The plane had been held hostage by the storm, stuck in a holding pattern above the city while the ground crews cleared snow and ice from the runways.
The captain's voice came over the speakers. He announced they'd finally been cleared to land, to the applause of several passengers seated near the center aisle, and the warmth in the pressurized cabin dropped as the 747 made its decent into Salt Lake City International Airport.
Nokomura Oda secured his tray table and deftly slipped his arms back into his wool Burberry coat.
The plane rumbled to a halt at the end of the runway and taxied up to the terminal gate.
Nokomura reached beneath the seat in front of him and retrieved his leather satchel. He waited for the other passengers to unbuckle their seat belts and grab their luggage out of the overhead compartments. He was the last to exit the plane.
He followed the group of passengers through the nearly empty concourse, opting to make his way to baggage claim at his own pace instead of utilizing the moving walkway.
To a native Californian, and fair weather aficionado, the cold air that greeted him when he stepped outside was both jarring and hellishly intolerable, instantly numbing the tips of his exposed ears and fingers.
The snow, much like the initial rush of sorrow that'd overwhelmed him when he'd learned of Kenji's death, was foreign to him. It tumbled out of the gray clouds with the torrential ferocity of a summer monsoon rain.
Nokomura tucked his chin down into the collar of coat and walked across the street to the rental car center.
Was the timing right? Had he made the right decision? The weather seemed to disagree, but he held hope the charitable spirit and tidings expressed during the holidays might soften the man he'd repeatedly tried to convince. Grief, he'd discovered, had stripped him of his pride, robbed him of his sleep, and filled him with a reservoir of obdurate determination to change Brock Logan's resolute "No" into a "Yes".
Logan had already told Nokomura what he wanted, what he needed to rid himself of the aching pain sutured to his broken heart, couldn't be accomplished. He'd been firm about the impossibility, had bluntly told Nokomura his request was "As stupid as holding a yodeling contest in an avalanche zone", and suggested Nokomura find some other means to accept Kenji's death and move on.
Nokomura wanted to believe Logan. The man was the expert, a mountaineering god among mortal men. If a legend, whose fame had been carved out of a series of reckless feats and death defying escapes, said the impossible couldn't be achieved, what chance was there for a man like Nokomura, who knew nothing about climbing, to persuade Logan to commit to a seemingly unfeasible task.
He had to try, for Kenji's sake, as much as his own. Maybe Logan would listen. Legends didn’t become legends without overcoming challenges mounted with unfavorable odds. Maybe he wouldn't, but before the night was over Brock Logan would have to look Nokomura Oda in the eyes, as one father to another, one time before he refused.
In eight years the Seven Summits Recreational Facility and Laser Tag Galleria had gone from conception to planning, planning to construction, construction to fulfillment, and now that the novelty had worn off, dead.
Brock Logan stared at the pile of scrap papers on his desk. The dartboard was the answer. It seemed as fair, given his shit aim, as elimination rounds of eenie-meenie-minie-mo or plucking unlucky names out of his baseball cap.
He unscrewed the lid on his flask and tilted the flask to his lips.
Tonight’s losers earned pink slips, handshakes, and job recommendations. Not that the Russell twins needed them. Brock doubted the golden arches food chain would give a Mcdamn if the boys were diligent and punctual, as long as they were quick at stuffing gut bombs into paper sacks.
The newspaper coupons and radio promos had provided temporary boosts to the facility's revenues when they were first introduced.
Bag all seven summits in under three hours and score eight holes of indoor miniature golf. Buy one admission wristband and get a second wristband free for two rounds of glow-in-the-dark laser tag.
The Bounce House passes, coupons good for one two-hour trampoline session, redeemable on the third Wednesday of every month, for each A earned on a report card, had been a bust. It’d cost Brock more to keep the lights on in the building than he’d banked selling marked up nachos and candy bars to the kids.
One by one Brock thumbtacked the strips of paper onto the dartboard. There were ten names in all; seven high school seniors that comprised the remaining majority of his staff, Ben Lively, the full time janitor and maintenance technician, Laura, receptionist and party planner extraordinaire, and Dolores, a formerly homeless woman who used to spend her winters camped out in the tool shed behind the back dumpsters.
