[Last updated 07 Sept 17]
The mountain comes tumbling down. A massive landslide of blistering snow and crumbling stone gives way, all aimed at the man standing in its path. Our hero confronts the avalanche, clenched fists by his side, looking like a tree beneath the mountain’s monstrous size. “You cannot take me!” our hero curses. The billowing storm shakes the world, but our hero keeps his ground. “I’ll never give up, you hear me?” He charges the mountain and meets the horror head-on. He claws through the ice. He pummels boulders to dust. He does all he could. But it’s all too much. Our hero has given it his all.
“Ahhh!” I yelled, falling into the hideout Cattherina and I had dug, pretending that I’d been a hero defeated by the mountain; my arm rested against a buried well found at the bottom of the hole; my head fallen in Cattherina’s lap. The sun and clouds dangled in the summer-blue sky overhead. The drop into the hole was only a few feet. At eight years old and about the same size, the fit was tight for us, but it was cozy.
The earth this deep was as dark and spongy as chocolate cake, and it left streak marks on my red shoes. The coolness of the soil seeped right through my jeans. Roots from nearby plants and weeds hung exposed along the carved-out walls of soil; one of the roots tickled, but I swatted it out of my dirty blonde hair as if it was a buzzing bee. Mere inches of an old wishing well, that we’d partially unearthed like a fossil, protruded from the dirt of The Great Dreaming Hole in the Ground.
“Come on, Mikey,” said Catt. “This is real.”
Cattherina sat with her legs folded underneath her, being careful not to get her blue jeans too dirty. Her long brunette hair rested mostly to one side. She had on her usual pink sneakers and matching tank top, which sported an ironed-on image of a fluffy cloud with a rainbow spilling from it. Looped twice around her neck, tucked neatly under her shirt, she wore her favorite beaded necklace.
Looking up at her face, I could tell that she was serious.
“Sorry,” I said, sitting up, brushing dirt off my favorite black t-shirt with the Atari logo on the front. “One of these days, I’ll do it.”
“Do what exactly?” asked Catt. “Find the island or beat the…?”
“The mountain,” I said. “Yeah, one of them at least. With your help.”
Catt took the mountain seriously. We both did; I shouldn’t have been playing. We feared the mountain because Cattherina said that the mountain had eyes and was always watching. I never saw any eyes on it, but now that I knew how frightening it could be, I could feel them on me. Judging. Spying. I used to think of the mountain as just part of the background—part of the scenery. No longer. Not since I’d seen the look in her eyes when she told me.
“That’s why we dug this hole, isn’t it?” she asked.
Several days ago, we’d found the perfect spot to dig in an unfinished, residential lot. A chain-link fence barricaded the grounds and the earth here was like sandbox sand; we called this place the sandlot. The land was home to no one but us. The sandlot was littered with pieces of a house-that-never-was: bundles of two-by-fours stacked high over dying grass; empty concrete sewer-pipes—some big enough to climb through—lay unburied and unused; steel scaffolding raised against invisible buildings had ladders leading straight into sky, going nowhere. In the back corner of the yard, was an apple tree, its gnarly roots exposed. The tree had been here long before the workers had come and gone. The sandlot—and our hideout—was our sanctuary, away from the mountain.
My sliver shovel we’d used to dig the hole laid on the ground above us. Normally, I kept it stashed under the apple tree; Mother didn’t want me using Grampa’s last gift he’d given me to tear up someone’s yard; she couldn’t confiscate it, if she couldn’t find it.
“You know, if we dig deeper,” I said, “I think we’d be closer to the island.”
“You really think we’ll be safe there?”
“From the mountain, at least.”
There was the mountain and there was the island. Two possibilities. Two roads. In order to save Cattherina, I had to choose: find the island or beat the mountain. I was only one person, so how could I accomplish both? Transporting ourselves to a new world seemed more plausible than conquering an entire mountain.
I asked, “You wanna try again, to get there?”
“Sure,” Catt said. “It couldn’t hurt, just one more time.”
