Contest #181 shortlist ⭐️

12 comments

Fiction Teens & Young Adult Contemporary

You open google and type “unsplash.com”. The site is simple, functional, and promising. You know you are at the right place when the most prominent thing on a site is the search bar. And there are two of them. Search free high-resolution photos, they say.

You know why you are here. Your life is lacking. You need inspiration. Or is it motivation? Or is it both? You decide to go with the former. It’s long-term. 

Choosing your desktop wallpaper is an important business for you. Because of the nature of your job, you are constantly changing tabs. This means you glance at your home screen at least a hundred times a day. You want this to mean something. You want to make use of this fact and set up a wallpaper that’s going to spark something in you. It is constantly going to remind you of something. It is going to influence your future choices. We are talking about subliminal messaging here.

It is early morning, and you feel like you need some sugar in your body. You go to a grocery store and buy two bottles of mountain dew. Someone has told you that it contains the most amount of sugar in any soda drink. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, you don’t care.

On the way home, you meet your drug dealer. He’s extra charming today. He has a great pitch for this new type of pill that he has acquired. “This stuff is the shit,” he says. “Oh, and dude, once you try it with that mountain dew, you’ll be reaching the clouds. Sky's the limit, my man.”

You always appreciate a great sales pitch. You won’t be taking them today, of course. Today you have an agenda. But there is no harm in just owning those pills. It could be months before you actually try them.

You walk back home with the pills in your pocket and the sun on your shoulder. Your mouth is smiling but your eyes are constantly on the lookout for any threats. You know that getting caught with those pills will get you in trouble. You lock the door behind you and exhale loudly just for dramatic effect. You put the pills in your desk drawer (dangerously easy to reach, if you ask me) and wake up your computer screen.

The question remains. What do you think will inspire you? Most people just have photos of their families as their wallpaper. But you don’t have one. Your parents disowned you a long time ago because of your drug addiction. Your little sister still loves you but you never go visit her. Because you never feel like yourself. She deserves you, you think. Not someone else pretending to have his shit together. 

You’ve tried setting her picture as the wallpaper before to inspire you to be a better person. But it only made you feel more ashamed of yourself every time you failed to resist a drug temptation. It made you question whether you even love your sister or not. Because if you really loved her, then wouldn’t you get your shit together so that you can start feeling like yourself enough to go visit her? Wouldn’t you take into consideration how much abandoned she must feel every day you don’t show up?

So, what’s going to set your priorities straight? What’s going to remind you of your fraternal responsibilities? 

These are some serious expectations to have from a desktop wallpaper. But you have no other things to base your life on. You need to have a vision. You want to find meaning in your day-to-day suffering. And you’ve decided that your desktop wallpaper is going to provide a framework for that meaning. You open the mountain dew and take a sip.

So, who are you? Or better yet, who do you want to be? How do you plan to reconcile with your family? Think about your future. What will your parents approve of? What do you plan to do once you’ve met their expectations? When you’ve won back your parents’ love and your sister’s respect? 

You reckon you want to move to another country. That’s understandable. You want a fresh start. Where do you want to go then? Just name the first country that comes to your mind. Switzerland? You want to go to Switzerland? All right then. We start there.

You type “Switzerland” in the search bar and hit enter. The screen fills with images of mountains. Every single photo you see has at least one mountain in it. This is perfect, you think. Now at least we have a theme.

You start scrolling. The mountains in the pictures are huge. All of them are reaching for the sky. Sometimes there is fog, sometimes there is sunlight. Visible sunlight. Some mountains are partially covered in ice. Some show their barren cliff faces. Some are just green.

You see a train disappearing into a tunnel leading into the belly of a snow-capped mountain. 

Next: A lone house on the bank of a river surrounded by pine trees and backed by a huge mountain.

Next: A craggy mountain towering over a valley with a small river cutting across it. You can almost hear the crashing sound that the water’s making.

Next: A gondola flying over tons of snow-matted peaks.

