Don’t let go. I will drop to the floor if I do. The Earth will swallow me whole as my skull cracks against the floor and my spine breaks. I can’t let go now.
Those were my thoughts as I climbed up the rocky wall of a mountain alone. I’d lost grip for a split second and that had been enough to hurl me into the void below as I hung on with all my might to a stony protrusion. If my fingers slipped, I would die instantly upon impact with the ground. Panic made my heart beat harder, like a hammer striking the brittle bars of my ribcage. My sweaty brow felt hot. I had to get out of this pickle, but how? I searched for anything to grasp with my right hand as my left arm weakened. My strength was failing me. Muscles can only take so much before they decide to go numb and let your member collapse.
I quickly fumbled around for the miniature climbing pickaxe strapped to my waist. If I didn’t hurry I would fall into the abyss. I didn’t have any climbing ropes or human aides. It was just me on the side of a mountain. I caught the instrument with my right hand and breathed in hard. This was going to be challenging. If I focused all my energy on planting the pickaxe in a crevice in the rocky wall, I could accidentally let go of my left hand and fall backwards. My legs were doing everything to support me. In fact, my calves felt so painful that I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had erupted into a bloody mess of ragged red and pink flesh. Stay calm. I concentrated on the spot and quickly slammed the device into the rock, hoping for the best. It dug itself inside the mountain, but not far enough for me to consider altering my position. I dislodged the pickaxe carefully, sweating profusely from all the sweat glands on my body as the stress skyrocketed. Try again. I breathed in slowly, muscles aching, and jammed the pickaxe again. This time, it held onto the rock quite well. I was ready to bust a move.
First, I raised my body upwards by dragging my right leg over and onto a rock shaped like a foothold. Slowly, I let go with my left hand and placed it on a sharp rock sticking out of the wall just above my pickaxe. A wave of relief swept over me as I realised that I might not have been destined to die there and then after all. I heaved my weight upwards, my left leg following, then again the right hand removing the pickaxe and inserting it higher up on the wall. The dust on my left hand helped me keep a good grip on the rock, which otherwise would have felt slippery. I kept climbing until I reached a plateau, where I was able to push myself forwards and onto the horizontal plane. The fear that had been clutching my chest still constricted my breathing. I was almost hyperventilating. Shallow, rushed breaths, one after the other, ran in and out of my airways. The ordeal was over. I could rest.
Ten minutes elapsed. The wind blew violently, whistling harshly. It wanted to push me off the plateau so that I slammed against the ground and shattered my bones. I gripped the earth with all the remaining strength I possessed, praying for the wind to calm down. What had I done to anger it? I regretted ever deciding to climb this mountain. But I had to.
As the day died with the setting sun, I drank the last few drops of water from my gourd and rested with my back against a sharply rising rock wall. Safety was hard to come by in this environment. If I didn’t fall from a great height, I might die crushed under a landslide or swept off the plateau by the wind. The sky turned pink, then only moments later it transitioned to lavender, purple, indigo, and blue. Such an astounding array of colours! They captured my heart and crusty eyes like the paintbrushes on a canvas make a grown-up human cry and laugh. A little peace within the chaos.
That night I shivered. The cold seeped under my skin like icy water freezing my blood to stillness. I was ready to give up. The infinity of stars in the sky watched over me. Since it was late summer, I could make out the constellations Scorpius, Lyra and Cygnus. I didn’t know the others so much. I spotted one that I thought was Aquila, only to change my mind about its form moments later. These heavenly beings gave me hope that everything would change in the morning. Closing my eyes, I slept softly until the sun rose at five. The birds were already chatting amongst themselves; a kestrel circled above the fields below in search of a victim like a reconnaissance plane on a mission. A hawk flew by, shooting in the sky as fast as a missile (or so it appeared to me). I was in awe of the natural scene that played before me.
Munching one protein bar after the other, swallowing them with a dry throat due to the lack of water, I planned out my actions. How many more meters were left to climb, how to get to my destination. Once I had answered these questions, I took a deep inspiration and sprang onto the rocky wall.
