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Mountains to Climb

Jason Wood looked at the house. 37 Manning Street.

It was right across the road from his childhood home. He remembered it had the unusual feature of a kitchen that was situated at the front of the property, so the window let the aroma of what was cooking inside slither out. The smell of herbs, spices, and slow-cooked cuts of beef had made him drift towards the house for the first time one cold December evening were so very long ago. It had been years since he last saw it.

Time had been kind to 37 Manning Street. The yard was still in good condition, with grass kept trim and the white picket fence painted just the week before. The door was replaced. Gone was the old rickety thing he remembered, replaced by new wood; sturdier and stronger. The kitchen window remained open and the glass panes immaculate, but unlike the last time he was there, no blueberry pie was cooling on the sill. The front porch looked to him renovated in recent days, and he missed the little notches he’d carved into the wood. The rocking chair was gone too, along with the little table beside it.

He sighed and then he knocked on the door.

He was dressed in a black suit with silver pinstripes that faded almost into the black. White under it, impeccable and pristine and contrasted with a black tie. The sleeves under peeked out from the suit jacket, the button around the wrist left undone. A belt with a polished bronze buckle, no ornaments or etchings. The pants were neat, pressed, and the crease line right down the middle of each leg. Silver pinstripes again, almost invisible. Socks out of sight. The shoes were real leather, the heels worn more than the rest of the soles.

Jason Wood was not a lean man by any means, but neither was he bulky. No better built than most men, but gave the appearance of a certain imposing stature by being half a head taller. His gloved hands were clenched halfway, ready to snap open or close into a fist. He had a neck that looked longer than average, with blue eyes that seemed to stare at the object of his attention. His nose had a near-flat angle, not quite sunk into the rest of his features but not as prominent as that of others. His hair showed signs of age, with touches of silver poking out from under the tousled layers of chestnut brown.

“Hi, Red. Been a long time.”

Red gasped. Her hands trembled, and the grip she had on that platter in her hand failed just a little.

The right side of his face moved some small, near-imperceptible distance upward and angular. The makings of a little smile, caught halfway and not given the room to fly.

“Bit of a surprise, I know,” he said. His voice was a rich baritone, familiar and smooth to hear. “Mind if I come in, Red?”

Her face contorted into a spiderweb pattern of creases, folds, and almost-wrinkles that lurked just under the surface. There the weight of years was on display. Years lived and years yet to come.

“You haven’t changed,” he said. He kept in his place, one foot with its heel off the ground and half way to a tiptoe. Almost like he was ready to turn around and walk away. “Mind if I come in, Red?”

She didn’t say a word. Only stepped aside with a quick, smooth dancer’s stride to make some room. “Jason,” she said. “It’s been…what, ten? Fifteen years?”

He ducked his head just a little, like he always did. His head still just passed under the doorframe. “Fourteen and a quarter since the last time I was home. And you still haven’t answered my question.”

“I don’t think you have any right to hear the answer.” The door shut behind her. Louder than necessary, like an audible punctuation.

He looked around the interior. The architecture was in the old style, a great deal of white to go with fake pillars and decorative columns. The paint began to chip away in some places, plaster peeled in some others. A few small houseplants in some places to hide other signs of wear and age. The scent was grassy, with an earthy flavor on his tongue. Only after a few steps in did he catch something else in the air. His eyes closed and took in another, deeper whiff.

“You still dress the same way. Still like the same colors.”

He was ignored, other than the smallest amount of a shudder that ran from left to right.

“Okay. I deserve that cold shoulder, I’ll admit that. But you know I had good reason, Red.”

“Reasons,” she corrected as she made that dancer’s stride again. She stepped in front of him, towards a room with a sofa and a view of the lawn. “I remember you saying you had just under a million reasons to go.”

He laughed. A quiet, self-deprecating thing that went well with the stooped shoulders. He hunched forward just so. “It was a war, Red.”

Arms bent and hands on her waist, she demanded, “You couldn’t find one reason to stay?”

He bit his lip. The sigh was loud, the motion of his chest like a millstone was lifted off them. “Just the one. And I know you won’t want to hear it, but I don’t regret doing what I did.”

Red kept quiet. Her arms crossed just under her chest. The pose didn’t have much to accentuate.

“Could we…I don’t know, could we sit down? Talk? I won’t be in town too long.”

“Vacation? Casper’s pretty bad for that, this time of year.” The platter made a loud clanging noise. The sound of fine porcelain rattled for a moment after. “You know that.”

“No, not vacation.” He paused, a finger curled a little around his prominent chin as he leaned forward. “I’m here for dad’s last request.”

She turned pale. Mouth agape, lips quivered. Red reached out with her left hand, but stopped short. Her mouth started to form words, then the sounds got caught in her throat. Her hand pulled away as she murmured an apology.