Dolores. He could always count on her for a false alarm bill and a drive down to the facility in the middle of the night. The smartest decision he’d ever made, management wise, was giving Dolores the pass code to the alarm system and hiring her on as night security. Brock hadn’t flirted with a DUI since.
He’d miss them, all of them, in a way that made him wish he’d never met them, hired them, and gotten to know them.
Danny was a rock star with the first timers and grade school climbers, patient and encouraging, and generous with his lopsided smiles. He wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement after graduation, but if you asked Brock, which no one did, Danny belonged in a classroom, molding fertile minds.
Laura manned the front desk and, although Brock was ashamed to admit it because the passion to keep the doors open should have come from him, she had been responsible for the advertising campaigns that had, up until now, kept this dream alive.
Tina. Eric. The Russell twins.
Brock scooped up a handful of darts, stepped back several paces, selected the dart with the straightest shaft and held it up to his line of sight.
Slight lean forward. Brock squeezed an eyelid shut. Gentle snap of the-
“Brock, you gotta minute?”
The dart sailed wide of the dartboard. The tip struck wall. Paint, one. Some employees...still employed.
“Sure, Ben. C’mon in.”
Ben dressed in layers. Winter. Spring. Summer. Fall. Old Man Winter had dropped a foot of snow on the Salt Lake Valley in the last twenty-four hours and Ben had answered the cold front and snow flurries with two button-down flannel shirts and his heavy outer coat. It was a small wonder the man could move in December, but move he did, with the soft footfalls of a ninja.
Brock slipped the darts into the front pocket of his shirt and jutted his chin at one of lawn chairs parked in front of his desk. “Have a seat. What’s on your mind?”
Lively set his mop in the industrial yellow bucket that had become as much a part of his uniform as his gray, grease-stained undershirts and faded blue Dockers. He propped the mop handle against the office door and plucked a dirty rag from his waistband. He ran the cloth over his fingers and then under his runny nose.
"Slow today...” Lively’s gaze drifted from his rag to the dartboard, over to Brock and back down to his rag.
Brock nodded. “Why don’t you head on out.”
“I didn’t mean-I wasn’t after-“
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it, Ben. I get the jiff. It’s one o’clock on a Christmas Eve and you’d rather be at home, guzzling eggnog and watching It’s A Wonderful Life with the Mrs. and the kids. You go on, I’ll lock up.”
Lively stared at the dartboard and palmed his rag nervously back and forth. “You sure, Brock? I hate leavin’ you in a bind.”
“Sure I’m sure,” Brock said, as he leaned over his desk. He dug through a thin stack of envelopes until he found the one with Lively’s name on it. He snatched the envelope out of the pile and handed it to Ben. “Listen, I-a...I wanted to...” Brock gulped to clear the lump in his throat. “I wish I could’ve had the check cut sooner, but the last few weeks have been...rough.”
Ben stuffed the envelope in the pocket of his outer coat and tucked his rag back into his waistband. “It’s prob’ly a good thing. Carrie don’t know the meaning of the word ‘budget’ during the holidays. The boys’ve got plenty of new shit to break sittin’ under the tree.”
Brock pursed his lips. “If you hurry you might still be able to cash it. Plenty of daylight till the banks close.”
“We’ll be fine, Brock.”
“Good to know. C’mon, I’ll walk you out.”
Brock flipped the light switches off as they made their way down the hall, and as he did it occurred to him he'd become 'that guy', the penny pincher who'd rather stumble around in the dark, and work themselves into an early pair of trifocals, than spend a few bucks on electricity to power a row of lights.
They stopped in front of the supply room. Ben dumped the water in the bucket into a stainless steel sink and then set the mop inside the sink. He picked up a few stray bottles of cleaning fluid off the floor and added them to the empty spaces on a supply rack, turning the labels on the bottles outward as he placed them on the shelves.
