Contest #167 shortlist ⭐️

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Adventure Fiction Sad

Brett’s carbon fiber ice ax slams into the translucent frozen waves of the icefall.

Flecks and shards of brittle blue ice tinkle against his polarized goggles and the frozen rivulets of breath that coat his impressive beard. He kicks spiked crampon-covered boots into the uneven ice, anchoring him to the frozen waterfall hundreds of feet above the valley floor.

In the spring, this icy cliff will be a deafening waterfall. But for now, the landscape is silent except for Brett’s ragged breathing as he climbs.

Brett lifts his left foot and kicks it into the ice wall, pulling himself up a few inches, and his mind relaxes into the steady rhythm of ice climbing...

Step, kick, pull, AX! Step, kick, pull, AX!

Brett has murmured this mantra to himself and repeated its comforting cadence in his mind more times than he can count, on dozens of frigid peaks and treacherous icefalls from Colorado to Kilimanjaro.

Step, kick, pull, AX! Step, kick, pull, AX!

He knows these words better than his own name. Because Brett Avenbruck was born to conquer mountains.

***

Ever since he could remember, Brett had loved to climb. He still remembers the way his father smiled with pride as he told and retold Brett how he would shriek and wail whenever his mother tried to take him out of his high chair.

Brett built his first rickety treehouse at the age of seven using wood scraps from behind his father’s shed and some old rope from the garage. He'd called it his “roost.”

The summer after his broken arm healed, Brett improved on his treehouse, moving it even higher into the massive oak branches that shaded their suburban backyard. This time, he asked his father to bring home some rope from the docks to help make the ladder.

His father tousled his hair and said he’d try.

But climbing the ever-shifting icefalls and the highest frigid peaks on the planet was nothing like his treehouse. Because it takes more than courage and skill to venture into the thin air at the roof of the world.

It takes sacrifice. 

Step, kick, pull, AX! Step, kick, pull, AX!

***

Brett still remembers the day he told his father that he was leaving medical school to pursue a life of climbing. He can still hear the lies he’d been rehearsing on the drive home.

It's just for one semester. He needed time to clear his head before his residency. He wouldn’t miss too much.

"This is normal, Dad. Lots of med students take a sabbatical. I’ll be a doctor soon, just like mom always wanted," Brett assured him.

His father nodded gruffly and shuffled into the kitchen. They both heard the truth beneath the lies.

Brett followed, wondering at how stooped his father seemed. He looked so small in their old kitchen. Bowed and gnarled like the aging oak in the backyard.

Brett caught a glimpse of the rope ladder still dangling from his treehouse through the kitchen window.

It was as thick and strong as the day his father had brought it home. Brett had only learned last year that his father had paid $1 per foot for that length of rope — a fortune at the time.

Brett rubbed at the pale jagged scar on his forearm. He never managed to find the time to go back to med school.

Step, kick, pull, AX! Step, kick, pull, AX!

***

A single piercing call above makes Brett stop his methodical climb.

He slams the ax into the ice to anchor himself and looks up to see a falcon gliding in a lazy oval above the ridgeline. The streamlined body and mathematical perfection of the bird's silhouette carve through the crisp blue of the sky like a rock skimming across a still mountain lake.

The falcon calls again, a staccato of clipped cries that echo off the pale ice and dark stone of the rugged wilderness. Brett’s head turns to follow the predator as its pinpoint wingtips and sleek tail shrink into a dot in a series of elongated spirals.

They’re both hunting for something in this barren landscape.

Brett wipes his goggles clear with a gloved hand and looks up to see that he’s only a dozen feet from the lip of the icefall. His hands tingle inside his gloves. He’s paused for too long.

He swings the ax hard and strikes a bulbous ridge of ice above his eye level. His goggles cloud with moisture, and his mantra begins anew.

Step, kick, pull, AX! Step, kick, pull, AX!

***

Soon the brittle blue of the sky blurs with the edge of liquid depths trapped in the ice. Brett’s ax is carving a path into the sky itself. He’s nearly at the top.

Step, kick, pull, AX! Step, kick, pull, AX!

Brett climbs up, past the noise and the crowds.

Step, kick, pull, AX! Step, kick, pull, AX!

He climbs higher, every inch moving him farther away from the overdraft fees and the blinking traffic lights.

Step, kick, pull, AX!