Jason leaned more in the silence. He undid the buttons on his jacket, movements one-handed and crisp. As he sat, he kept his heels lifted off the floor just so. Legs tensed and muscles ready to spring to a vertical base. He clasped his hands together in front of him, eyes cast down to look at the Persian rug under his feet. The fingers were still, save for how the left pointer tapped over the back of the right hand.

Bump. Bump. Bump. Bum-ba-bump. Bum-ba-bump.

“How did he…when…”

Jason’s lips curled at the edges. The smile made cracks at the edges of his eyes. “Last month. All that asbestos from his merchant marine days caught up with him.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked as she crashed down into a comfortable chair. She sank into it, fingers rubbed her temples.

“He didn’t want anyone to know. Just him, me, and those proteges of his. The ones he met in that college town.”

“That sounds like stubborn old Simon.” Red laughed, soft and controlled and mirthful.

“He never liked you.” A finger tapped. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bum-ba-bump. Bum-ba-bump.

“No, he never did.” She shrugged. “How are you holding up?”

He rubbed his chin. One second, two, three. Then, “Not as well as I’d like, but not as bad as I expected. Could be it hasn’t sunk in that he’s gone yet, you know?”

“I know the feeling. You remember grandpa, right?”

He nodded. A few strands of hair near the brow came loose. “I remember. You’d tell him all the family news. It didn’t matter if it was your uncle Derek winning his first court case or your little brother finally figuring out he’s gay.”

“And when he died, my first instinct was to call him to tell him what happened.” She turned away, focused on the fireplace nearby. “Sometimes, I still think of that first.”

“It’s a little like that for me right now. I’m still waiting for it to go away.” He lifted his head up, looked at her. His voice cracked when he tried to speak, but he breathed in to force the words out after. “Does it?”

Red was still for a moment. Her brown eyes looked at him and a fist that had been clenched began to open. “You learn to live around it after a while. So, what brings you back to Casper?”

“I’ve got a mountain to climb. You know the one.”

“Why?” she asked, her brow furrowed and her gaze fixed back on Jason Wood.

“Because he wanted his urn buried on the east side, so he could see the sunrise forever,” he answered. His voice was hollow of conviction, a callous verbal eyeroll. “And I’m the only one who can put it there.”

Red sighed, the bridge of her nose pinched by a pair of slender fingers. “This is just like you. You always have mountains to climb.”

“I’m no mountain climber,” he countered.

“You know what I mean, Jason Maximilian Wood.” She scowled at him. “You know exactly what I mean.”

He let a little smile crawl up the edges of his lips. “You haven’t given me the full name treatment in a while.”

Fists clenched and arms shaking, she got on her feet. “Because you haven’t been here in a while, Jason! You said it yourself. Fourteen and a quarter years! I’ve had three conversations with you in that time and all but one of them needed an internet connection!”

His shoulders lurched him forward until his elbows leaned on his lap. “I’m sorry,” he said, almost a whisper.

“I understood when you joined. You wanted a college education, get a degree in corporate law. I got that.”

“I was doing it for us. I didn’t want to be stuck as a coal miner.”

She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “And barely a month after you completed your two years of service, you signed right back up.”

“There was a war.”

“It wasn’t our war, Jason.”

“You sound like one of those non-interventionists.”

“What if I am?” she asked. The silence threatened to settle, but she broke it before anything happened. “You told me they were willing to discharge you after two years. In the same letter where you told me you asked for an extension.”

“My brothers needed me.”

“Your sister died just a week before that, Jason. Did you care about Stella at all?”

It was his turn to close his fists. “Don’t you dare suggest I didn’t care about that!”

“Then why didn’t you come home?!”

“Because I…” He paused, let out a breath. He looked away, downwards. On his polished shoes. “Because I didn’t want to face the fact that…that she was dead. So I extended my tour. Ran from it.”

“You ran!” she shouted, arms thrown up in the air. “You ran for years! When you came back after another tour of duty, you didn’t even come back to Casper.”

“I tried. I thought about it, Red.” His eyes focused on his shoes, on the floor. “I almost did, more than once.”

“But you didn’t.” She let out a low, displeased hiss. “You got your degree. I remember what I was doing when you called, asked me to drop everything and have dinner with you in Boston to celebrate.”

“What were you doing, exactly?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

He lifted his head, met her eyes and their scorn. “You know, I never thanked you,” he said. He smiled a little.

Her lips formed to speak, then paused. Her shoulders relaxed for the tiniest bit. “For what?”

“Showing up. I was…I was sure you wouldn’t.”

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to,” she said. “You were gone so long. I wanted to stay, ignore you. Or maybe leave you hanging there, waiting for someone who wasn’t coming. Just to spite you. We both know you had it coming twice over.”

His hands trembled. Eyes wide, his throat felt dry and he looked away again before words came out. “Why didn’t you?”

