Friday, July 31, 2009

Fiction: "Transported"

I wrote this short story in 2007, when I was working at a computer company in Fort Collins. I hope you like it. If you do, vote for it at the end of the story, and forward the link to your friends.

Longs Peak is a 14,256-foot mountain, located on the eastern edge of the Front Range in Northern Colorado. It's a regional landmark, and a popular climbing destination during late summer and early fall. On busy days, the summit trail is an endless, multi-colored pilgrimage of nylon parkas and windbreakers. Now, for the story:

Jeff stood at the window and looked out of the office. This was the fun part of living in Colorado: the Rocky Mountains were always outside your window, just a few miles away. The not-fun part was that he spent 40 hours a week working in an office in the city, wasting the best daylight hours working for The Man, instead of climbing around in the mountains.

It wasn't the best day for looking at the mountains, either. Low, grey clouds hung over the city, which was unusual -- and depressing -- for a summer day. Fortunately, the clouds thinned towards the west, and he could see the summit of Longs Peak in the distance, the snow mostly melted from its flanks. It looked like a good day to be on Longs, except that he was stuck here in the office.

He sipped his coffee and tried to focus on the flanks of the mountain, where he knew the trail wound around. He said to himself, "Boy, what would it be like to be up there right now, instead of here in the office?" He took another sip of his coffee. His heart ached for a moment, longing to be on the mountaintop.

Suddenly, with the cup of coffee still to his lips, the view changed. In an instant, the window had disappeared. The office was now a six-foot granite boulder, and he was perched on top of it. He started coughing on his coffee, as the stuffy indoor air he had been breathing was instantly replaced with cold, dry, mountain air. His shoes slipped as they found purchase on the new surface under his feet, and he looked around him, first with curiosity and then with increasing unbelief and amazement.

He recognized the terrain, and the panoramic view. He was on top of the mountain! Only seconds before, he had been in the office, and somehow he had wished himself here!

He looked at the coffee cup in his hand, and then at the khaki pants and polo shirt he was wearing. He felt a moment of nausea. If this wasn't cognitive dissonance, then nothing was. He shivered as the wind brushed his bare arms and cut through his thin shirt. "Maybe I should have wished for a parka, too."

"Wait a minute, this has to be a hallucination. I'm still in the office." Reaching out with his coffee-free hand, he slowly turned in a circle and tried to feel for the office walls. As he came back around, he noticed two people puffing their way towards him. They were outfitted the way he thought he should have been for this fantasy. Both wore black nylon pants. One had a red North Face windbreaker, and the other had a yellow Columbia parka. They carried backpacks, obviously full of whatever you need to complete the pilgrimage from the parking lot to the summit.

Even behind their mirrored sunglasses, he could tell that they were as confused as he was. As they came to the boulder and dumped their packs on the ground, one of them looked at him and asked, "Dude, how do you get up there?"

"I dunno." What else could he say?

The other asked, "Where's yer coat and yer gear?"

"I don't have any."

"You mean you walked all the way up here, dressed like that, with nothin' but a cup of coffee?"


"Whaddaya mean, 'no'? Where's your stuff? Seriously, howdja get up here?"

"Honestly, I dunno. I'm an accountant at a computer company in Fort Collins. Two minutes ago I was sipping this coffee in the office and --"

He was interrupted with a wave and a dismissive "Whatever." Both the gesture and the word indicated a combination of bewilderment, disbelief and impatience. North Face and Columbia hunkered down on the lee side of a small rock wall, to get out of the wind and celebrate with Gatorade and granola bars.

Still holding onto his coffee, he scrambled down from the boulder and started walking across the summit. The summit of Longs Peak is a plateau, about the size of a football field, strewn with boulders and broken rocks. Cairns, small piles of rock built up by climbers, mark the spots where trails end at the edge of the summit plateau. He started heading south, towards the cairn that marked the incline known as the Home Stretch.

"Hey!" It was the red North Face. "Where're you goin'?"

"Down," he replied without looking back.

"Waitaminnit! You can't go down like that!"

"Why not?"

The yellow Columbia chimed in, "Yeah, why not? That's how he got up here."

"What time this morning did you start?" That was North Face again.

"I told you, five minutes ago I was in my office in Fort Collins."

North Face muttered an obscene expression of disbelief.

Jeff stopped. With his free hand, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellular phone. He was not surprised to find that he had good reception up here. More than once, he had reached the summit of a mountain, only to observe a fellow climber pull out a cellphone, speed-dial someone, and announce, "Hi. Hey, we made it. Yeah, I'm calling from the top." It was the 21st-century climbing ritual. Even Everest climbers did it.

Instead of calling home, he called the office. "Hey, Jackie? It's Jeff. Yeah. Do me a favor, will you? Go into the back and look in my office. See if I'm there. Yeah, I'll wait."

He stopped and looked at the two climbers. He wasn't sure whether to grin or not. Besides, it was cold and he was shivering, and the others were still catching their breath. Jackie was back on the phone.

"Yeah, I'm still here. Not in my office, huh? Hey, did you see me there this morning? That's what I thought. How long ago? Okay, good. Look, would you mind sending me an email saying that you saw me at that time? Yeah, I know it's a weird request. Humor me."

There was a pause, as Jeff's co-worker wrote a note to herself. Then she asked him the question most often asked of people on cellular phones. He chuckled nervously as he formulated his answer.

"Well, I don't know, but it looks like the summit of Longs Peak. No. I have no idea. One minute I was standing at the window, sipping my coffee, and the next thing I know, I'm on top of this mountain."

