The trail up the mountain was thin and barren. The path they walked up from the town was well-trodden and packed with soft earth. Now they were almost up above the tree line, and it was all rocks and the sun was hot on their necks without the shade of the trees. The taller man and the shorter man reached their campsite in the wind-worn rocks beneath the final great peak, where a patch of gravel allowed them to nail the stakes for a single tent into the earth. Tomorrow they would ascend the peak in the early morning and in the evening they would hike back down the mountain towards home.
“What’s for dinner?” the tall man asked.
“I’m not hungry,” said the short man.
He went into his backpack and pulled out a bottle.
“A lot or a little?” said the tall man.
The tall man poured two glasses out of his backpack. He brought them over to where the short man sat on the edge of the cliff and handed it to him. He stood and drank. In the distance, over another thin line of mountains in the east, purple and black clouds gathered against the white sky.
“Storm comin’,” the tall man said.
“Could be a nasty one.”
“Wife and kids alright?”
The short man shrugged and looked down into his whisky. Through the glass bottom, he could see two thousand feet.
“What’s your son now? Thirteen?”
“Why are you asking?”
“Can’t a man ask?”
The tall man looked across the valley at a distant peak in the center of the storm. “We should do that one,” he said.
“Oh. Sure. How do you reckon it is?”
“A few days at least. Camping. Maybe a few climbs.”
“That’s a long trip.”
“Maybe a week if we stretch it out. Take our time.”
“More whisky?” the tall man asked. The short man nodded and the tall man poured himself a deep glass. He started to pour the short man’s but instead handed him the bottle. The short man took a swig before filling his cup. He took a long drink, then hissed.
“I guess it could be dangerous,” he said.
“Everything is dangerous. That’s what you said about this one.”
“No. I mean I guess it could be really dangerous. Being out there alone for a whole week.”
“I smell like this,” said the short man.
“Oh. And whisky.”
“Don’t joke,” said the short man. He took back the rest of his glass. He was starting to get drunk.
“Fine. I was just trying to mess around.”
“We are messing around.”
“I mean like we used to.”
“I don’t know if I can do that anymore.”
“Why not? It’s not risky.”
“Everything we do is risky. It feels like we’re always trying to get ourselves killed.” The short man held out his glass and wiped his chin with his sleeve.
“Say when,” the tall man said.
“That’s a lot.”
The tall man looked across the mountains at the storm. It crept into the valley. “It’s beautiful.”
“Can’t you talk to me?”
“I am talking to you.”
The short man laughed. “I am talking to you.”
“You used to think about storms.”
“We used to talk about things like that. Like storms.”
“We are talking about the storm right now.”
“Yeah but when we used to talk about storms it was never really about storms.”
“What are you even saying?”
They were silent. Cold wind starting coming up the canyon and blowing on their feet.
“Whiskey’s good,” said the short man.
“We don’t have to do it,” said the tall man.
“I never have.”
“I know. I know.”
“What it like?”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Not as much as you think.”
“What happens afterwards?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean once we’re done. What do we do?”
“We go back home.”
“And you think things will be okay?”
“I think things will be just fine.”
“And what if I don’t feel like talking about things.”
“That’s fine too. We don’t have to say anything.”
“I mean ever. To you.”
“Look: I don’t want to do it if you don’t want to do it.”
“But you do want to do it. I know you want to do it.”
“You can say that and it doesn’t really mean you know anything.”
“I don’t want to be disposable.”
The tall man poured them both more whisky. Then he fished around for dead shrubs to light into a fire because the sky was getting dark. It crackled behind them on the cliff when he rejoined the short man.
“I want to be happy,” said his friend.
“I want all of us to be happy.”
“Will we? Will this help?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“What if it kills us?”
“It won’t. It’s safe.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean what if we don’t do it, and it kills us?”
“Never mind. You wouldn’t get it. You’ve done it.”
There was a moment of silence. Lightning cracked in the distance. Across the valley, rain was starting to fall in a grey curtain.
“Sometimes I think I want it to kill me.”
“Don’t say things like that.”
“I mean it.”
“You’re drunk. What about your kids? Your life?”
“What kids? What life? I made it all up.”
“No you didn’t. Be serious.”
“I am serious. I made it all up. I picked out what I wanted and I made it. I’m not like you. I didn’t take what I got.”
“I don’t want to do it anymore,” said the tall man.
“What do you mean? Of course you do.”
“No I don’t. Not if you think it’s going to kill you.”
“Kill me, not kill me. Whatever. You can’t kill something that doesn’t exist.”
“I’m not going up the mountain tomorrow,” said the tall man.
The short man opened his eyes. “What? Of course we are.”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m too tired. I don’t feel good about it. You’ve got to trust your gut. Going up mountains.”
“Wait. Wait. Come on now.”
“No. I thought this would be good for you. Coming out here. I think I just want to go home.”
“Please,” said the short man.
“Please. I feel better. I’m sorry, I really do.”
“Yes. Come back and sit next to me.”
The tall man sat next to him and steadied his friend with his shoulder.
The short man looked out at the mountains. “I love this. I really do.”
“I know,” said the tall man. “Look: I will be in the tent. When you feel better. You can come in with me. Okay? I just need a minute. Okay?”
“Are you really fine out here?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. I just want to watch the storm come in.”
The tall man went to the tent and zipped up. On the ledge, the short man looked down. He felt the lonely tent behind him. In front of him, there was the storm, moving black and slow.
Beneath him, he could hear the whisper of empty, dead air.