but she said she needed her space. I made the point that she was either at my place or I was at hers every night. Her answer was she didn’t want to commit to anything, she didn’t know much longer she was going to be in Salt Lake, she didn’t want to be tied down, she wanted her freedom; NOLS was asking her to come back; she was considering maybe applying for a position at Outward Bound and several other outdoor schools. All she talked about were all the opportunities she could have here or there or somewhere else.
All our conversations were either in undertones or overtones, neither of us ever getting said what needed to be said. She would ignore my gestures of love. She was a free spirit. It was becoming clear that I was but a momentary blip on her radar. It hurt, but maybe that was my attraction to her, her remoteness to love and commitment, her focused drive to achieve her goals. Maybe I wanted to be like her and hoped what she had in her singularity and focus would rub off on me. In many ways I was jealous of her.
The climb was getting more difficult now as the wall was beginning to slope outwards. We watched as she reached up again for a handhold. The group around me gave an auditory gasp as they saw her pause for an instant, reach for something, then began to plunge to the rocks below, her arms flailing trying to grab the rock but finding only air.
Miraculously, her rope, coiling wildly above her, snagged an outcropping of rock after she had plummeted about twenty feet. I braced myself and two other guys, seeing the same thing, quickly grabbed ahold of me and braced themselves. The slack was snapped up a moment later, almost pulling all three of us off our feet, as we watched her fall instantly stopped. The rope had held on the outcropping. Her athleticism showed as she immediately righted herself and had her feet towards the wall to stop her as she swung towards it.
“God, I hope she’s okay. That was really a hard stop,” somebody muttered.
“Better than the alternative,” said another.
We all were watching, now with our mouths open like gaping fools, at what we had just witnessed. Nobody said anything. Every one of was hardly breathing. We saw her moving and grabbing purchase on the rock. Her next move was to grab an anchor off her belt and wedge it in to a crack and tie off. She set yet another anchor and was now doubly secured, then she set a third. Stabilized, she sat there in her harness. I could see her breathing hard, wiping her eyes.
She called down in a shaky voice, “I need to check the rope and make sure it’s okay.” She found the downside of the rope and did a quick loop hitch in her harness to secure it and then untied it from her harness and pulled it over the out cropping letting the loose end fall. She then pulled it back up and carefully examined it. “It’s pretty frayed. I’m going to cut it and get rid of it,” she called down.
We watched her as she found her knife and cut the frayed part off, letting it drop. She retied the rope to her harness and threaded it through her anchors. “I’m ready to come down now. With the rope safely in her anchors, I could now belay her down.
Minutes later she was on the ground and collapsed. I was first to reach her. She was on her hands and knees, crying, shaking, retching. I took her in my arms and held her for a long time until she slowly regained her composure.
The first thing she said was, “How could I be so stupid? I’m sorry, so sorry. I was in a zone. I didn’t want to stop. Just wanted to keep going. I thought I had it. I know better. It was a stupid, stupid, stupid asinine thing to do. I would’ve died if that rope didn’t catch. Just hold me for a minute. I want to feel alive. I just want to feel alive . . .”
Always in control, I had never seen her so vulnerable, like a child with a badly skinned knee. I held her, gently but firmly, feeling a lump rise in my throat and tears of relief form in my own eyes. She finally stopped shaking. Then she just went limp and let me hold her.
“Okay, I think I need a beer,” she muttered.
“I need more than one plus a tequila shot or two,” I said.
“You brought tequila?” That was the last thing she said.
I put away our gear while she slowly sipped on a beer. I prepped some food and we ate. One of the other campers came over and asked if we wanted to join them. I looked at Billie who was now staring off with vacant eyes at the granite wall that almost took her life, and said thanks, but I think we’ll pass. He nodded his head, said good night, and left.
She said flatly, “I’d like to get out of here tomorrow. I’m finished,” She said no more.
“Understood. We can pack up and head back early then.”
She said nothing more, never looking at me. We crawled into the tent and sleeping bags. She turned away from me and feigned sleep. Her night was fitful. She woke me several times calling out, “No! No! I can’t. No! I don’t want to die. I want to be alive. I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry Daddy. I don’t want to. Mommy, Mommy, I’m scared.”
We were up at dawn. She helped pack up like a robot or a zombie, with mechanical like movements and no words. Gear and supplies loaded in the canoes, we heading back across the lake. There was a blankness about her, she was empty, her eyes were vacant, like all energy, like her very soul had been drained from her, like there was nothing left.
When we landed , she went to the van and sat still staring, maybe in her mind at that granite wall. I returned the canoes to the rental place, loaded our gear in my van, and headed down the deserted highway bordered by foreboding dark hills. She had lost herself. And I was losing myself as I wondered for her survival and my love for her. We drove on into a gathering storm of thunder and lightening where her dreams would never be the same.