The Clouds Below Easton


There has never been a spectacle such as there would be that morning. It would be one of the few things in life that belittled life itself.

It was only a couple of hours away, though time seemed to stretch much longer. The boys were worn from their climb thus far, worn comfortably “like old denim” Mark would say.

Escapada was an angel on that painting day, with tall blades of untouched grass, waving seas of flowers, the occasional stone sitting in its contentment. Every bit of Escapada was green, feeding off the mist that made the air alive so high above the rest of everything.

In the shade of an overhanging cliff sat Stephen and Mark, relaxing for the first time since the start of their climb up what was called the most breathtaking mountain in Easton, Colorado. The boys were no exception to that popular opinion. Stephen chose Escapada after scores of research nights at the university. He went through three shelves of books about mountains, carefully interviewing each applicant before choosing her.

It wasn't the numbers in the texts or the photos in National Geographic that eventually pointed to Easton, however. It was old fashioned word-of-mouth, the kind that spread across generations, that told Stephen where to go. Legend. Folklore. He was always a fan. Fitting how that love would play such an unusual role.

“I turn in a circle, and still can't believe where we are,“ Mark said. “I can't believe how high it is up here.“

“Three or four miles would you say?” said Stephen.

“High enough, I don't know.”

“No. Not high enough. We'll get the ultimate high soon, though. It's gotta be the very top.”

Mark went through his backpack, sliding aside food and tools until he found his canteen. “I suppose the top is the only thing we have.” He began to drink sloppily.

“That's what's so beautiful about mountain climbing,” Stephen said. “It's such a simple sport. The only rule is to survive. The only goal is to reach the top. Simple, yet more exhilarating that any sport man's created down there.”

“Scarier, I'll give it that.”

“Rest is over. Let's get going. Otherwise, we won't make the peak before sunset.”

Mark sneaked a last drink from his canteen before shoving it into his pack. Already, his friend was up and quite a distance from him. When Stephen made a decision, it was concrete, and Mark knew to fall in line. It was a seemingly poor relationship, but actually very normal and healthy for these two.

“Wait up,” Mark puffed. “You treated Diana this way?”

“Diana wouldn't be up here,” Stephen said.

“No guts?”

“No imagination. I can't see how a person like her could find the beauty in something like Escapada, in the flowers or the clouds. She'd say something insulting to nature, and dismiss everything. All she'd see would be the bad things, like how cold it is or how there's a lot of bugs.”

“I think once she was up here,” Mark said, “she wouldn't be so bad. I mean, how can anyone be less than blown away by this?”

“You'd be surprised. I hope it's the booze that makes her that way, and not her lacking personality. I wager it's both.”

Diana was indeed lacking, in many ways. She and Stephen met not too long before, coworkers at a fast food restaurant while in high school.

The entire staff of that restaurant were classmates from the same school, with the sole exception of Diana. She dropped out at first legal chance to take a job as a receptionist with a car dealership. The pay was beyond anything a student could achieve at the time, which for her was plenty of reason to put education on hold. The hold turned into a permanent freeze when the dealership went under, and threw the self-proclaimed independent girl into the market of youth exploitation.

This, coupled with her manners and thick reputation, made her popular with the restaurant staff in a most negative way.

Stephen saw other things in the girl, or so he told himself, and strayed from the warnings to avoid her.

“I never would've thought you the kinda guy to be with a girl like that,” Mark told him.

“You sound like everyone else.”

“There's a reason why everyone agrees about that girl. You were always blind when it came to her.”

“Yeah, well that's past tense,” Stephen said firmly. “Things are different now.” He hiked up a kind part of the mountain, looking forward, cement brow, speaking every word with traces of regret and wonder.

“So, you're finally awake? Finally know what's going on?”

“You could say that,” Stephen said. He sighed and hopped over a rock as he thought about his ex-girlfriend. “I am supposed to be the smart one.”

Diana was the first square in a quick and twisting path for young Stephen. It led far from the life he had before.

When he was small, he was the model boy. Good in school, in church, in the home. He continued through high school this way. At parties, when the others were holding beers and shotglasses, Stephen carried his two-liter bottle of Seven Up. When being sexually active was hip, he took pride in his virginity, not afraid to tell others. The wild antics his closest friends were always into made him appear ever more innocent and pure. His parents cherished their only child and thanked the Lord for their son. But they were unaware of some things about Stephen, which was very unfortunate.

“I never needled you about being an egghead,” Mark said, trying to comfort his lifelong friend. “In fact, I admired the way you were always in control. Never got drunk, never failed a class, never got your heart broken.”

“It's not control, man.” Stephen struggled to describe how he felt. “You make your shield big enough, you can fool yourself into thinking you have control. To tell the truth, I think control that's redlining isn't control at all.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean everything that made me who I was came about after too many efforts. They made me tired. I don't know if it was all worth it. I should've been on the beach digging up clams with everyone else, but I was at home with discipline, being ship-shape for my folks.”

“Your mom and dad sure knew how to put on the pressure. They're cool and all, but they put you on the butcher block whenever you so much as thought about being normal.”

