A white sea with ever-falling pearls from a darkening sky. A sun setting over the peaks, casting a painting like fire that even the greats could not hope to replicate. A quiet so serene- so utterly void- one could on hear the deepest of thoughts echoing through memory.
Joel collapsed in the snow as he watched the scene. It was the most beautiful thing he had witness in his long, simple life. A world unbothered and unafraid. Gorgeous and deadly and unwavering and resolute.
He cherished being there to witness it, even if it would be his last night alive. Joel had already come to terms with the fact he would die in these wild mountains. The snow and trees and rocks and cliffs would be his companions as they bid him farewell from the world, on to whatever was next.
Three days- Joel had spent three days in this wilderness. He should’ve known better than to choose the slope his did. He was experienced but was only human.
“That hobby of yours is going to be the death of you.” His lovely wife had joked. Joel laughed, wondering now what Harper would think when she discovered she had been right.
He wasn’t angry he had strayed from the path. It had been a split second decision and, this time, it hadn’t been the right one. He veered off course too much- the path became too unpredictable.
Joel had tried his best to ride the rest of the mountain down, but things worsened. The snow thickened, his body stiffened, and then he crashed.
The blood from his head had long since dried. It had left stains down his face and jacket, but somehow Joel had survived. He awoke in the snow, half frozen to death. When he finally found his footing again, he assumed his best bet would be to trek back up the mountain. With some luck a team or another stray skier from the resort would stumble into him.
No one ever showed up.
Joel had continued, his hopes never faltering until his stomach had turned on itself- until his legs wavered with every step and his breathing became difficult and shallow.
It was his third day and Joel had yet to find anyone or anything.
At first, he had cried. Screamed. Threw his skies as far as his damaged and ravaged body would allow.
Now… now was acceptance.
Joel was going to die on these mountains, and he was… he was alright with that.
He would be turning sixty later this year. How had it come to be that he was already that old? His hair already grey? His skin already wrinkling? His body already turning frail?
He didn’t understand how life had passed him so suddenly, but it had been a good life. He had a caring wife whose love and caring had given him so much to live for. With her, he had three children; a son and two daughters. Petey, Claire and Francis… they all looked more like their mother than him.
Joel caught himself smiling at the memory of them, his laugh the only noise for miles. He missed his children, but they were all grown up now. Petey was on track to graduate from college next year, Francis already had her first novel published with another on the way, and Claire was overseas in a uniform Joel himself had worn long ago.
Joel had lived.
He had seen much in his life. He had traveled across seas and explored different continents. He had climbed mountains bigger than this one and had seen night skies full of light and wonder. He found love and peace and family.
Now, he would die.
Joel fell back, letting himself sink further into the snow. His face had gone numb long ago, as had his fingers and toes. The snow had sunk through layer upon layer, and his sweat from hiking had soaked him from the inside out.
His stomach still churned. Oh, Joel would’ve done almost anything for fries right now. The super salty ones that made his tongue twinge and beg for a soda. Or Harpers’ home-cooked spaghetti. She made the most superb sauce Joel had ever tasted.
He sighed… he wouldn’t have the chance to try any of that anymore. He would never taste another meal, or learn to play the guitar, or buy that fancy necklace for Harper he had been eyeing for some time. He would’ve attended his son’s graduation or see Claire when she came back from overseas. He would never read the next book in Francis’s series.
He would never.
His body felt weak- heavy. Three days he had been on these mountains, and it had taken him until now to feel… to feel peace.
It was quiet as Joel took a deep breath in. Then another. Soon, he would never do that again.
“I guess this is the part where I should pray, huh?” He teased aloud, but shook his head, “I’m sorry. I’ve never been sure what to believe is after life, so I don’t really know how, or what, to talk to. But- uh- if there is anyone listening or if there is some almighty power I only care about one thing.” Joel held out one finger to the darkening sky. “Take care of my family and look out for my friends. Let Harper get through this and let my kids move on. Don’t let them dwell on my life- I’m not worth the tears.”
The sun settled and the temperature dropped further. The air ripened and Joel let his hand drop, the blanket of snow catching it delicately.
“I don’t know if I should apologize for anything. I mean, there’s certainly things I need to apologize for, but I don’t know if I can wrap that all up in one go.” Joel shook his head, “I don’t care where I go, but whatever happens I want to say that I tried my best. I did what I thought was right and I stood by my choices throughout. I always held the door open for Harper and helped my kids with their homework.”
Joel took a shaky breath “I tried!”
His voice boomed in the silence like canon fire and echoed through the mountain pass like a scratched record.
“I tried… and now I’m tired.”
When Joel closed his eyes he could see them- his family. Their smiles and their eyes. The way they dressed and talked and laughed.
He would miss them most. It broke his heart to think about the last time he had seen his family together. Two years? Three?
“Harper, the kids should come over to the house more.” He said as though some cosmic force would allow his wife to hear him. “And we should get another dog. I miss Remy, but I want another puppy. Also, I hate seafood. All these years I’ve never told you because I know that salmon and shrimp are your favorite foods, but I can’t stand it. Its stinks and upsets my stomach.”
Night took over now. The stars began coming from the shadows one by one until there were dozens of constellations blotting the sky. Joel remembered when his father used to take him out, show him the stars and create fake stories about where each constellation had come from. It was something Joel had done with his own children, and he hoped they did the same with theirs.
Joel was fading now. He could feel his body slowing- his mind hazing. He closed his eyes, letting his life play like a movie in his head. He laughed and cried and, when it finished, he opened his eyes.
To his surprise, there was a light. Bright and blinding- Joel had to peer through his fingers to see.
Joel smiled, “Holy shit, it’s you.”