Next: A cow is grazing on a rolling side of a hill. Beyond it, a lake and a house. The house is surrounded by such a colossal mountain range that you don’t even notice it at first glance. If you look at these mountains long enough, they seem to be breathing. You’d love to live here someday, you think. With your family. 

You imagine your father milking that cow. Your mother and sister sitting by the lake watching the mountains with contented smiles on their faces. You swimming in the lake, watching your mother and your sister watching the mountains with contented smiles on their faces. Then you guys play with your pet dog beside the lake overlooked by the mountains. You guys play badminton. Your sister keeps throwing the shuttle far away for your dog to fetch it.

And all the while, in your imagination, your father never stops milking that cow. He doesn’t want to be bothered.

Simultaneously, new questions are crowding your mind.  

Is this mountain tall enough to hide your insecurities? Your shame? Your fears? Your embarrassing past? 

Is this mountain broad enough to absorb your lethargy? Your knowledge of your incompetency? Your laziness? Your loneliness? Your feelings of ennui? Your cynicism? (Although you know that you don’t need this mountain to do all these things. There are already some pills in the drawer that can do these things in an hour.) Your dependency on narcotics? Hopelessness? 

Is this mountain mystifying enough to put your life in perspective, and get rid of your propensity to catastrophize everything? To get rid of your self-pity?

The answer to all these questions is “No.” You keep scrolling.

After a while, the laptop screen is stinging your eyes. You find yourself squinting to assuage the pain. So many mountains, but not a single one equipped enough to put you into a correct mindset. But you can’t stop now. You need to keep your hand busy. Otherwise, it’s going to reach for the drawer. The craving has begun.

You quickly rub your eyes and keep looking at the mountains sliding past your vision. At this point, you are not even paying attention to them. You are scolding yourself: why did you have to buy those pills in the first place? What made you think that you wouldn’t take them today? Or tomorrow?

What is it about mornings that always makes you feel optimistic? Every day you wake up and know with unparalleled certainty that this is the day you quit drugs. Even though nothing has changed other than the Earth having started just another of its revolutions around the Sun.

The image of the Earth revolving around the Sun makes you feel dizzy. You take another sip of mountain dew. Once you try it with that mountain dew, you’ll be reaching the clouds, the thought hits you like a bull. Sky’s is the limit, my man. Your eyes intuitively settle on the drawer handle.  

But your index finger is refusing to stop scrolling. Because you have dared yourself to not let go of the mouse until you’ve counted at least 200 cows in the upcoming pictures. I respect the strategy. But be careful. Cows are probably a more integral part of Switzerland than mountains. And your count is already at 59.

You are at the 90th cow when your hands start shaking. Sweat is gushing from everywhere in your body. It’s dampening your resolve. You are barely hanging on to your seat now. You feel like running. You feel like jumping up and down all over the house. All over the street. If you are not fed those pills soon, you might even explode.

You are at the 130th cow when you pull your legs up and are squatting on your seat. You are swinging back and forth on your toes. Your bony knees are pointing all over the place. You decide to stop at 150 cows. 200 seems far more ambitious. You think that if you can hold on till 150, you deserve to get high.

Another half hour passes until you are met with the 135th cow. They are getting more and more scarce. And the mountains are falling more and more into the background. Now you have started seeing pictures of Swiss cuisine. Toblerone bars. Balconies. City life. Horticulture. Potatoes dipped in what looks like… Swiss cheese? You have no idea what that is. But you keep scrolling.

You are rubbing the back of your teeth with your tongue until they start chattering. You are feeling cold. You look at your hands and see that you’ve got goosebumps. Your toes have started feeling crispy as if they might crack at any moment. 

You are 5 cows away when you hear a deafening rumble. The whole house seems like it’s shaking. As if it’s trying to tip you off of your perch. You squeeze your eyes shut and grab the desk with both hands and wait for the wave to pass. 

Your knuckles have turned white, but the house is still shaking. You hear sirens going off in the distance but you fail to locate the meaning of it. You feel dust crawling on your face, your hands, your feet. You hear walls cracking, the cracks lengthening, and finally settling right in front of your face like snakes. Hissing. 