“Normal?” Stephen snapped. “I'd hardly consider throwing up in a field on a Saturday night normal.”

“If you were alone, no,” Mark said softly, as if to spread his calm. “If you're with a group of friends, then yes, it is quite normal to go overboard with booze someone swiped from their parents' cabinet. It was usually Brian Novell. He always had the stuff.”

Mount Escapada's summit approached rapidly, as shown by the terrain, becoming steeper with every step. The sky seemed to match the changes, the anticipation. The boys did also, climbing faster, breathing heavier. Within moments, they went from hiking to climbing to scaling. The chalk dust they brought for their hands was proving to be worth every penny of its inflated name brand price.

“What no one thinks about is how I did what I did,” Stephen said with great strain, slapped onto the rockface. “My grades were barely met. I sacrificed many would-be friends in order to make the letter A. I put so much sweat into my work, I thought I was stupid. No one puts that much stress into so little achievement, and I peddled that bike as fast as I could.”

“You're being a little hard on yourself.”

“That's not half of it. All the drugs I turned away from at parties, the beer, the pot. I took some. At home. I'd light up and try it, get smashed in the seclusion of my room. Once or twice would seem acceptable, but I did this often. Sometimes I'd go to a party for the sole reason of getting more.”

“Where was I during all this?” Mark asked.

“I didn't invite you because I didn't want you to see me.”

“I don't understand,” Mark said. “You wouldn't be social about drugs, but you'd do it solo?”

“Weird?” Stephen said. He continued to scale the mountain, heading toward the summit. “At first, I wanted to experiment alone, in case I became the world champion fool. I didn't want anyone to see me. Only later, it became recreation. That was my approach to everything. I never got my heart stepped on because I never brought it out for anyone. Every time I hid it, I felt like I was violating my instincts, and it hurt more each time.”

“But not with Diana.”

“No, not with her,” Stephen sighed. “The one time I should've kept hidden.”

At the fast food restaurant, Stephen was a shift leader, well-respected by his bosses and coworkers. After his entanglement with Diana, however, things changed unpredictably.

Keeping one's virginity can create a kind of vulnerability. Stephen's was clearly exposed when Diana took it from him. After that moment, he pledged himself to her, starting the spiral.

Diana became pregnant with their child, and persuaded him to steal from the restaurant. He did so, taking money and food, clocking himself in for hours he didn't work. His bosses discovered his crimes, but were lax with it. Because they were so fond of Stephen, and because they knew, as did everyone, the reasons and motivation for his thefts, they let him go with only a termination. His firing was for the books. Corporate needed him to pay for what he did.

Stephen attempted to get more out of every job he had after that similarly. He stole money from his next job, one in a men's clothing store, and was dismissed again. He was then fired from a gas station for the same offense. After that, his resume kept him from being able to get a job anywhere. His parents were not happy with their son's new criminal record. After weak tries at counseling him, they washed their hands of the matter. Where at one time they would boast of their only child, they now mention his existence in passing conversation.

In the end, it was all for nothing. Diana made him a thief for a baby that was miscarried. No baby, no friends, no family, no future. Diana was all he had, and that would be gone soon enough.

Unable to get even the most undesirable jobs, he joined the army. It was a move he thought he would never make, and he knew t was a desperation one, despite what others told him.

“What eventually made you break up with her, anyway?” Mark asked. “I mean, no one could convince you that she was bad news.”

“My folks always hated her. The guys at the restaurant felt the same. They all told me how she supposedly went out with a different man every night, got wasted all the time, lost the baby on purpose. I didn't believe them. I used the fact that they knew her as an excuse, and needed an objective opinion. So, while I was stationed in Alabama, I had my cousin Jeff spy on her. He never met her, she'd never seen him, so it was perfect. I mailed him a picture of her, and places where he'd most likely see her.”

“And?”

“And that's how I found out what she really was,” Stephen said. “She was with every guy in the city, never sober. Jeff said she was so constantly messed up that the president could've been following her and she wouldn't have known.”

“She's never seen me,” Mark told him, “you could've asked me to tail her.”

“You know you're the exception. You're always the exception.”

The two boys finally reached the top of the mountain, with only a few moments of sunset left to enjoy. As Mark prepared their camp, Stephen looked down the other side and saw what he waited so long for.

At the bottom of Mount Escapada was Looking Glass Lake, as pristine as the people of Easton said it would be. The local legend, the one that brought Stephen there, was that if one stood at the top of Mount Escapada on a certain day of the year, the reflection from Looking Glass Lake at the break of dawn would be so clear that it would actually fool you into thinking there were two skies; the sky above the mountains, and the sky below the ground.

Stephen always liked that tale, hoping that one day he would live it. He even fantasized about diving the many miles to the grand lake, as though to jump into the sky itself. After a night's sleep, the dawn would give him the chance.

*****

Mark felt a cold wind blow across his face, and opened one of his weary eyes a slit. The clouds were very distinct, crisp about their auras. The sun broke through them, splitting them with beams that cast light beyond other mountains. Escapada had yet to be fully lit up. The dawn was about to arrive.

A short distance in front of him was an odd figure that he couldn't make out at first. The wind made his eyes water, blurring his vision. Wiping away the tears, he saw that it was Stephen, awake, standing completely naked.