Lively had never been much of a talker, which made the silence less awkward, but Brock still felt the way he did on his last day of high school; taking that final walk out the front doors of the building, knowing deep down, despite assurances of continued friendship, the classmates he'd shared three years of his life with were, in reality, exiting his life.
There was a sense he should say something else to Lively, anything, even if it were as simple as promising he'd call Ben straight away if things miraculously turned themselves around, but when he opened his mouth to speak the words clogged in his throat, like a thick clump of hair in a stopped-up drain.
He'd already apologized for the tardy paycheck. What more was there? "Sorry I ruined your Christmas. Been nice knowin' ya. Happy job hunting." Ben was a smart guy, he'd seen the dartboard, and the names on the scraps of paper thumb tacked to it. It didn't take a card carrying Mensa member to put two and two together and figure out this was the afternoon they'd shake hands, hopefully with no hard feelings on Lively's end, and go their separate ways.
The facility's closing walk through normally took thirty minutes to complete. Normal being relative to how many of the outlined steps were accidentally forgotten or purposely ignored by Brock's staff.
Brock knew how long a walk-a-round should take. He knew because he'd done it, repeatedly, the year Seven Summits was built, and the economics of piloting a business off the ground had forced Brock to perform the nightly closing rituals. Captain. Co-pilot. Stewardess. His sphincter-tight budget had given Brock little choice but to assume a variety of roles.
There were nights he’d strapped on a utility belt and added the title of Handyman to his expanded repertoire. He’d hang window screens, lay carpet and linoleum, install light fixtures, or simply stare at spreadsheets on his laptop and crave for his head to be crushed by a large block of concrete to rid himself of the migraines that accompanied juggling an endless buffet of jobs.
Other nights he'd lock the doors after the assembly crew left. He'd hop up on the newly installed concession counter, sit and stare into the darkness, and soak it all in; the pride he felt, the atmosphere he’d created, the legacy he’d leave for Keith. Here, in this building, he'd never abandoned chasing mountains. Here, the mountains had come to him.
Catholics had their strands of rosary beads. Tibetan monks had their soothing chants. Old men had their canes. Brock dipped his hand into his pocket and touched his flask. He'd filled it three times and it was due for number four. He wondered if Ben would notice if he hung back a few steps, lag behind just long enough to nab a quick, but much needed, drink.
A man with a portable stash of alcohol didn't tote around a flask for the opportunities to show off the design etched into its silver case. Brock drank inside the building. Lively knew it. Hell, they probably all knew it, and not a one of them had said anything, except for the afternoon, about a year ago, when Lively had come into Brock’s office and plunked down a half empty bottle of Jack Daniel's on Brock’s desk.
Ben had found the bottle wedged between the sculpted faux-rocks that decorated the miniature golf course’s water feature, and primary ball magnet, Blackbeard’s Bay.
“Might want to keep an eye on some of your employees,” Lively’d said, with more authority in his voice than Brock had heard before. “Lots of liability in a place where folks bring their young-ins and turn ’em loose. Be a real shame if something bad happened and it all came back to haunt you.”
Ben had stood and stared at Brock with a disapproving look that had reminded Brock of the one his mother had on her face the first, and last, time she’d caught him dragging hits off a cigarette. She hadn’t raised her voice, hadn’t lectured him until she was hoarse, she’d simply stood there staring at him like Lively, with her hands on her hips and a tight-lipped frown, and after several moments had said, “You know better.”
While Brock wasn't as ashamed of himself for caching a bottle of whiskey as he was when he'd failed to live up to his mother's expectations, it still wasn't easy having his behavior scrutinized by a man he'd come to know, not just as some guy he paid to tinker with malfunctioning equipment, mop up soda spills, and sprinkle sawdust over puddles of Bounce House puke, but as a friend.
The hidden whiskey situation had been a fucked up, embarrassing mess. No ifs, ands, or doubts about it. Ben had called him out, and rightly so, for the rocks-for-brains maneuver that could’ve cost Brock, at the least, a lawsuit had the alcohol been ingested by one of Seven Summits younger climbing enthusiasts.