Three other hikers had climbed over the edge of the summit plateau. The one in the lead had already dumped her pack, and was gasping noisily as she rocked her body slowly back and forth, trying to get more oxygen into her lungs and thence to her muscles. She was close enough to him, and her gasping had quieted down enough, that she had heard this last exchange from Jeff.

"You don't know how you got here?" she asked him.

He held up a finger, begging her to pause while he finished the conversation. "Okay, Jackie, look. I'm gonna take a picture with this phone and send it to you, okay? I'm wearing the same clothes you saw me in this morning, and you should be able to recognize the coffee cup in my hand. I'll see you in a few hours, I guess. Bye."

He pressed the disconnect button, set the cup down, and fumbled with the phone until he got the camera going. To his latest interrogator, he said, "I think I wished myself up here, but I don't know how to wish myself back down."

She looked at the crepe-soled shoes on his feet. "It looks like you forgot your ruby slippers."

If he hadn't been feeling so confused, and she so oxygen-starved, they might have laughed at the joke. As things were, it did get a snort and a couple of smiles.

Jeff asked her and her companions, and North Face and Columbia, to pose with him at the summit boulder. Without a photograph, nobody was going to believe this story. He balanced the phone on another rock, set the self-timer and ran around to get into the picture.

It was a strange photo. It showed the summit boulder, with the USGS benchmark glinting in the morning sun. Seated in front of the rock were five climbers in cold-weather gear, with their packs at their feet. Behind them, the ridges of the Front Range stretched northward. To the northeast, peeking through holes in the low clouds, could be seen the lakes and reservoirs, and some of the streets, of the city of Fort Collins. And seated in the front of the group of climbers was a middle-aged man in tan pants and a green polo shirt, clutching an empty coffee cup, with a confused smile on his face.

Jeff crouched behind a low rock wall, and fumbled with the buttons on the phone to send the photograph to his co-worker. By now, a dozen climbers were on the summit, most of them having started around midnight. It would be another three hours before it got crowded up here, as the 3:00 a.m. pilgrims finally made their way to the top.

He borrowed a fleece vest from one well-equipped climber, and a windbreaker from another, in exchange for his business card and a promise to return the gear if they called him at work and asked for them. His shoes would have to do for footwear. He'd read of someone doing the climb in cowboy boots once. Then he walked over the edge of the summit plateau and started down the Home Stretch, still holding his coffee cup.

The other climbers, hiding from the wind and sunning themselves on the southeast side of a long granite shelf, watched him go.

North Face said, "Dude. I saw a guy playing a French horn up here once. He'd rigged straps to the case, like a backpack. His friends videoed it. I'll bet you can find it on YouTube."

A girl climber one-upped him. "I saw a string quartet up here once. Two girls in long black dresses, two guys in tuxes. One of the guys had a cello. I don't know if they climbed up here or came up on pack mules. But they had a professional video crew with them."

Columbia answered, "Yeah, but I'll bet those people weren't up here at 8:30 in the morning. This dude was by far the freakin' weirdest thing I've ever seen up here."

"Freakin' A," said North Face, as he took a long, slow pull on his Gatorade.

Copyright 2007 Ray Depew. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Arriba, middle child

Our middle child went out into the world today to seek her fortune.

My sweet wife and I were blessed with five children.

The first, a boy, is protected by the might of the US military. In fact, he is part of the might of the US military. In school, his squadron's motto was "First takes care of its own." The US military does indeed take care of its own, and so we trust that he is both safe and successful. His future is also well in hand, whether in or out of the military.

The second, a girl, is married with two children. She has the luxury in today's world of being a stay-at-home mother. She and her husband have had an adventurous life so far, and their future is secure with a government job and all the associated benefits. They have successfully sold their first house, and will soon move to a new location.

The fourth, also a girl, is in the middle of an 18-month mission, after which she will return to her university studies. God holds her in the hollow of His hand, and angels guard her footsteps until her mission is completed.

The last, a boy, is in his final year of high school. He is on track to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming a doctor, an ambition that he is pursuing with the same singlemindedness that has taken his older brother to success in the military.

But the middle child -- ah. Tradition holds that the middle child is the bellwether of the family, and that the success or failure of the family can be judged by the success or failure of the middle child. Our middle child left this morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, to seek her fortune in the world.

She has been preparing for this date, consciously or unconsciously, for 25 years. Her preparations have taken her to Europe, to South America, and all over the United States, have placed her in the spotlight on countless stages, and have made her a Joan of Arc to hundreds -- no, thousands -- of eager youth and young adults. Now, as her preparations come to an end and the Rest of Her Life begins, she goes to make her mark in the world as a middle school teacher.

That doesn't sound like much. In fact, at first, it sounds rather anticlimactic. Believe me, the world won't know what hit it.

She will be taking over and reviving the vocal music and drama programs at a middle school in Colorado Springs. That wasn't her plan: her plan was to teach at a high school in Boston, Seattle, Austin, or someplace else with energy and ambitions to match her own. But, like tardy suitors, Boston, Seattle and Austin made their moves too late. She couldn't wait around for them, and she had already made a commitment to Colorado Springs before the others came calling. Perhaps in the future they will have their turn.

We acknowledge the hand of God in our middle child's life. Everything that has happened to her has happened because of Him. She followed her dreams, and she made her own choices, but the choices and the opportunities were put there by God, as were the challenges and the obstacles.

The financial problems that are afflicting the nation have reached all the way down into our family. As we struggle with our own future, we look with hope and anticipation to our middle child, as we watch her taillights disappear down the road.

And the thought that keeps passing through my mind? It isn't "As the middle child goes, so goes the family." No, it's "Watch out, world. Here she comes."