“You know why. What, do you need to hear me say it?”

“That would be nice. But no. It’d be cruel of me to make you say it, not without saying it to you first.”

He smiled. She waited, but he said nothing.

Red stood there. Her cheekbones were sharp, curves a racing yacht would have killed for. She carried herself with the poise of a born dancer. She was taller than he was, tall enough that she looked down at him as they talked without it seeming insulting or demeaning. Her skin had been impeccable once, but now had the marks of time. Good, calloused hands. A pair of red pants; loose-fitting so she could move with little hindrance. The top was a better fit, but the same shade. The same degree of fading. A stain on the left flank ran down the side of the pants, too. A single white stripe ran down the center, from the collar down to the waist. No jewelry or accessories, other than a blue ribbon that kept the red hair out of the way of her vision. Her feet were slipped into red shoes, a comfortable fit and cut so she didn’t need socks.

“You still take my breath away.”

“That’s not what you should have said.”

“You know I’ve never been very good at saying how I feel. All I’ve ever been good at is running from it.”

She snorted. “At least you know that much.”

“For what it’s worth, I did come here before climbing.”

“I suppose you’re ready?”

“As I’ll ever be. I asked Nate Harris to help me out. Surprised he remembers me.”

“Nate knows the mountains better than anyone. He’ll get you where you need to go, if you just listen to him.” She paused a moment. “What about gear? Supplies?”

He smiled. “Handled. Anyway, I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I just had to visit.”

“I’m not surprised. The mountain calls.”

Red walked like she had a weight on her. An invisible, insidious burden that wore down her every step.

“What are your plans, Jason?” she asked as he stepped out to the front porch. “After you climb and do what your father asked.”

“Visit Stella’s grave. Pay my respects for the first time. In all this time, I’ve never been to see her. God, I’m a terrible step-brother.” He clenched a fist tight. The arm shook for a beat, then two, before he opened his hand.

“She’s buried next to your step-mother.”

“Good. That makes it easier to find her.”

“And what comes next?”

“After that…I get back to my life, I guess. I’ve been a partner long enough, and I think I can press them to finally let me be a senior partner. I deserve to be one, and no one in that office will deny that I have it coming. I’ve earned it.”

She frowned. “Figured.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You remember back when we were in high school? We were on my roof, looking at the stars.”

“It was the night before graduation. I remember.” He smiled. “We talked about…about the future, didn’t we?”

“We did.” She didn’t smile back. “And I asked you what your plans for the future were. In fact, that was the seventh time I asked you that question.”

His eyebrows furrowed as he rubbed his chin. “I didn’t notice before, but now that you mention it, you did ask me that every so often.”

“I asked you that same question each time we talked after you signed up, too.”

“I remember.”

“Every time I asked, your answer would be different. Once, you wanted to be an architect. Another time, a stuntman. At one point, you wanted to be a superhero. But you always had a plan. A big one, some ambition to fulfill. Some mountain to climb.”

“It’s one of the things you love about me.”

“It was.” She paused, like she wanted to let the weight of past tense sink in. “I’ve had years to think through every conversation like that we had. And asking you now reminded me of the one thing all those times had in common.” She met his gaze, her green against his brown. “I was never in them.”

“What? Don’t be-”

“Ridiculous? No, I’m not being ridiculous, Jason. Every plan you make for your future, whether you were going to be a vigilante or a psychiatrist or a martial arts instructor, I was never in any of them. I never figured in your plans. And I still don’t.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying that in all these years, you’ve never stopped climbing, stopped clawing your way to your next peak, to wonder how I felt. To stop and think about me waiting for you to climb down, only to watch you prepare to climb back up again almost as soon as you can. You haven’t given my place in your life any thought except when you had to.”

“Red, that’s not true. You know it isn’t.” His feet sprang to life, lifted him up and bolted him towards her. “Red. Pamela. You know how I feel. How I’ve felt for years now. I love you.”

She pushed him back. Denied him the closeness of a hug.

“Don’t you believe me?”

“That’s the part that hurts, Jason. I do believe you. I do. With all my heart.” She bit her lip, pushed back tears. “But you and I both know…you’ll always have mountains to climb. And I’ve always, always been at the bottom, waiting for you.”

“I know. I know. And I know I haven’t treated you the way you deserve, Red. And you have every right to hold it against me. But you can come with me, can’t you?”

“And what? Stay at your place in Boston, waiting for you to come home? Cooking dinners you’re never eating because you work late? Dressing up for office parties so you can impress the other partners?”

“Pamela. It’s just one more mountain. The last one. After that, I’m done. I’m staying down, I swear.”

“No,” she said, flat and final. Her lip quivered with the words. “You’ll always have mountains to climb, Jason. And this time, I won’t be waiting for you.”

For the first time, the front door of 37 Manning Street was shut in Jason Wood’s face.

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