Stephen stood at the edge of the summit's cliff, looking down at the ominous, immense lake. Mark knew what was going to happen.

“Steve, what are you doing? Flashing the rest of the world?” Mark nervously joked. He hoped for an answer that was just as jovial.

“I'd say it'll be less than a minute.”

“Until what?”

“Sunrise,” Stephen said. “The lake will become the sky, and I'll fly into it.”

Mark immediately rose to his feet, and slowly approached his friend on the cliff's edge. “Whoa, what's this about flying? You mean with your imagination, right?”

“I mean that I'm going to do something for myself for the first time. I'm going to fly off this mountain and live the Easton legend. You'll be witness to it.”

Mark knew there was a strong possibility he would do it. He also knew that he was the only thing that could come between Stephen and the lake. These thoughts made Mark forget how cold it was, judging from the sweat beading on his face. “Stephen, you're crazy, you know that?” he said, gathering his strength.

“I'm something,” Stephen replied. “I don't know if crazy is the word, but I am definitely something. I should've made this trek long ago. Instead, I spent six years in the fucking service!”

“It wasn't that bad! You're seeing the bad things, and ignoring the good things. When someone feels down and depressed, it's easy to do that. It's easy to miss all the good things.” The winds grew colder and stronger. The light danced above the mountain. It was ready to touch the lake. “You told me how Diana could never see the beauty in the flowers and clouds up here. Now you're being the same way.”

“It's different.”

“No, it's the same. There's flowers out there, you just have to see them. You can't do that if you...”

“I'll see a lot more. While I'm flying, and after I'm done.”

Stephen turned back toward Looking Glass Lake. The light flickered a few final times, like God's closet lamp clicking on. A moment later, within seconds, the entire lake was alive with bright blue. As the light grew, the clouds came into the reflection, until there was a perfect sky below the ground. Stephen looked up and down repeatedly, and there was absolutely no difference in the skies. Standing became strange, for it was as though the mountains, lost in their fog, were floating in the air. Clouds above, clouds below. It was a dream.

The naked young man took a step forward. Half of his feet were off the cliff, with only his heels keeping him from falling. He looked at what surrounded him and cried. It was difficult to tell what kind of tears they were. Perhaps it was the cold wind getting to him.

Mark was desperate. He suspected something like this would happen, but never thought about what he would do if it did.

“I don't know how long this will last,” Stephen told his friend, “so I better go now.”

“Stay here, Steve!” Mark quickly said. “Of all the times to do something for yourself. Stay here. You're an only son, do it for your parents.”

“They've already cut me loose. Besides, I've paid my dues to them. Time for the bird to leave his nest.”

“You've got friends, you know. Stay for them, don't break their hearts. Do it for them.”

“When I'm gone, my death will be a trivia question at the high school reunion. A caption in the reunion invitation, perhaps.”

Mark didn't know what else he could bring up. He was terrified about what was going to happen, about not being able to do anything as Stephen plunged to the bottom. “Stay, brother. Do it for me.”

Stephen looked at Mark for what would be the last time, as though to memorize how he looked. “You know, Mark, I would stay for you, but I have to face myself, and all the illusions I created. You don't exist. At least, not here.”

“What are you saying? Man, you are crazy!”

“Mark, you probably don't remember this, but mom miscarried you. She told me so the day you died. The bed and all the toys she and dad bought for you were given to me. Everything was personalized with your name on it. 'Mark' was written on almost everything I owned growing up.”

“You're confusing me, Steve.” Mark was careful in this area. This was a topic that was never talked about before. I'm here, I'm speaking to you. We've been friends since kindergarten.”

“From my earliest memories, I can recall being reminded about you everyday. Whenever I was bad, mom and dad told me how I was undeserving of your room, of your clothes. I sometimes felt as though they wanted to trade you for me if they could.”

“Steve, stop it.”

“What they didn't know was that you were alive. With me. The first day of school, I knew that I was unable to make friends, that I was different somehow. So together, you and I spent all our time doing schoolwork. I never needed anyone else.”

“Well, I need you here, with your feet on the ground. I don't need you up there yet.” Mark feared he would not get through.

“When Diana was pregnant, I thought it was you inside her, trying to be born. But you died again, and it was an omen. I didn't see it for a while, but it was a sign. Perhaps I did see it all along. I was just in denial.”

“Okay, let's take it slow,” Mark said. “Step away from the edge. I didn't have a choice, you do. Don't waste it. Believe me, it's not something you want to take for granted.”

As the wind blew harder, Mark seemed less visible. Stephen could barely see his lifelong companion through teary eyesight.

“I'm sorry, Mark,” he told him. “You'll follow me, I know you will. We'll be together like we've always been.”

Mark cried silently, the tears running halfway down his young face before being whisked away in the cold air. Stephen readied himself for the clouds, fighting self preservation and fear with all his emotion. It was almost too much for him. The chill became comfortable and welcoming, and he turned around to look at Mark again, only to find him gone.

There has never been a spectacle such as there was that morning. It was one of the few things in life that belittled life itself.

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