Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.
Christopher let out the breath he realized he had been holding and sat in the quiet place among the birches. He drank his water and nibbled from yet another weird jerky bar. He tried not to fall into the gaping chasm of hopelessness that he felt opening behind his sternum. Why did it feel like the world was playing some terrible trick on him, like he was trapped in this limbo while the real world, the world that he remembered, was constantly lurking just out of sight, constantly retreating just beyond his senses?
“What am I doing?” he asked himself. The footprints were right there, if that’s what they were. They might not be entirely lost to the blowing snow. The longer he waited, the more they would fade. If he followed quickly, he might have a chance of finding something before the trail was lost.
He stood up with some effort, took another swig of water, and checked the map and compass. He suspected that he was well over halfway to the dot on the map, but it was only a guess without being able to assess his wider surroundings. According to the compass, the footprints ran at approximately a forty-five degree angle to the direction he wanted to go: north instead of north-east as he had been traveling. He would be going off-course.
The footsteps faded into nothing about ten feet from the protection of the cluster of trees, but Christopher continued in that direction across the clearing. When he reached the woods again, he paused to scout around. The wind had been blowing from the east, leaving drifts on one side of the trees and protected spaces on the opposite side where less snow accumulated. Sure enough, after a couple minutes he found a few more faint prints on the protected side of a larger tree, south of where he had begun his search.
He consulted the compass, adjusted his trajectory, and went further into the forest. Soon, he came across the tracks again. The wind lessened as he moved deeper into the trees, and the snowfall seemed to be slackening. The trail was better defined as he went, giving him the feeling that he was catching up.
He never lost the tracks for more than a few seconds now. They were still featureless, with no clear boot tread, but they were definitely fresh.
There was a crackling sound in the forest ahead of him. He looked up from the ground and froze, remembering the moose he had nearly stumbled into. With a moment to process it, he decided the sound was probably a tree branch cracking under the weight of the fresh snow.
The snowfall had nearly stopped now, and visibility was much better, although the light was starting to fade into evening. Christopher realized he hadn’t been eating or drinking. How long had he been following the tracks? His careful progress, his reasoned system had all been thrown out in the pursuit of the footprints.
He took out his water bottle and drank.
There was a flash of movement, ahead and slightly to his left. It was distant enough that he wasn’t sure he had actually seen it. He took off anyway, capping his bottle as he ran, not taking the time to put it into his pack.
“Hey! Hello? Is someone out there?”
The trail of footprints led to the place where he had seen the movement. They wove between the trunks, deep furrows showing where their maker had slid here or there, longer strides showing that whoever it was, they were moving fast. Faster than Christopher in his snow shoes, he was sure. He wondered if he ought to have kept quiet instead of shouting. If someone was out here, why were they running from him.
His left foot caught a tree root, and his right slid into a divot, his ankle twisting. He nearly fell and his water bottle went flying, but he caught himself and stood, scooping the bottle off the ground as he went.
The footprints led to an area where the trees were dense. Then they stopped, right in front of a huge pine. It was gnarled and thick with old, dead branches that reached out to the neighboring trees. Christopher looked up. There was a layered canopy of branches above. It would have taken a good jump to reach the first few branches, but a good climber would have little trouble climbing from there. They could even conceivably have moved among the other nearby trees.
Christopher meandered around the area, studying the ground for footprints, then looking up for any signs of movement in the branches above. Minutes passed. The adrenaline faded, leaving behind a residue of disappointment and frustration. He unstrapped his snow shoes and kicked a nearby tree, shouting wordlessly. His heavy boots protected his toes, but he noticed now that his freshly twisted right ankle was beginning to ache again.
He took a deep breath. “I don’t know who you are, or why you’re hiding!” he shouted up into the branches. “I just want to go home.”
He slid to a sitting position on a dry patch of ground and drank from his water bottle. He expected no response from the forest, and he got none.
He opened his pack and took out the carved wooden figure. He stared at it, mind blank for a time.
Nothing made sense. Was there something wrong with him? He wondered what it was like to hallucinate. Wondered if he could even trust his own senses. Maybe he had been traumatized more than he realized. Maybe he was seeing things. Hearing things. He realized he had always thought of hallucinations as something a bit like waking dreams, with the same haziness that dreams always had upon waking. But dreams never felt hazy while you were in them. Most people couldn’t identify the dream from within it.
His sweat cooled on his body, leaving him shivering even without the wind to chill him. He stood despondently and felt a twinge in his ankle as he put weight on it. The light was fading. He had no idea how long he had sat among the trees.
He forced himself to look at the compass and the map again. He had to guess how far he had gone off course, and adjust his heading to counteract it. If the snow would cooperate, he only needed to get out of the trees and get an idea of the surrounding landscape, so he could compare his guesses against the map.
He began to trudge through the snow on his new heading, with the simple goal of finding a good place to set up camp well before dark. He found a place that satisfied him well-enough within a half hour. It was decently shielded by trees, and only lightly dusted with snow.
He set up the tent, doing his best to straighten the damaged poles. It still leaned noticeably to one side when he was done, so he ran a rope through the crossed roof poles and tied each end to nearby trees. He would have to hope that it was enough to secure the tent against whatever the wilderness decided to throw at him before morning.
He used his collapsible shovel to scrape an area clear of snow a short ways from the tent. He collected dead branches and started a fire, using the flame of the camp stove to light it with less effort than the flint and steel. He found a good drift where he could collect clean snow and cooked his rice and beans. He ate, barely tasting the food.
Robotically, he melted more snow to refill his bottles. He cleaned his pot and packed it up.
With nothing else to do, he sat and stared at the fire. The dampness of his sweat in his clothes was slowly drying, although his socks were still wet around the ankles. His face felt wind-burned. His ankle throbbed. His mind was blank, as though it had given up on forming any thoughts more complex than dull disappointment.
Some amount of time passed. No stars in the overcast night sky. No wind. The world was still and silent.
Christopher doused the fire and climbed into the tent. He sealed himself inside, swaddled himself in the sleeping bag.
If he had done well in guessing his trajectory across the map, he might reach the dot sometime around noon on the following day. What he would find there, he no longer cared to guess.