(It's been so long since I've posted a short story or a piece of my fiction here that I thought it was time. This piece was inspired by the story mentioned in this post as well as a China Mieville piece I read a while back. Pleased be warned that the language in it is a bit more explicit than my normal writing. And, as always, my intentional fiction will be designated by the category “fiction” at the bottom of the post. Fiction found in my non-fiction and travel posts are probably just lies.)
Do you still think about that night on the mountain, Ella? Do you ever find yourself awake at four in the morning, covered in sweat and twisted sheets, startled to find yourself in a darkened room and not, as you had been dreaming, back on the mountain? Are you ever walking along the street, Ella, and suddenly feel your stomach quiver nauseously? As you begin to plot the course to the nearest bathroom, do you realize that you’re not sick? That it’s just nerves? Do you take a deep breath, do an inventory, and realize it’s not work, it’s not the boss, it’s not home, and that the stove isn’t on? And, Ella, just as you feel your stomach slowly relax and calm its convulsions, do you figure out that it’s the goddamn mountain again, and that you smell acrid gun smoke and taste the warm copper of blood and do you think that maybe you should, after all, head straight for a toilet stall and lock the door?
Do you still think about that night on the mountain, Ella? I don’t. I’ve found somewhere much worse.
I miss you Ella. I miss how before the trip you used to come around all the time to my little apartment in Chinatown. It’s a cheap shit-hole, but you said it had character, authenticity. Plus, you lived out in Langford, and frankly, I couldn’t be bothered to make the trip out there, I mean, what’s the point?
You’d show up unexpectedly now and then, carrying a couple of beers from the liquor store around the corner. We’d sit out on the fire escape and bask in the evening sun, the warmth radiating from the bricks at our backs. We’d watch the seagulls circling and landing on the roofs of the buildings around us and we’d listen to the sounds from the restaurant in the courtyard below us. You’d tell me about your shitty job and how you wanted to travel, to just get away from our boring town and do something adventurous. And when I said, “Let’s do it,” you’d either laugh or just stare off towards the harbour.
Of course, I don’t sit out on the fire escape anymore. There are no seagulls and I doubt the restaurants are open anymore. The silence, I must admit, creeps me out.
After we returned from Guatemala, you came over two or three times but you didn’t stay long. We’d talk about “how we were doing” and then you’d make some excuse about meeting friends or having to catch a bus. I called you a couple of times, but you must have had your cell phone turned off.
It’s okay, Ella, I understood. I reminded you of that night on the mountain. It would be impossible for you to move on as long as you had to keep seeing me, my features overlapped with the features of that other me, the one with the blood and moonlight splashed across his face. I wouldn’t want to keep seeing that either.
Where were you, though, when this new horror happened, when our shining city on the sea died or was stolen and changed, replaced, with this, this decaying place, this new wrongness? What were you thinking when it happened? When I discovered the change, my first thought was of you. I tried to call you. Of course, you didn’t pick it up, but I left a message.
Later that night, when I tried to call you again, there was no dial tone; instead, the phone just emitted a hiss. I threw the phone against the wall. It hit the bricks with a dull thud and fell to the wood floor. I haven’t checked to see if it still works.
I didn’t know if I loved you back then, Ella, and if anyone had asked me, which was unlikely, I would have said that love didn’t exist, that it was just a social construct for lonely people too scared of silence. But when, instead of just laughing on my fire escape that night, you said, “Let’s fucking do it,” and your eyes sparked with the reflection of the setting sun, well, that night I would have skipped the bullshit and just answered honestly, “I don’t know.” So we did it, we cobbled the air miles together and I raided my savings, and we planned to live as much as we could for 11 days.
Maybe it was my fault we didn’t talk much after the trip. You could only get 11 days in a row off from your shitty job, and that’s not much time to go all the way to Guatemala. I do remember that when we were in there, we talked a lot and that you told me that you hadn't felt really alive in a long time and that you wanted to feel alive. You thought that the midnight hike seemed to be exactly what we needed to do. We had seen the signs everywhere in Antigua – plastered on concrete walls, pinned to the bulletin board in our hostel. “Full Moon Volcano Climb! Very Safe! Private Guides! Student Discounts!” the signs practically shouted with florescent colors, exclamation points, and capital letters.