I’d promised Catt that we’d make it. Somewhere deep down, I’d always believed I was special; like I could tear open rifts and step into my imagination. But unlocking that power was tough. Cattherina, though, she believed in me. So together, we practiced. She knew I’d find the way. The island was all we had, and the opportunities to get there were becoming less and less. Father was forcing us to move eastward. Soon, I wouldn’t be around to get Cattherina away from here.
We faced each other, our legs crossed, our right hands interlocked. We closed our eyes. I strained to make the island real. Catt’s grip tightened as well. We summoned the strength—the will—to transport ourselves away to the island, the place we’d imagined.
“Come on,” I breathed. “Take us away.”
This time I felt a slight twinge in my brain.
Then bird cried out.
“Did you hear that?” I looked around.
“I heard a bird.” I swore the bird had said something. “I think it said my name.”
“That’s crazy. Birds can’t talk.”
We hadn’t moved an inch. Nothing had changed. Our world was still the same.
My demeanor melted. Another failed attempt. I thought of Cattherina and how I owed it to her to do my best.
“It’ll be for real, next time,” I said, trying to sound hopeful.
“I bet there’ll be lots of waterfalls there,” said Catt.
“Come on, let’s try again. This time I’ll concentrate real hard and—”
“No more, for now.” She crushed my dreams.
“I thought you wanted to get gone? I just know if—”
“I just don’t want,” her hand touched my knee, “to waste any more time.”
I got chills, the kind that empty you and make you frown.
“So you know, huh?” I spoke to the dirt. I wasn’t ready to talk about it. It hurt just to think about it. Moving away.
“My mom told me. Do you know when?”
I couldn’t remember the date. The last thing I wanted to do was start counting down, day by day. All I could think to say was “soon,” and that was true enough.
I stayed quiet a moment, thinking. If I couldn’t get us away to the island, I’d have to try something else to keep Cattherina safe. I wouldn’t always be around.
“Hey, we should go check out the mountain. Maybe it has a weakness—like a cave that leads to its heart. Or something like—”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit far?”
“It’s just over there, on the other side of town.”
“Well, you see it’s not really…” Catt trailed off, sounding solemn, then she changed her tune. “No, you know what? Sounds like fun. It’ll be real adventure, huh? No kidding?”
“Yep. But we’ll have to be brave. Come on, I’ll show you the way.”
“Okay.” Catt said, with a clap of her hands. “Let’s get it on!”
I grabbed my silver shovel and used it to prop myself up out of the hole like a crutch. Then I leaned on it, giving Catt a hand. Together we slid a loose slab of aluminum paneling over the hideout to keep the place secret.
Before we left, I held the silver shovel with one hand gripping the wooden shaft and the other knotted through its handle-loop and stabbed it deep under the apple tree. I could always rely on my shovel staying put, as long as I hid it well beneath the roots.
The sky darkened. Clouds gathered around the mountain’s peak. A bit of thunder rumbled in the distance. A shadow with an unnatural chill draped over us. We stood facing the mountain, the wind pulling at our shirts and jeans. I turned from the mountain’s gaze and looked over at Catt; she was lost in thought. I worried that boulders would soon roll down the mountain’s face, and if we didn’t do something, it would see us crushed and bloodied.
“Get lost, mountain,” I said to the Rocky Mountain, as if it would kindly up and walk off. “I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna figure out a way to beat you. Believe it!”
After hours of having explored unexplored streets, exhausted and unable to find a road to the mountain’s base, we gave up and had come back to our neighborhood’s main road that cut between Catt’s house and the vacant lot. She was right. The mountain was far. Too far. And we were too small. What could we do against such giants?
Catt stayed silent, the wind ruffling up her hair. I got the feeling there was something she wasn’t telling me. The relationship between her and the mountain was still so secret. I needed to learn more. I needed to understand what I was up against.
“How do you know?” I asked. “How do you know it has eyes?”
“I just do,” she said. “It always knows when I’ve done something wrong.”
“I wish I could push it back. Make it move from here.”
