By Joshua Beggs
Originally, he’d planned to make it all the way to the peak.
To be fair, though, he’d also planned to climb this mountain rather than drive up it, at the ripe old age of ninety-five rather than fifty-nine, using his own kneecaps rather than two titanium plates he’d been smuggling under his surgical scars for the past decade. He’d planned to spend that climb thinking back on his life’s greatest escapades—financial, international, sexual, etcetera—rather than trying not to think about his life spent in the unique hell of an open-plan office, as an affair grew into his one long-term romance like a spreading mold, as his parents withered away so gradually that he hardly noticed their absence until years later, as he himself grew steadily fatter and slouchier and more erectilely dysfunctional from drinking away the health that he’d so carefully stocked up in high-school basketball. He’d planned to leave a whole rabbit’s warren of grandkids behind rather than only a crotchety Scottish terrier named Betty that he’d dropped off at the mountain’s base to live among her wild-blooded kin, planned for a mutually tearful farewell rather than the dog’s smug, raised-tail salute as she trotted into the underbrush. Most importantly, he’d planned to carry nothing with him but a Ziplocked, handwritten note (just one word, both destination and identification) that someone several generations hence might find among his sun-mellowed skeleton, rather than a cancer that someone several generations hence might divine a cure for, but which would take only several weeks to eat away what little remained of his pancreas, was already chewing up his liver and diaphragm, had recently taken its first bite from his lungs after eyeing them hungrily for months.
Instead, he drove up the mountain. His four-door Kia choked out on the snow after just a few switchbacks, already exhausted from carrying him all the way from Florida, but that still got him to this scenic outlook. It’s equipped with everything that he needs. A good view. No tourists.
He got up early today, though no earlier than usual, and not by choice (another thing he hadn’t planned on: waking up every hour to pee). This got him here faster than planned, so he lets the car idle, listening to the few remaining songs on the playlist he made for this trip, until the clouds loitering on the clifftop get uncomfortable with him staring at them through the windshield and scoot out of sight. The sun has started graying out the pre-dawn sky, turning it the color of a raw chicken breast left in the fridge too long—far from the psychedelic sunset he’d planned for, but he has to admit that the more muted aesthetic holds a certain symbolic resonance.
Eventually, Freddie Mercury finishes belting out his manifesto about wanting to break free. The playlist fizzes out, leaving nothing but the occasional birdsong and the trees’ sleepy groans as the mountainside wind shakes them awake. A sunrise yawns and stretches over the horizon. He savors the last few sips from the thermos of coffee he’d nipped from his bed-and-breakfast’s kitchen, curls his toes in his slippers (he’d planned on wearing hiking shoes, but Betty had chewed through them overnight, her parting gift). As far as ways to start a morning, he has to admit, this one is more pleasant than his running average. Makes him wish that he’d planned more mornings like this one for himself while he’d had the chance. Even makes him consider that things might turn out better than his original plan, in one regard, at least.
This is all before he opens his door.
Icy air rams into him like a charging priest, furious and clad in white. His ruined lungs flail and flap like popped birthday balloons. His knees scream as he unfolds them from the cab, his gut aches from the black coffee sloshing inside, and…damn. He has to pee again.
He can’t give up now, though. He’s been planning this ever since he was fourteen years old, when his parents (pre-withering) had taken him on a driving trip to this very mountain and told him, look, that’s your mountain, that’s what gave you your name. They’d had an immediate understanding, the mountain and him, a covenant crushing in its magnitude. He’d read the terms of it in the mountain’s stony face, the face of nature itself, careworn but strong-jawed, several thousand years old and still young, making him finally comprehend his size and his lifespan and the impossible smallness of both. The mountain had given him its name, and in return, it expected him to do that name justice.
It was at least a good name, solid core and sharp edges, one that his parents (and the mountain) could only hope he would use well, changing lives with a single look, just like his namesake had done to him. As the mountain had steadily shrunk in his parents’ rearview mirror, he’d decided that he’d do just that.