An hour of climbing finished me off completely. Exhausted, sweaty and hopeless, I paused for a mere second to regain some strength. I must have looked like a lizard sunbathing in that pose. One leg bent up high, the other extended below, one arm holding the pickaxe above my head and the other one holding onto whatever it could. When I reached the ‘checkpoint’, a narrow strip of rock large enough for me to sit on with my legs dangling, I breathed quickly. The air gets thinner as you rise – I was starting to feel very hypoxic. The usual symptoms are fatigue, hallucinations or a delusional mind, poor mentation, fast breathing, a dramatic change in blood pressure and I can’t remember what more. Ventilation isn’t as efficient at high altitudes. To compensate, the blood thickens considerably as red blood cells are being cranked out by the bone marrow like crazy. These cells will transport blood throughout the whole body, given that you don’t die first. It was an incredible mistake, not to bring more water with me. Thick blood means embolisms (clogged blood vessels). Also, blood pressure sharply decreases to allow for a high flow of blood. In the brain, this can be quite dangerous. Nausea and acute pain ensue. Not a pretty picture. I had to last for a while longer. Just enough to carry out my plan.
I felt for the photograph in my trouser pocket. It was a coloured picture of a woman. Her eyes had been crossed out with a black sharpie. At the back, someone had scribbled “her or me”. I knew what it meant. Denying reality would have been selfish. The woman in the picture looked just like me: blond curls, freckles, long eyelashes, grey eyes, oval face, dimples, and an upturned nose. No wonder we were so alike – that was my sister. At half past midnight, just about a week before, a stranger had slipped an envelope through the letter flap of my front door. This photograph and a long list of instructions were enclosed in a pink envelope. I was awake because my family had been texting and calling me all day to inform me of my sister’s disappearance. What if she went to my house instead of our parents’? What preoccupied our minds was the fact that she wasn’t the first woman to vanish. A string of disappearances, all women from our town and whereabouts, had made us all sick with fear. When we found the second victim stranded in a car park without a hair on her head and half naked, we realized just how dangerous the kidnapper was. She couldn’t recall where she’d been. Nothing. The memory had been erased from her brain.
Clutching the photograph between my fingers, I howled with the whistling wind. Enough was enough. A psychopathic kidnapper wasn’t welcome in my life.
Climbing could kill me. But it was worth it.
In the afternoon I resumed my ascent. With what little energy I retained, I pulled my body upwards. One more climb. One more. One more. Climb.
I’d climbed this mountain thrice before. With the same person every time. He knew the rocks like the back of his hand. How could I have known that a friend would turn out to be a serial kidnapper?
My biceps cried, all the ligaments were stiff and painful. The triceps in my upper arm burned like hellfire. This was the last part. Come on! A burst of adrenaline propelled me like a firework exploding upwards. Up, up, up. Mechanically, my arms reached for the next hold.
There it was. The camping grotto. We’d spent a night there each time we had climbed up the mountain. It was like a secret retreat for climbers. We knew about it. Jack expected me there.
My spluttering and aching lungs fought for a good gulp of oxygen. How much more suffering could my body withstand? The pressure here was nauseating. The heights were not made for humans.
As the instructions in the letter had implied, I found the entrance empty. The grotto appeared to be unoccupied, an empty cavern where only a wild animal might dwell. I stepped into the darkness, letting it drown me. I walked on, shuddering. Anxiety made my heart leap into my mouth, as if it were ready to be expulsed from my body. I would have thrown up if it hadn’t been for my determination to find my sister.
The stress loaded on my shoulders was unbearable. How could I confront this criminal without losing my sister, or fainting on the spot? He must have been equipped with an oxygen mask to keep himself from developing the delirious madness of hypoxia. My sister? Hopefully not dead. At best, tied up. Worst case scenario... I didn’t want to think about it.