You'll laugh, Ella, but I think I was asleep the day the city died and the world became so wrong. I had been taking a lazy Saturday nap, as I had been out drinking by myself the night before. The thing about being alone, Ella, is that the bartenders will always talk to you. Not that I mind drinking in silence. Anyway, I woke up and looked out of my window. The skies that morning were clear and blue, but I saw that the afternoon sky was filled with flat gray clouds.
I stood there looking at the same cityscape that I had seen out my window for the last three years and I could tell something was off. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out. It was like looking at one of those cartoons they print in the newspaper where you have to figure out the ten differences between two identical pictures. Only, instead of two images, I only had the world outside of my window and my memory.
I suppose my subconscious mind figured it out first, maybe it instinctively knew that the view was just, well, wrong. Why else would I have stayed there staring as long as I had? When I figured it out, my first thought was to call you.
They say the eye is drawn to movement, Ella. Only outside, my eye was drawn to the fact that there was no movement. Normally, on a warm summer afternoon, our city is filled tourists. The sidewalks are overcrowded, especially here in Chinatown. Only, they were empty. So were the streets.
It was empty outside. Well, okay, not completely empty. There were a few people ever so slowly wandering the sidewalks here and there. I recognized a few of the familiar homeless people reclining in their normal niches in door wells and under bushes. Only, there was no vitality. They could have been catatonic.
That was when I tried to call you then, Ella, but you didn’t pick up the phone. Did you get my message?
Of course, I went outside and walked for hours. I asked a few people what happened - was it an earthquake? Of course, there was no rubble, no trash either. A few people ran off as I approached them, but the others who would talk with me had nothing to tell me. Some asked the same questions I had, others just sobbed and asked if I had seen their wife, or their father, or their brother. “Don’t you see, they were just with me?” But I had less answers for them than they had for me.
Still, the thing that bothers me the most is that the clouds no longer move. There is still wind, but the sky is covered in that thin layer of clouds that just sit there. My days are filled with weak gray light. It’s been that way for a week now. Do you remember how bright the moon could shine, Ella? I'm sure you do.
So, Ella, this is it. This is the end, I think. Every day, there are less and less people in the streets. I don’t know if they’re held up in their homes, like me, or if they’re just gone, like the homeless people I no longer see. It’s as if the world just forgot about them, stopped thinking about them. What’s that old saying - that the universe will end not with a bang but with a whimper? There's some truth behind every cliche, I guess.
Still, I wonder if it really did happen all at once while I was sleeping that day? Or has it been happening so slowly that we just didn’t notice it? If someone asked me, which is unlikely these days, I suppose I’d have to say it began that night on the mountain.
Climbing a volcano in Guatemala under the full moon sounded like just what we came to that country to do. And, hey, since we only had 11 days, and we wanted to fit as much in as possible, doing crap at night seemed like a good option.
“We can always sleep when we’re home,” you said.
“Or dead,” I replied.
“What’s the difference?” you joked weakly.
So, we hired a guide for a full moon climb up one of the local volcanoes. Not the active one, I was disappointed to learn - that one was still off limits - but one of the other volcanoes that just look just like mountains. The tour operator, a slick young college guy, promised us it would be “just as cool.”
He introduced us to Francisco, our guide. Francisco was a short older Guatemala guy with a straw hat and a weathered face. He looked like one of the old campesinos, peasant farmers who loitered in Antigua’s main square. He also carried a shotgun and didn’t speak English.
The young tour operator noticed you eyeing the shotgun, Ella. “Look,” he said in his smooth Latin accent, “I am your friend right, and friends are always honest, so I will tell you the truth: There have been lots of robberies but just stay with Francisco here, and you’ll be perfectly safe. The government is paying bounties for bandits, so there is much less crime now.”
The tour operator didn’t understand your expression, did he Ella? You weren’t worried about the gun. No, you loved the idea of the shotgun, didn’t you? It wasn’t like the hostel filled with Europeans. No, the campesino and the shotgun were authentic, weren’t they? They were what you came to see.
And so, we began to climb. The trail was in the trees, but because of the full moon, it was surprisingly light. We took off at a brisk pace as we had only four hours before the tour operator would pick us back up at the trail head.
We hiked up the trail, Francisco walking a few meters behind us and not saying a word. His stride was strong and it was apparent that, despite being at least twice our age, he could out-hike us anytime. Soon, we forgot about him and chatted as we hiked the steep and rocky path up the mountain. I don’t think I had seen you that happy in a long time.
After about two hours Francisco stopped to tie his shoe. We slowed down but the old Campesino waved us on. We continued, and after about 15 minutes, we realized that Francisco was no longer with us.