Catt pulled out her jeweled necklace and fiddled with it around her neck. “My grandmother once said this came from a magic place.” She looked at me. “Maybe impossible things can happen.”
“Where’d you get it?” She wore it all the time, but I had never asked. It was her security blanket. I walked over and held it up for a closer look. “You never talk about it.”
Little valentine heart-shaped ruby beads threaded in a pattern along the necklace’s cord; the cord itself travelled through each heart from its cleavage to its point. In between every other ruby were crystal-white, round-shaped diamonds. The diamonds and rubies were all equal in size, like peas, and the pattern continued that way around the entire loop. The necklace was a gem to behold.
“I inherited it from my grandmother.” She leaned back, pulling the necklace from my fingers and letting it fall back onto her shirt. Catt touched it, protectively. “She got when she was a girl. She always said it was lucky. Like magic. It’s unbreakable, you know?”
“Whoa, that’s a great story.”
“Yeah, thanks, but she’s gone now.”
“Right…my Grampa’s gone too.”
My sodden heart weighed me down. I’d failed to reach the island—failed to beat the mountain. I’m no hero.
Catt tapped my shoulder.
“I have an idea that will cheer you up.” She lifted the necklace up over her head and unlatched it. “Here,” she said, handing me one end of it. “Hold on to it real tight. Now lean back that way,” she said, signaling with her hand, “and I’ll lean this way. It’ll be like flying.”
“No way—it’ll break!”
“Nuh-uh, it’s unbreakable. The thread is hair from a unicorn’s tail.”
“Oh, sure, and the gems are from its horn?”
“Fine, but I bet it breaks.”
Stepping back from Catt, I prepped for a violent fall. However, always up for new adventures, I put my trust in her and the necklace…and let myself lean.
I leaned one way and Cattherina leaned the other. The necklace pulled tight and firm and straightened out parallel to the ground. Then we dared a few steps and walked a short way down the road. I stretched my free, right arm out, and Cattherina did the same with her left. Red and white sparkles bloomed from the gems while sunlight shone through our open hands. Our outlines were silhouetted from the setting sun.
The necklace held true. I floated over the road as I had in my deepest of dreams. We smiled at each other and laughed. I suddenly realized that not only was I holding on for dear life, I was also holding onto her life.
However, for that moment, Cattherina didn’t need saving. We didn’t need the island. We didn’t have to move mountains. We were good. I was glad our friendship was as strong as the necklace between us…and more than anything, I hoped that nothing could break the bond.
That night in bed, staring up at the popcorn ceiling dappled in creamy orange streetlight blazing in through the blinds, I thought of Grampa and the silver shovel he’d given me. Sharing stories with Catt today had brought up a few memories.
Grampa used to tell the best stories. They made my imagination soar and inspired the many crayon colorings hanging on my bedroom wall.
In one drawing, I was a boy who could fly like a bird using his own set of wings. In another, there was an angel slaying a dark and shadowy villain. And in my latest masterpiece, I had drawn a man standing strong, facing a dark, ice-capped mountain. His arms were by his side; his hands were fists. He was small, drawn only from the back. The dark mountain took up most the page, but the man had muscles and looked strong enough to move it. Using the red crayon, I had given the mountain a set of angry, fiery eyes.
I thought of Catt.
In Grampa’s stories, she was always in trouble. Kidnapped. Taken. But I would always be the hero, slay the monster that’d grabbed her, and save he day. “Oh, my hero,” she’d say.
Grampa’s stories always had happy endings.
This one time, Father tried to tell one. But I learned quick that his story was just another lie. At the very end of it…he let Cattherina die.
Things weren’t the same without Grampa. He used to say, “Stories are like islands, go out exploring and you’re bound to get lost fantastically.” Maybe wishing for the island wasn’t enough. “So dig deep,” he’d say, “and unearth a story of your own.” Maybe I’d have to dig to find it. That is what the silver shovel was for.
“I’ll write my own story someday,” I whispered to the night. “I’ll find the island, beat the mountain, and save Cattherina, all at the same time. Believe it.”