The slimy, cold walls surrounded my body. The tunnel leading to the atrium of this grotto was a narrow passage in the mountain where the most unearthly of creatures crawled as the dampness sucked the air out your nostrils. I walked on as soldierly as possible. I was a man on a mission.
After five minutes of careful treading a warm light stunned me. My pupils had become so accustomed to the pitch black darkness that it rook a few moments for them to readjust their size to match the degree of illumination. The orange light grew as I moved onwards until I finally stepped into the grand atrium, a large room with a ceiling covered in stalactites and water droplets. Here it was.
A camping bag lay on the floor. As I scanned the room, I noticed that Jack had hung up towels and cloths from the ceiling on the sides of the room to create a wall shielding whatever was behind it from my view. Possibly his victims. Or what?
“Jack!” I meant to bellow, but only a stifled croak came out of my throat.
“Come in, come in.”
The tenor voice came from behind the textile wall. It was him. The bastard!
I pushed aside one od the cloths and his shaggy head appeared. He smiled viciously, like a demon skipping with delight.
“Come join us, Frank, you great man!”
Bloody creep. Where was my sister? A table laden with tea cups stood near me, and a pile of sleeping bags rested against the wall. At the table, a veiled figure trembled nervously.
I jumped onto the veiled woman. She hardly recognized me as I shook and hug her, crying and bawling like a child. I repeated her name over and over again. My parents were sick with worry and fear. This monster had taken her from them and somehow climbed up a bloody mountain with her. I looked at her in the eyes. Her pupils were twice the size they should have been. Jack had drugged her into submission.
“What have you done, you bloody freak?” I gasped.
“I’ve assembled my two favourite humans in my favourite location. You know how much I love this grotto!” The skinny freak waved his arms around theatrically. “Now we’re here together!” His high-pitched voice exuded a sort of feral and ecstatic madness. He was the real Dionysus incarnate, or a Pan running wild in the mountains with his animalistic pulsions raging louder than his human brain.
“What happened to those girls you kidnapped?”
“They’re all safe and home again – I just needed them to lure you here. Now that we’re here, we can never part – except you and your sister. Either she becomes mine, or I die.”
“Never, never in any alternate reality or parallel universe will I allow you to marry my sister after what you’ve done! Who do you think you are?”
“Jack – that’s who. Your best friend Jack.”
“You’re a bloody psychopath is what you are. Let my sister go!”
It was only a second. I didn’t see it coming. He whipped a revolver out of his pants and held it to his head. Milliseconds felt like an eternity. Blood, brains, burnt skin and hot flesh flew about. I was covered in blood. His insides splattered the wall. The cloths he’d hung up were stained red. Shock seized me. I couldn’t move. Frozen to the spot, I let my knees crumble beneath me. This was it. He had killed Jack himself because he had known all along that I had never chances of leaving this place alive with my sister. He had doomed us to our own deaths. What a madman. He knew I wouldn’t make it, so he brought us all down with him. For a minute, I despaired. This was it.
My sister mumbled. She was still lost in her mind, too drugged to understand what was going on. Perhaps the gun shot had awoken some part of her brain or caught her attention. As Jack’s body dropped onto the ground with a loud thump, she twisted her neck and looked up at me. Her eyes were filled with tears.
“Frank,” she stuttered.
“I’m here Amanda, I’m here.” I rocked her to and fro, like when she was a baby. I’d loved the little creature put into my care so much. More than a big brother, I was a second father to her. She was so small and fragile when she was born. I was ten years old when she first stepped into my life. Ever since my parents brought Amanda back from the hospital, I wished that someday I could become a father. Amanda would always be like my first trial at parenting. I could never let her get into danger.
I wailed for a long time. I’d been so scared, so terrified of losing her. Of my parents crippled by the grief. Of their desperation. We would have lost a part of our souls with her. My sister was their baby, she was their youngest child. How could we let her slip away from our fingers?
I wiped the tears off my face and breathed deeply. Now was the time for action. There were climbing instruments and ropes scattered all over the ground. We could do this. I could get us back home.
Otherwise, how would I be telling you this story?