Adventure Coming of Age Sad

“It’s the final countdown!” The rock and roll ripped through the shredded speakers with a jagged, painful determination that the boy no longer noticed. It was not unlike Dad’s voice, damaged from years of smoking.

He turned the key, and the music died. The only sound left was the soft ticking of the car’s engine as it cooled down, but eventually that stopped, too. The boy, small for eighteen, gripped the steering wheel as he stared into the distance. “Campout. The final campout.”

Actually, it would be the only campout. A broken promise, a childhood dream, and death had propelled the boy to this moment.

He looked down at the black flashlight on his lap. It had been under the little tree on the kitchen table on Christmas morning, wrapped in a Piggly Wiggly bag and red yarn, while the paramedics rushed in with a stretcher and an oxygen mask. They bumped the table as they worked, and the tree fell over.

Later, the boy had come home to a gaping emptiness. He righted the tree and opened the gift, turned it on and shined it into the darkest corners. Not bad. He sat there breathing in the silence. No TV, no coughing, no snide remarks. The stench of cigarette smoke clung to the walls, ensuring Dad would always be around even if he didn’t come home. He didn’t.

The silence felt nice until the word inevitable started drip, drip, dripping in his brain. When he finally acknowledged the leak, it was like he had turned a nozzle and unleashed a torrent of water. He floated aimlessly on it for days, the word saturating his mind as he sat in the hospital room watching Dad on the ventilator, each rise and fall of his chest leading him closer to death. He flowed into the funeral home on a wave of it and bumped into the coffin. He wondered whether he could drown in his own flood. The director ushered him out when he hit the time limit.

He stood blinking in the sunshine outside the funeral home, with his hands in his pockets, suddenly unmoored. Where to next? He counted the days since Dad went to the hospital and realized with alarm that it was December 31st, the last day before his least favorite day of the year, the Day of Empty Promises. He should do something big; he needed to redeem this godforsaken year.

Then it crystallized in his brain. He had to campout before he entered a year when Dad didn’t exist and finally fulfill thirteen years’ worth of resolutions. Today was the last day.

So, here he was. He shoved the flashlight into his backpack where a granola bar, half-empty water bottle, and sleeping bag already lay in wait. He climbed out into the warmth, the third day in a row of unusually high temperatures for this part of North Carolina, and leaned against the car. He pulled a pack of Dad’s cigarettes out of the pocket of his lightweight puffer jacket and lit one in his honor, determined to finish 2020 the right way.

Dad’s words came to him, unbidden. “You know what fools do? They go out and find trouble. You stay home and shut yer mouth, and you might turn out okay.”

His pulse quickened as he studied the mountain, the one he had gazed at every evening from his bed. It looked gray and dead, but it had to be this one, now. He stomped out the cigarette and stepped toward it.

Honk! A van swerved around him, inches away. He gasped and fell back against the Civic. The van disappeared around the bend, and the country road lay quiet once again. He crossed and glanced back at his car, parked in the grass on the shoulder. With a shaking hand, he saluted it and walked into the woods.

The forest held a new kind of emptiness, a vastness that seemed to suck everything into its void. Other people did this for fun, right? There had to be a trail somewhere. He stepped over logs and pushed through sprawling brambles, their thorns grabbing onto his clothing.

The words had followed him into the woods.

“What’re you doin? Get in bed, son!”

“I’m lookin at Window Mountain. That’s where we should camp.”

“Window Mountain?” Dad scoffed. “That ain’t its name.”

The boy froze. Then what was the mountain’s name? Dad never said, so he must not have known either. He smiled at his revelation.

He had learned to survive on small victories; they fueled his meager existence, along with baby carrots and Ritz crackers. Food gave him no pleasure these days. Grieving did that to you, he was told.

Without a clear path, the boy set his course upward, climbing over leafy banks that gave way under his feet like sand dunes. He had to fight tooth and nail (and elbow, too) for each foot of elevation gain, his progress painfully slow. Sweat trailed between his shoulder blades from the exertion, but he carried on with a grim determination that felt surprisingly euphoric.

