Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.
As the tent walls darkened around him, Christopher found himself thinking about the past. He wondered if his family had arranged a funeral for him by now. What would people say about him?
He had been to funerals for people he didn’t care for very much. He had an uncle in particular who was a mean drunk. Christopher’s cousin, Susan, had spoken very eloquently about Uncle Dale. Christopher had come away wondering if, perhaps, he had misjudged the old man, at least until he overheard Susan talking about him later in the evening, when everyone had been through a few drinks.
Christopher didn’t think anyone would be speaking ill of him. He didn’t have enemies, so far as he knew. He got along. He was nondescript. If they remembered him for anything, it would be his childhood. And really, they wouldn’t be remembering him; they’d be remembering his brother. They’d be remembering the aftermath that was the rest of his life.
“Christopher kept his head down and stayed out of trouble,” they’d say. “He did his best to make his parents happy. He did well enough at his mundane job that they kept him around, but he was never going to be in upper management, was he? Not in his character.”
He tried to think of the hyperbole they’d use in his eulogy. He couldn’t come up with much.
There’s a kind of cowardice, he thought to himself, that’s not impressive or exciting, like deserting the army the night before the battle. It’s more like failing to stand up to the crowd that you know is wrong. Failing to stand up to anyone, for anything. Just doing the minimum that you think the people in your life want you to do.
He tried to think of a time when he had taken a risk. Nothing since childhood. Children have no conception of risk, they just act and find out later whether it works out or not.
He sat up in the dark. This was it. He was in the middle of the biggest risk of his life. Even this wasn’t entirely his own choice. He had been tossed out of the sky into this ridiculous situation. Every choice available was a bad one. Rot underground or go look for someone in the empty wilderness?
He sat for a while, cross-legged in his sleeping bag with his hands in his lap. His thoughts turned in circles of irritation and despair and self-loathing. He realized he was shivering, his body heat not being captured fully by the sleeping bag.
He fumbled for the lantern and lit it. Fuel was one of his most limited resources. He put on his layers and stepped out into the dark, the lantern providing a little orange bubble of illumination around him. He tried to remember where the closest trees were by the position of the rock and the tent, and trudged off with hatchet and sled. His aim wasn’t perfect, but after a couple minutes he came close enough to the pair of birches to see the lantern light glinting in the snow on their branches.
He went to work, chopping all the dead wood and more besides. He stripped papery bark, slipping it into the pile of wood on the sled.
Back at the tent, he cleared more space in the snow with the collapsible shovel. The air was still, and the sky was clear. The stars were unbelievably bright. It seemed almost offensive to drown them out with a fire, but he was shivering again as he cooled from the work of chopping wood.
He was confident using the flint now, but he lit the fire with a rolled-up piece of birch bark in the flame of the lantern. The shredded bark burned quickly, setting the smallest branches alight, which slowly ignited the larger branches. He split the wettest wood into thin pieces, and only put it on once the rest was blazing. He sat on a low part of the boulder and felt the heat on his face and hands.
The stars were still bright, even with the sparks and smoke and light of the fire rising up to meet them. The bonfire was bright enough that he could see a wide expanse of snow, glittering in every direction. The trees lurked out in the half-dark. Much further away, the sky was revealed to be not quite true black, where Christopher could see the faintest outlines of the mountains, shadow on shadow.
He breathed deep, taking in the strong smell of smoke and his own sweat, and the bright cold air. His thoughts had felt frantic in the tent. Out here, they evaporated. He thought of nothing but these smells and the stars above and the cold smooth hardness of the rock where his fingers ran along a sharp edge. It was the melancholy peacefulness of being completely alone, completely comfortable in nature. It was something he had never felt before.
For a moment, he didn’t care about what had happened or what would happen. He could choose to do anything he wanted.
He realized that he had never really taken choice seriously, as an idea. There were always choices, but there was also always the path he was “supposed” to take. The choices, the crazy possibilities of the world, always seemed like furniture: something to make the place seem a little more interesting. He had a path laid out for him, and the other options were just to look at.
The default path, the reasonable path, was to go back to bed. He would wake up in the morning, pack his tent and his things and trudge his way back to the bunker. He would have just barely enough food. He’d get there and he’d clean himself off. He’d eat a feast of dull and carefully preserved food. He’d sleep in an uncomfortable bed and it would feel amazing. He’d wait out the cold and snow of the winter. Maybe, when summer came, he’d venture out again.
That was the safe path, and he hated it.
The next dot on the map was the same distance as the bunker. Even if he went back and started out again, he wouldn’t stretch his supplies that much further. He was limited by the backpack and the sled, and the amount he could reasonably haul along with him. There was still some faint hope that somebody was out here searching for him. He doubted they would still be searching months from now, when the spring thaw came.
He could at least make a better eulogy for himself, even if he was the only one who knew it.
He sat until the fire burned down to coals, staring up at the stars. When the cold brought him out of his reverie, he doused them and went back into the tent. He undressed and shivered in the sleeping bag until his body heat warmed it up.
He slept, deeper and more peacefully than he had in years.
The next morning, he hummed to himself as he cooked his meager breakfast and packed his things. He hiked north, away from the bunker. The overcast had finally passed. It was sunny, if not particularly warm. It was the kind of winter day that looked perfect through a window, but had a bit of a bite when you were out in it.
He took his time, using the snowshoes to stay on top of the heavy snow. By mid-morning, the land was rising slowly. There were a pair of mountains that had grown closer in the past few days of his trek, though he hadn’t known it with the storm and the poor visibility. He could see a wide gap between them, and peering through was a third peak. That was the one that was oddly broken-looking, as though the top half had been split down the middle. He wouldn’t have to go that far, but it was the perfect landmark to aim for to get to the next dot on the map.
The trees grew more dense again, blocking his view, but he felt confident he had his bearings. He took frequent breaks, snacking and drinking. He tried not to linger over the three remaining jerky bars in his pack.
It would take days to reach the dot. When he arrived, he might have a long and grueling search. For now though, he only had to maintain his course as well as he could. Since the land was relatively flat and he had his compass, that was trivial. He had attention to spare for the birds flitting in the trees, or the occasional shelf mushrooms or bright lichen decorating a trunk.
It came as a complete surprise when he discovered a heavy stick stuck in the ground in his path. On its sharpened upturned end was a rabbit carcass, neatly skinned, gutted, and ready to cook.
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