He's getting farther away from the accountants, and the Black Friday sales, farther from the backed-up fast food drive-thru lines on Tuesday night when everyone is too tired to cook...

Step, kick...

...farther away from the small talk at his sister's housewarming party where he didn't know anyone but her.

...pull, AX!

Higher and higher he climbs, past the reality TV, and 24-hour news, past the strip malls, all-you-can-eat buffets, and overcrowded hospitals.

Step, kick, pull, AX! Step, kick, pull, AX!

Brett’s ax bites into the top of the peak where the water flattens into a smooth pool before the tumultuous tumble to the valley floor. He kicks higher and hoists himself up, focusing on the last complex moves that let him swing his leg over and slide to the top.

"I made it," Brett whispers as he lies on his back near the edge.

The cold from the ice seeps past the lining of his waterproof coat and merino wool base layers. It feels good — refreshing, even. His ragged breath from the final ascent puffs in gusts like an old steam engine as he struggles to catch his breath at this elevation.

Brett still clutches the contoured grip of the ax handle in a white-knuckled grip on his chest. He knows that once he puts the ax down, the climb will be over. And he'll be one step closer to the world below.

His grip tightens. He’s not ready to let go. He’s not ready to leave these heights. He’s not ready for anything but this feeling, this absolute freedom...

***

The surgical nurse at his side clears her throat. Brett shakes his head and looks down at the instrument in her hand. "You asked for the scalpel, doctor?" she asks, and he nods. She hands it to him, handle first.

The weight of the delicate razor-sharp blade surprises him.

He rubs his thumb across the thin round handle of the precision tool, feeling the crosshatched grooves in the metal grip through his latex gloves.

It feels cold. Almost icy.

The beep of the heart monitor drones a mantra he knows so well —

Beep ... beep ... beep ... beep ... beep ...

Brett exhales behind his thin surgical mask, a slow hiss of steamy air, and makes the first incision.

October 11, 2022 00:25

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11 comments

Amanda Lieser
15:35 Nov 12, 2022

Hi Shawn! Congratulations on this shortlist! I fell in love with your MC right away and I love how you characterized the relationship he has with his father. I was also intrigued by the mother and I would have loved to see a bit more about the two of them together. This was a beautiful piece and I admit I needed a blanket towards the end. Nice job and congratulations on the shortlist!

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Shawn Forno
23:36 Nov 16, 2022

Thank you so much for the kind words, Amanda! I really appreciate hearing that my story got through to you. I really enjoyed writing it and I'll definitely keep both parents in mind for future stories. Thanks so much for reading and for reaching out with this great comment.

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Philip Ebuluofor
09:13 Oct 25, 2022

Congrats Shawn. Only two. Submissions and a mention already. Welcome here.

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19:40 Oct 22, 2022

Great writing. Nice twist. One can imagine a surgeon doing the same sort of tedious surgery over and over under a lot of pressure, might have daydreams just like this.

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Shawn Forno
19:54 Oct 24, 2022

Thanks for reading, Scott. I just tried to make his daydream as vivid as possible.

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Rama Shaar
05:20 Oct 22, 2022

You have a way of making something utterly out of my field of interest interesting! It's tragic when we don't get to pursue our passion in life and end up on the hamster wheel just like everyone else! But in a way (that will disappoint you), I was happy he was there saving lives rather than contributing to crushing our much-needed glaciers 😜 Anyway, congratulations on the well-deserved shortlist(edness).

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Stevie Burges
15:54 Jan 03, 2023

Congratulations on being short listed. Wonderful energising adjectives. I was climbing that frozen waterfall - excellent.

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Kevin Broccoli
16:03 Oct 26, 2022

I love when I leave a story feeling as though I've been given a window into a new experience, and that's exactly what happened here. Well done.

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Marty B
05:09 Oct 25, 2022

The descriptions of the iced-over waterfall made me want to get out there and climb myself! Great story and congrats!

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Helen Smith
14:16 Oct 22, 2022

The story kept me hooked and I enjoyed the ending which was unexpected

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04:51 Oct 20, 2022

You have a wonderful gift for descriptive language, which you use to effect in the climbing sequences. I confess, however, that I was confused. Are all the climbing sequences a daydream, or did the protagonist really give up a year of medical school to go mountain climbing? Is he daydreaming about climbing when he should be concentrating on surgery? I know you are trying to "show, not tell," but a little more clarity is needed. You have made a good beginning, however.

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