Perhaps it could be compared to a runner’s high, although he’d never experienced that. Two laps around the track in gym class had always kicked his tail. Would his knees buckle or would he hyperventilate first? His classmates placed bets on it.

Or maybe the euphoria came from the fact that he was actually carrying through with this glorified camping idea when Dad hadn’t. Maybe, just maybe, he was growing a backbone. That would be a first in his family.

He paused to catch his breath at the top of a rocky hillside with his hands on his hips and noticed that the valley actually looked geographically distant. His legs made that happen. He was making progress.

“Wow, yer really goin places. Got a job at Piggly Wiggly and ya think yer better than everyone else? Nah, yer nothin. It runs in the family, and there ain’t nothin you can do to change it, son.”

The words burned and stole his joy. He trudged upward for another hour, old remarks and memories playing through his mind on repeat. Dad’s words always sank in, like a brand on his brain, the sizzling stench lingering to remind him of his inadequacies. He didn’t know which was more exhausting- hiking or listening to Dad.

He could feel the pressure building, a lifetime of suppressed anger expanding under his sternum. But it wasn’t just rage that threatened to boil over. Rejection had been thrown into the pot haphazardly with a dash of bitterness, a heaping scoop of loneliness, even a pinch of regret, all melding into a toxic concoction that had simmered on low for years. His whole life had literally been spent on the back burner, and he suddenly felt eager to turn up the heat. He was ready for a blaze.

The boy took a deep breath and decided to think about his mother, instead. Unfortunately, he remembered very little about her. All he had left were the vapors of memories. A kiss on his nose. Music.

After his mother’s death, he remembered Dad stood in the kitchen for a long time. He had tugged on his hand. “Are you okay, Dad?”

Dad continued to stare at the linoleum. “I’m happy for her. She’s free now.”

Those two statements had been a freak anomaly, untainted by sarcasm or bitterness, and the little boy hadn’t known what to make of them.

The vapors slipped away. He frowned as he continued the slow march. He didn’t know her and probably wouldn’t recognize her if she appeared right in front of him. Then a new thought squeezed his throat tight. “I’m an orphan now.”

“Shut up. You keep talkin to yerself like that and people gonna find out yer crazy.”

Blazing hot indignation flared up. The boy clenched his fists and screamed. “I don’t have to listen to you anymore! I don’t have to...”

He fell to his knees as sobs rolled out of his chest one after another, violent waves of emotion. He punched the spongy earth, once in anger, then twice because it felt so damn good.

Dad’s final words came to him. He had barely gotten them out as he gasped for air. “Don’t worry. You can’t get rid of me.”

He hadn’t answered then, but he did now. “I know, Dad.”

He rose from the ground, strangely comforted.

“They’re free,” he said softly. He wiped his face with his sleeve and continued up the mountain. Not long after that, he found a trail.

The hard packed trail made the hike much easier and greatly increased his speed, although he still needed frequent rest breaks. Despite the effort, he began to hum the song stuck in his head, the one that had been playing when he turned off the car. He pursed his lips to whistle right as he walked around a sharp bend in the trail, but a large, dark mass stopped him in his tracks.

A black bear stood on the trail, its nose buried in a pile of leaves at the edge.

The boy immediately crouched, his lips still puckered, and thoughts flew across his mind. Was he supposed to show aggression and fight it? Or should he run like the devil?

The bear lifted its head and looked at him with sleepy eyes, a brown leaf perched on the tip of its nose.

“You’re supposed to be hibernating,” he whispered.

The bear shook its head, and the leaf fell off. 

The boy held up his hands in defense. “I’m Alvin,” he said, taking a step to the side.

“And I-” Another step.

“Am not-” Another step.

“A chipmunk. Ahhhhhh!”

He took off running at breakneck speed, crashing through everything in his path. When he came to a stream, he leaped without hesitation, but his saggy jeans snapped taught before his legs reached full spread. He fell short of the other side with a great splash. Alvin grabbed an exposed tree root and scrambled out, desperate to put more distance between himself and the bear. Through the forest he ran until his lungs screamed for air.