Brock had mumbled something about being “Sorry”, instantly sobered with the awareness his actions could’ve caused someone harm, yet devoid of the remorse he should have felt, but didn’t.
In fact, the entire time Lively had stood there, staring at Brock with his squinty-eyed, gunslinger scowl, the only things Brock could think about was how Lively had helped him avoid one hell of an insurance car crash and how many other bottles were stashed in hidey-spots throughout the whole damn building.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“I ain’t much for chit-chat, but...but the Mrs. says I’m a pretty good listener. Maybe, if you want, I can sit here for a while. Give you a chance to speak your mind about stuff that might be bothering you.”
“Anything you like. Weather. Roadsters. Dolores.”
“Don’t get me started. That woman is going to turn me into an insomniac.”
“Alright, you pick. Anything at all.”
“I said I’d take care of it.”
“Brock, I’m real sorry, everyone’s real sorry about Keith. I can’t even pretend to understand why the good Lord saw fit to take your son the way he did.”
“We could sit here and trade apologies until our jaws fell off, but batting them back and forth won’t change the reasons we’re saying them. I get what you’re trying to do, and I thank you for it, but I’d rather not go where I’ve already been.
“I can’t promise to take it easy on the alcohol, so I’m not gonna throw it out there. I will promise you’ll never find another bottle...maybe...hell, maybe I’ll invest in a flask.”
“You could stop drinkin’, Brock.”
Could. That part of the conversation had been oddly offensive. He “could” do a lot of things, like stop wearing his “lucky” baseball cap or go back to Miller’s Pointe and shovel cow shit to earn a living.
“Could” implied a choice, and who was Lively to tell him the choices Brock had made to blur the lines between what was and what might have been were wrong.
Lively ducked into an employee restroom. He held the door ajar with the weight of his shoulder as he lifted a trash bag out of a garbage can.
Brock ran his tongue across his lips. Once, while he isn’t looking.God, help me. I’m not numb enough to face... Her.
The behemoth Bitch waited, around the next corner and through the push bar double doors that led into the climbing arena.
She was the Rolls Royce of rock wall fabrication, four stories of welded steel superstructure and Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete constructed into the shape of a three-sided pyramid. The largest peak out of a chain of seven erected inside the building that had lent Seven Summits their collectively known name: Kilimanjaro. Denali. Elbrus. Aconagaua. Carstensz. Pyramid. Vinson.
In the center of the climbing arena stood the replicated mother of all mountains, a refrigeration cooled beast that had once put Brock’s venue on the cover of every climbing magazine in the country. The mountain Japanese tourists ducked into the building to snap their selfies in front of, in-between their guided tours of the grounds surrounding the Mormon Temple, hikes up the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon and walks along the mucky shore of The Great Salt Lake.
The Nepalese called her Sagarmatha, “The forehead in the sky”. Tibetans called her Chomolungma, often translated into “Goddess Mother of the Universe”. Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General in India at the time he and his team discovered Peak XVs mammoth height, anointed her with the surname of the triangulation mathematician who’d preceded him.
The dictionary defined her as: something regarded as the most difficult or challenging of its kind, and Brock would attest on the venerated bones of a saint to that.
She was a geological freak, nature’s largest and deadliest slot machine, and there were plenty of gamblers willing to bet their brain cells, their limbs, hell, their lives, for a chance to stand on her summit and inherit the view of an Olympian god.
Lively cruised around the last corner and slowed his stride to match Brock’s as they approached the double doors.
Brock couldn’t see her, not yet, but the Bitch was out there. Her ice-crusted middle finger was raised, ready to cram it like a jagged icicle up his ass. Served him right for falling in love with her, for falling asleep as a kid with the powerful and majestic images her aliases invoked floating around in his head. Sagarmatha. Chomolungma. Everest.
Confronting the cunt always reminded him of cleaning out an old drawer stuffed full of junk and finding a faded Poloroid of an ex. There was a brief recollection of fondness and then, as swiftly and as surely as Salmonella brought on watery shits, the fondness receded into a savage burst of anger and a tangible, almost indescribable, sense of panic and dread.