We stopped and were standing there, looking down the way we had come, wondering what we should do, when we heard the voice behind us.
“Your backpack, por favor,” the voice said slowly and quietly. But still we jumped. Behind us, was a Guatemalan teenager dressed all in black. His t-shirt, I still remember, had a silver AC/DC logo on it. He held a large machete in his hand and waived it at me.
I held my hands up.
“Tranquilo! Do not say a word,” the kid hissed. “Give me your backpack and I no hurt no one.”
I slowly removed the straps from my shoulder. I don’t know what you were doing Ella, because my eyes were on the kid, his face, his machete. I wish I had been watching you instead.
I held my backpack out, and the kid stepped towards me to take it. Then his face was gone. It didn’t melt, it didn’t explode. It was just there one second and then there was a black, gaping hole.
And this is how I remember it, Ella. Each element separate, like looking at individual frames in a strip of film. You know that the frames create a movie, but when you only see two or three of them, they just look like small pictures. First, the face is gone, then there is a flash of light, then there is that acrid, pungent smell like firecrackers on the Chinese New Year, then there is a roaring crash of noise that drowns every other noise, then a warm spattering of liquid hits my face, and finally the kid falls into me and we both fall backwards.
My eyes are closed but I can feel the body’s weight. It’s warm and heavy, and it’s twitching gently. Besides the pungent scent of firecrackers, I smell shit. A second later, the weight on my chest is gone and Francisco, still holding the shotgun, is pulling me to my feet.
He is smiling. He thumps me on the back and rubs his thumbs against his forefingers in the universal gesture for money. He turns and pokes the body – it’s not a kid any longer, is it - and I can see that it’s still holding the machete. Francisco bends down and unclamps the body’s grasp on the knife. He picks up the machete and grabs the body’s head by its black hair, just above where a face should be. He gets down on one knee and lines the machete up with the neck and then Francisco raises the long, wicked blade above his head.
I see no more because I am running, running down the dark trail, and it’s not until I reach the trail head and find you sobbing there, Ella, that I remember that I am not alone. I do not know if you got there before me or after me. All I know is that I am at the trail head and I am sobbing and there is vomit and dark bile and gore on the front of my shirt, and I hear you sobbing. I may have been there for an hour; I may have just got there. I do not, know, Ella, I do not know.
That rest of that night was a daze. After a long hot shower in the hostel, we went to the police and they told us it is part of the bounty program and that crime is way down and that Guatemala was much safer because of that. The tour operator offered us our money back. I’m not really sure how, but then we were flying home, flying back to our shiny, boring city by the sea. Did the hostel arrange that? The police? Did you Ella?
And I know you know all of this. And I know that night on the mountain followed us home. But what I wanted to tell you, Ella, is that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for forgetting about you on the mountain. I'm sorry for running. I'm sorry for everything.
Two days after it happened, Ella, not the mountain but the wrongness, I thought about trying to go out to Langford to find you. I loaded some water into an old backpack (my new one is still in Guatemala) and walked up the street. I walked past where you used to catch the bus and then I remembered that I hadn't seen a bus or any cars for days. Someone had ripped the bus schedule so it no longer listed any stops for the suburbs. The little list of times and stops ended with a ragged tear about where the edge of the city would have been. I sat there for a while, and then I cried a bit, and then I went home.
Last night, Ella, I woke up to screaming and shouting coming from outside. It was male but surprising high-pitched. I instinctively looked at my clock, but it had stopped working two days ago. The screaming continued and I looked out the window. Some kid, wearing a baseball cap and a University t-shirt was walking in a circle in the middle of the no longer noisy intersection in front of my building. “Call 911,” he shouted occasionally.
I watched him for a bit and then went back to bed. I put the earplugs in – remember those, Ella, we bought them for the hostel – and I tried to go back to sleep. I failed, of course. Instead, though, I made a decision. I’m leaving this city, our shining city by the sea.
So, I’ve written this all down, Ella, and tomorrow I’ll put this in an envelope and write your address on the front and put a stamp on it and drop it in a mail box. I’m sorry for the mountain, Ella. I’m sorry for the bullshit, for yelling at you.
I figured the wind would have stopped by now but it hasn’t. So, I’m going to take one of the sailboats that are still tied up in the harbour and I’ll sail whichever way the compass now points to as South.
I’m sorry I’m not coming to Langford tomorrow, Ella, I’m so sorry.
I miss you.