He finally collapsed against a boulder, wheezing. Adrenaline pumped through his veins with each slam of his heart and merged with a crazed sense of elation. His eyes widened. “I introduced myself to a bear.”

Laughter bubbled out of his mouth, growing in force until he fell to the ground as it overwhelmed him. “I sound like a monkey, a monkey in the Smokies. I’m a Smokin Monkey!”

Oh, the sound of it! His ridiculous monkey laugh was by far the funniest thing he’d ever heard. He howled and writhed on the ground and then hooted even more at the very idea of him laughing beside a boulder halfway up a mountain.

Finally, he ran out of steam. He lay quietly curled on his side as he recovered, like a discarded child’s toy. Just give him a cowboy hat, and with his scrawny arms and legs, he could easily pass as Woody from Toy Story. His lips curved again. “I’m losing it.”

And it felt good.

He wiped a few stray tears off his cheeks and tucked his hands behind his head to watch the clouds. They moved rapidly, patches of perky blue peeking through then disappearing again behind the gray.

Alvin noticed movement everywhere. Birds flitted from tree to tree, unruffled by the gentle sway of the branches in the breeze. Two squirrels played chase, creating a speedy, spiraled path up a nearby tree trunk. He realized he had been wrong- the mountain wasn’t dead. And laying in the leaves observing, his heart beating with the rest of the forest, he knew he was part of it.

Eventually, the breeze morphed into a brisk wind that rattled tree branches and sent stray leaves on journeys to new places. A shiver ran down his spine.

Alvin sat up and looked at his waterlogged shoes. He pulled them off to wring out his socks, exposing pale, wrinkly toes that looked like little white raisins. His mouth watered at the thought of food, an unexpected return of appetite. He glanced up at the blue hugging the rounded top above him. With wet, numb feet, this was his chance to turn back, but the lure of the peak was irresistible. Alvin gritted his teeth and stood. He would summit, and the granola bar would be his prize.

Hiking felt significantly harder with numb feet, but Alvin hobbled on with unflagging tenacity until he noticed a dark opening in the ground. Despite it being a bit off course, his curiosity urged him toward it, and he discovered a deep hollow where mist swirled. He stood shivering with his hands tucked under his chin, mesmerized by the dance. The vapors slowly twisted and expanded, then came together again. He blinked several times to break his stare so he could continue.

As he toiled to reach the top, he realized his dream had also expanded. He came here planning to do something he thought would never happen and ended up striving for something he’d never even dreamed of accomplishing. Was he being greedy? It felt like a twofold package- climb Window Mountain and campout before New Year’s Day.

Alvin had no idea how long he’d been plodding up the mountain until the sun began to set. He picked up his pace, encouraged by the diminishing trees and more frequent views of the sky.

Finally, the trees gave way completely. Alvin emerged onto a giant slab of granite, surprised to find the mountain bald on top with a monk-like holiness.

And what perfect timing, too. Colors splashed wildly across the sky. 360 degrees seemed inadequate to describe the enormity of the view; it was a panorama explosion.

Alvin stretched his fingertips upward and touched the sky. He stayed in his triumphant Y-shape for a whole minute to let his window see him high on the gray mountain. He looked at the down there, the back then, and imagined he was giving ten year old Alvin hope. “Don’t give up,” he whispered.

He drank it all in until he felt dizzy. Then he moved to edge of the rock and sat with his legs dangling.

“You would love this, Dad.” Alvin chuckled softly. “No, you wouldn’t. But I do.”

The mid-day warmth had vanished. Up here, he couldn’t hear the wind in the trees; he was in the wind. It wrapped around him and tied a bow so tight he could barely move.

His stomach growled loudly, and he realized he’d forgotten his prize. He gleefully reached into his backpack and whipped out the water bottle, but it shot right out of his chilly fingers into open air. Down, down, down it went.

He pulled the granola bar out more carefully and gripped it like a treasure. He could have eaten ten of them, and he licked the wrapper once he finished.