Brock’s momentum ground to a halt. He released his grip on his flask and stopped in the middle of the hall.
“When we goin’? You said we’d go when I was ready. I’m ready.”
Keith. Smack dab in front of the double doors, with his hands jammed in his hoodie's pockets, waiting for Brock to reply.
The torrent hit him hard, fading Keith and the double doors into a blur, collapsing the rapidly shrinking walls in around him. His stomach flopped in his belly, like a pancake being flipped. Brock doubled over and pressed his palms to his jeans. His damn legs wouldn’t budge. It seemed as though he’d run a mile and he couldn’t quite catch his breath. He dug his fingernails into his jeans. Tiny droplets of perspiration beaded on his forehead and trickled down his cheeks.
Soul-sucking, malicious, vindictive, sneaky, dream-crushing, ball-breaking, slag-heaped, royal fucking bitc-
“Brock?” Lively grabbed hold of Brock and held him upright.
“It’s alright.” Brock nodded between gasps. “I’m alright.”
“Let me secure the front, take the keys around the side. Leave ’em by the roll-up.”
Ben’s empathy reeked of pity, pity stank like charity and accepting charity was a loonnnng fucking way from smelling like respect. Lively had been the dinghy attached to his capsized ship for far too long. It was time to cut him loose.
Brock gritted his teeth and wormed himself out of Lively’s embrace. A quick peek at the double doors assured him Keith's specter no longer blocked their exit. “You don’t need to do that.”
“And seven years ago you didn’t need to give a parolee a job. Could’ve given it to anyone, but you gave it to me.”
Suck it up. Delaying it isn’t changing it.Can’t put the snow back on top of a mountain after an avalanche. Brock stood up straight. He removed his “lucky” baseball cap and ran his shaky fingers through his closely cropped hair. He wiped the sweat on his forehead on his sleeve and slid his cap back into place. “Don’t you have a check to cash?” Somewhere to be. Family to be with. He glanced at the doors again, both saddened and relieved Keith's spectre was gone.
Ben fiddled with a detachable key ring on his belt. “It ain’t no trouble, Broc-”
“I’ll be fine. Get oughta here.”
Ben unhooked the key ring and pressed the keys into Brock’s palm, sealing their hands together. “Listen, Carrie’s got the works cookin’ tomorrow. Ham. Potatoes. Big batch of them sugar cookies you like. My boys would love to see you. Why don’t you come on by the house?”
Brock squeezed Ben’s hand once before letting go. “I’ll think about it.”
There it was. The final hurrah. Seven years of working with someone, sharing glimpses of someone else’s life, extinguished with the quickest walkthrough in Seven Summits history, a handshake, and a lie. Brock’s stomach flopped again.
He wanted to ask him to stay, wanted to tell Lively there had to be some way to make it happen. Somehow they’d manage to work things out.
Better still, what he wanted right now, more than a drink, more than the cargo bed of an eighteen wheeler stacked front to back with hundred dollar bills to pull up outside the front doors, was to climb aboard the dinghy that’d been anchored beside him, aim it for a sunny horizon and disappear over the edge of the world. Free of the Bitch. Free of the bill collectors. Free of the insistent voice that crept into his thoughts late at night, a voice who assured him there was a place called Peace, and he’d find it at the top of his bedroom closet in a shoebox labeled: Gun.
Ben zipped his outer coat and flipped the collar up. He pulled out a knit beanie and jammed it down over his ears. He leaned into the push bars, hesitated, and slowly swung around.
“Merry Christmas, Brock.”
“Ben...” Can’t put the snow back on top of the mountain. “Same to you.”
It would’ve been a helluva a lot easier to point himself in the opposite direction, cower in the darkness of his office and drink himself into next week. What did it really matter now? Lively was the last tie that'd held him accountable to try and pull himself together and be a better man, and the Bitch had already won.
Brock hurried through the double doors before they closed. He shadowed Lively into the climbing arena, watched him float past the concession stand, mend around the summits and the ticket counter, and drift out the front doors.