Terrified, you open your eyes and see that the computer screen isn’t loading. There is no internet connection. And this could only mean one thing: It’s an earthquake you idiot. You lunge for the foot of your bed and as you are about to duck beneath it, the ceiling fan breaks and hits your head. You pass out.

#

It’s still afternoon when you open your eyes. But something is blocking the Sun. It’s a face. It doesn’t take you more than a second to realize that it’s your sister. Even though she is grown like two feet in the interim and her face has become more girlish than you remember, you still recognize her eyes. They are brown and big and beautiful. She smiles. “He’s awake, he’s awake,” she yells.

You are lying on a gurney on the street outside of your house. You have no idea how much time has passed. You try to sit up but your sister wraps her arms around you and embraces you with surprising strength. You see your mother coming into view with a concerned look on her face. “Careful Lily,” she says. “He’s hurt. How are you feeling, son?”

“I am okay,” you reply. “My god, you’ve become strong little sis.”

“I know,” she says. “I can even probably beat your ass in badminton now.”

You both laugh and then your father comes climbing down the wreckage of your house and asks, “how is it that yours is the only house that got destroyed in this earthquake?” 

You straight up ignore him. What kind of question is that? 

He holds the bottle of pills in front of your face. “You wanna explain this to me?”

“I never took them,” you say.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I am NOT lying. I never even_”

“Mark, look at you. Your eyes are bloodred. You are definitely high right now.”

“No, I am not.”

“Let’s not do this right now,” your mother suggests, rather forcefully.

A few moments pass until your sister asks: “He’s coming to live with us now, right? Now that his house is destroyed?”

“No,” your father declares.

Your mother frowns at him. “Whatever do you mean?”

“He is not coming with us.”

“But we can’t just leave him like this.”

“You are right,” he says. “We should hand him over to the cops. They’ll take care of him in jail.”

Your sister starts crying and yelling. “No,” she says. “No you can’t. No.” 

“What nonsense is this?”

“Dad, please,” you beg him. “At least don’t say stuff like that in front of Lily.”

She cries louder and hugs you again. “You are coming with us,” she says. “You are coming with us. Dad, he’s coming with us.”

Your father exhales sharply. “Ok,” he says. “But on one condition. You have to attend rehab for a month.”

“No,” Lily says. “He’s not going anywhere. He’s coming home.”

“Dad,” you say. “Why bother? It doesn't work anyway. We’ve tried it before. I swear I won’t do drugs ever again.”

“You are not coming into my house until you are sober.”

“Two weeks,” you propose.

“One month, and it’s not up for discussion.”

You look at your mother and see that she’s actually considering this solution. “Mom, Seriously?” 

“Mark, you know I love you, right?”

“But mom_”

“Listen to me. One month rehab and_” She holds out her hand to stop Lily from interrupting. “This is final.”

#

The rehab center is situated on top of a hill surrounded by monstrously huge mountains. On your first day, you are asked to share your story. So you do. You tell them about how you counted cows for five straight hours just to keep yourself from reaching that drawer. You tell them about the earthquake that destroyed your house alone. And how you had this idea of finding a perfect picture as a wallpaper that would make you a better person by manipulating your thoughts in a certain way with subliminal messaging.

At the end of your speech, the guy whom everyone very lovingly calls “the Monitor,” says: “I think you are a very talented individual, Mark. Very talented indeed.”

They call him “the Monitor” because of how he monitors people’s emotions and provides them with quite astute feedback. Everyone seems to respect the hell out of him. You do too.

It’s nearly a month, and you consider yourself rehabilitated. Everyone does. But deep down you still feel afraid of yourself. You feel afraid of your past, your desires, and deficiencies.

It’s your last day and you manage to coax the Monitor into lending you his DSLR camera to click some pictures of the mountains and the valleys and the sunset. He hands it over to you like handing over a baby. Just by the weight of it, you know that it’s not a toy.

“Don’t fiddle with the settings,” he says. “I’ve already made it perfect for capturing stationary objects.”