Well. He’d planned to.
Just like he’d planned to slip demurely out of life’s back door, rather than leap bodily off its balcony, but here he is anyway. He considers sparing his knees and just driving over the cliff in his car, but decides that it would be a waste. He’d always planned to give away everything he had before dying, and this junky old car is the last worthwhile thing he has to his name. So he leaves it unlocked, keys in the ignition, for someone else to find—a stranded hiker, maybe, or two young honeymooners whose own car has broken down. The thought gives him a small flicker of joy. Just enough to spark him into motion.
An owl dozing on the guardrail takes flight as he thumps towards the cliff. Elbows swinging wildly. Heart chugging, catching, smoking. Small nuclear fission reactions bursting under his kneecaps with each step. The cancer in his lungs makes him huff and heave and eventually just hurt with each breath. Just a few steps ahead, several hundred feet below, the mountain spreads its jagged, rocky fingers, ready to take its name back after so many years.
In spite of all that, he feels unexpectedly, unreservedly, undeservedly happy. How long has it been since he last ran? Five years, at least. Maybe ten. And that sunrise. That coffee. That cozy bed-and-breakfast, Betty curled up beside him on the quilt, her warm breath on his hand. That growing lightness he’s felt ever since driving away from his single apartment, knowing that he has full control over whatever happens next, maybe for the first time in his life.
He had never planned on any of that.
He skids in his slippers across the snowy gravel, crashes against the guardrail, barely catches himself, eyes bulging, before he tips over its edge. The metal supports shudder away the last of his kinetic energy. The updraft off the cliff sweeps his combover into a snowy white plume. Behind him, the mountain watches expectantly, its face unblemished snow on purple rock, tattooed with deep-green pines and deeper shadows.
This wouldn’t be suicide, he’s told himself. Suicide speaks of hopelessness, and jumping is his last hope—a backup plan, but the only one he has left. Because he might not have lived long or lived well or really lived at all, might not have ever grown out of his mountain’s shadow, might not have changed lives with a single look, but he can still change his life, even if only by changing how it ends. He can still do his mountain justice. He can at least give it its name back.
Or he can make the name his own.
The old four-door shrugs lopsidedly as McKinley lowers himself into the driver’s seat. He turns the keys in the ignition. The playlist he’d been listening to earlier starts fresh: Prince inviting his dearly beloved to celebrate life, the afterworld, going crazy. As McKinley reaches the mountain’s base, two beady eyes pierce the roadside underbrush, flashing with the headlights’ reflection. Betty lifts her mustachioed snout as he rolls to a stop, gives him the look that his ex-wife gave him on their first date. Pick me up, keep going, turn back, that look says, it’s all the same to me.
McKinley reaches over the car’s gearshift and pops open the passenger door.
Betty trots out from the prickly shrubs, trailing twigs, and sniffs the car’s running boards discerningly before vaulting inside, settling herself in the passenger seat.
Driving back to the bed-and-breakfast takes longer than McKinley expects, drawn out further when his overfull bladder complains so much he has to pull over and empty it, the snow steaming and hissing beneath his sputtering stream like a beast alive. He needs a new plan, he realizes, as the tiny tourist town comes back into view. He has a future to think about—not much of one, but one that finally feels like his. Between travel and lodging costs, all he has left is the car, his vintage postcard collection, and the dregs from seventeen and a half peanut-butter jars filled with rainy-day change. Maybe he can get a job at the bed-and-breakfast. Washing sheets. Mopping floors. Cooking. He’s always liked cooking. Yeah, McKinley thinks. That sounds like a good plan.
Joshua Beggs is a graduate from Hendrix College and an MD candidate at Kansas University, with publications appearing in Blue Mountain Review, Hamilton Stone Review, Aphelion, and elsewhere. In his free time, he volunteers as a medical Spanish interpreter, makes a podcast that his mom says is awesome, and occasionally updates his very imaginatively named website, joshuabeggs.com.