Alvin decided he would relish every moment of the sunset. Going down would be fast and easy compared to the climb up. By the time the last bit of color slipped away, his shivers had miraculously stopped. It took a great effort to stand again after sitting on that granite for so long. His butt was numb. Heck, everything was kind of numb.   

“Beth prethent ever,” he said and turned on the flashlight. He headed back down the way he came, illuminating the ground with his final gift from Dad. Darkness dropped like a curtain on the mountain, thick and heavy. Even with the light, the terrain seemed incredibly hard to navigate in the dark. The shadows tricked him, and perspective was skewed.

For a few minutes, the flashlight blinked sporadically. Then it died. Dad must have put old batteries in it...

Now forced to hike blind, Alvin alternated between taking baby steps that gained him inches and crashing wildly downward with reckless abandon. He bumped into trees and rocks, propelled like a pinball with no exit, an indefinite adventure. At one point, he shook his head out of a daze and realized he’d been standing in one spot for who knows how long. Keep. Taking. Steps.

His eyelids drooped. So tired.

Suddenly, Alvin stumbled and slid down a leafy bank, which turned into a roll to the bottom. He landed on a soft bed of leaves, layer upon layer and years in the making, just for him. Shallow walls blocked the wind. It was the perfect camp site.

A painful eternity passed while he struggled to unzip the backpack and spread out his kid-length Power Rangers sleeping bag. He slid his legs inside (chicken legs, as Dad called them) and forced a brittle smile. “I like em,” he rasped.

He collapsed and instantly succumbed to the pull of sleep. Minutes or maybe hours later, a pain in Alvin’s head woke him. He leaned on an elbow and pushed a stick away.

“Where’s m’pillow?” He pulled off his jacket with clawed hands and balled it under his head, then curled up on his side. Better.

“I’m camping,” he said as he drifted off.

Mist swirled around him. Warmth, like a hug.

3, 2, 1, free.

January 08, 2021 15:52

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04:11 Jan 14, 2021

This story was so well written! The plot was thoughtful and the emotions were really clear and, just really, really good! I can't wait to read more of your writing!


Holly Fister
13:13 Jan 14, 2021

Thank you so much and thanks for reading!


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Keith Edwin
02:47 Jan 14, 2021

Just commenting now to remind myself to read this when I'm not tired lol. Looking forward to it though.


Holly Fister
13:30 Jan 16, 2021



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Thomas Fister
15:38 Jan 17, 2021

Read window mountain and enjoyed it! Your ability to smoothly weave in Alvins emotional landscape with the hiking landscape is superlative. The emotional milieu brings a depth to a good story and sets you far above an ordinary writing.


Holly Fister
17:55 Jan 17, 2021

Thank you for your kind feedback!


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Sam Reeves
21:31 Jan 13, 2021

Oh I have goosebumps from reading that! Your story was beautiful. My favourite parts were when you likened grief to a flood of emotions, likening the built up emotions to cooking and then the hysterical part of Alvin introducing himself to a bear, making it clear that he wasn't a chipmunk! I felt everything Alvin felt. This was so well written, well done!


Holly Fister
22:56 Jan 13, 2021

Aw thank you Sam! I know it was silly to have him introduce himself to a bear haha, but I wanted him to run through a whole range of emotions!


Sam Reeves
09:41 Jan 14, 2021

That silliness was perfect! It showed his range of emotions and state of mind so well. You did a great job!


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Thomas Fister
00:21 Jan 09, 2021

Woah, that was deep and drew me in so well... I felt like I was there feeling all the emotions. Absolutely incredible! Great job Harley Jill!


Holly Fister
00:46 Jan 09, 2021

Thank you Thomas! I definitely had to dig deep to write this one. It was a challenge, but I think I’m happy with how it turned out.


Jason Gossett
02:55 Jan 11, 2021

That was awesome! Another great one written by Harley Jill that keeps you on the edge wondering what is going to happen next! So well written!


Holly Fister
12:57 Jan 11, 2021

Thanks for reading Jason!


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