“What if I feel like capturing birds,” you ask.

He makes it as if to take the camera back. “All right, all right. I won’t change the settings.”

You spend the whole day taking photos of the mountains. But again, none of them seem to be meeting your expectations. None of them provoke that visceral reaction you are looking for. 

You are sitting on the stairs right outside the main gate when you see your father’s car being parked someway down the road. They all get out of the car and start walking the winding path leading toward you. You quickly take out the camera and get ready to click a photo of them as soon as they’re close enough. They are silhouetted against the setting sun and the valley stretches all around them.  

They are just turning a corner when you click the shutter button and it takes a full three seconds to capture them. And because they are a moving target and the camera settings is tailored for stationary objects only, their image becomes distorted. But as you look at the photo, you can’t help but think that they look like three shadows of mountains. You smile. You think: I’ve found my mountain.

As soon as Lily sees you, she starts running. You place the camera on the bare, dust-coated stairs (the Monitor would kill you if he saw you doing that) and pick up your sister.

“Everything’s ready,” she says. “I’ve even cleaned out your old room.”

“Thank you,” you say, and give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Why are you crying?”

“I am just so happy to see you.”

You go back inside to return the camera. The Monitor is transferring the photos into your mobile phone when he asks you if you want to know an interesting fact.

You say yes.

“The tectonic plates that caused that earthquake are the same plates responsible for forming these mountains.”

You ponder this information over in your mind. “What do you think is the right way to think about this fact?” you ask.

The Monitor chuckles and shakes his head emphatically. “There are no ‘wrong thoughts,’” he says. “There are only wrong actions.”

#

You never use that photo as your wallpaper. But you also never do drugs again.

THE END

January 19, 2023 17:01

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

12 comments

Story Time
17:35 Feb 01, 2023

This was my favorite story of the week. I thought you went in a fascinating direction, and I loved the balance of humor and dry wit. Well done.

Reply

Akash Joshi
02:13 Feb 02, 2023

Hey, thanks for loving it so much. I just kept thinking that I might've completely butchered the prompt by literally "moving mountains" left, right and center. Can you tell me which part of the story was your favorite and which one the least favorite? I am relatively a new writer and such a feedback would help me a lot.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Suma Jayachandar
05:12 Jan 28, 2023

Very unique and impressive take on the prompt, Akash! Congratulations and look forward to reading more of your work.

Reply

Akash Joshi
05:35 Jan 28, 2023

Thanks so much! :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Wendy Kaminski
18:10 Jan 27, 2023

Way to go, Akash! Congratulations on shortlisting! :)

Reply

Akash Joshi
21:39 Jan 27, 2023

Thank you so much!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Wendy Kaminski
03:14 Jan 26, 2023

This was really raw for something that turned into inspiration! And you maintained the second-person voice throughout very consistently, which I'm told is difficult to do as a writer (I've never tried). I particularly liked that you switched only twice, and it was to talk to the "you": "(dangerously easy to reach, if you ask me)" and "I respect the strategy." Both of those interludes were very effective! Did you have a particularly difficult time writing any parts of this? And/or did you have a favorite line or section while writing it? Tha...

Reply

Akash Joshi
06:06 Jan 26, 2023

Thanks for the encouraging comment. It was my first time writing in second-person too. It was inspired by the story "Resolute" by Saeda Rose. Honestly, it was easier than I thought. I did have difficulty transitioning from 'mountains reveries' to 'counting cows.' And my favorite line is when Mark's father says: "You are right. We should hand him over to the cops. They'll take care of him in jail." That line came spontaneously and as a surprise even to me. Not to say that everything else was planned. But this line shocked me. And I like being...

Reply

Wendy Kaminski
10:30 Jan 26, 2023

My pleasure! And thank you. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Philip Ebuluofor
17:04 Jan 29, 2023

A hit. Wonder work. Congrats.

Reply

Akash Joshi
23:01 Jan 29, 2023

Thanks!!

Reply

Philip Ebuluofor
07:27 Jan 30, 2023

My pleasure.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply