This was the land of Vikings, of strong and able men, of gutsy and fiery women. She had no business even pretending she belonged, yet, there was something about these trails that fed her soul. She hoisted herself up over yet another boulder, grunting from the effort. Her backpack was heavy with water, supplies, … and his ashes. She comforted herself knowing that he was with her, albeit, in only a metaphysical sense. She was nearly at the top of the mountain, and could see the rainbow of prayer flags just peeking over the lip of the next peak. This inspired her to continue climbing, as fatigue had crept into her bones and had slowed her down over the last hour of rugged terrain.
“Come on Andee, keep going.” Blue’s voice sounded fuzzy behind her own proclamations of doubt. I can’t do it. It’s too high. It’s too far. I’m scared. Funny how five years hadn’t changed her inner voice. But all of him was with her then. He had been the force behind their spontaneous trip to Norway, which initially started as a dare and then morphed into an actual grueling week of hiking trails in some of the world’s most magical and majestic and otherworldly landscapes.
Just like then, now she was staring upon the same startling green snow-capped mountain ranges that reached into an endless sky, and expansive bodies of deep blue water. Gone were the skyscrapers of New York City, the steady noise of taxi cabs and sirens and construction work. The soothing rush of a gentle waterfall replaced the rumblings of the subway. Over the last few hours she had walked on vibrant earth and had let her fingers drag against the trunks of ancient trees and slide across native stone. It was so far removed from the board room in the high rise. If her coworkers could see her now–all dusty and outdoorsy–they would probably collapse in hysteria. She heard their laughter echo in her head, and then shook them out to concentrate on her steps, on the silence around her. She hiked steadily from red marker to red marker, weaving up the mountain, conquering it one foot, one boulder at a time.
She reached a landing and took out her canteen. She took a long sip of water and breathed in the fresh, crisp, invigorating Nordic air. She admired the fjord, took in the stunning shades of green against the dynamic cloudless sky. It was a surreal vista and she was transported in time to when they first took in the view together.
“We’re really here Bug,” Blue whispered after nibbling on her ear. “Can you believe it?”
Her stomach flip-flopped. “No, I can’t. It’s so beautiful,” she said and a knot grew in her throat. It was beyond beautiful. The two of them on top of the mountain as if they were the only two people left on the planet. Her insides rejoiced, her lungs sang a silent “hallelujah” – all because he filled her with everything. She forgot about the circumstances back east that riddled her days. Lost were the troubles that kept her up at night. Even the pain from an old knee injury was gone. Maybe they had both entered into a new dimension, and maybe this was their world, alone. Here they could be anything, do anything. That was how love felt to her, it made her feel strong and invincible.
“The view from the tip top will be even better,” he encouraged.
“I just want to stay here a little longer.”
“Alright, then there is something I need to do.” He brought his hand up to her cheek and turned her gently to look at him. She stared into his eyes that were so full of wonder that she wanted to dive in them. He leaned closer until his lips were on hers. She moaned as his tongue roamed her mouth and entwined with hers.
She broke away, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I don’t want to fall over the edge because I’m so deliriously turned on,” Andee said. “Besides, I think we should carve our initials here.” She patted the rock upon which they were sitting.
Blue leaned back with his eyes closed, smiling. “Slave driver,” he said. “Let me just recover my senses. And remind you that later, we’ll finish this.” He gestured to his lips.
She smiled at the thought.
With the precision of a craftsman and with a very sharp hunter’s knife, Blue carved their initials on the side of the moss-covered stone. “Now, we will always have access to this stunning view though these initials.”
Andee had shed millions of tears over the last few months after having learned of Blue’s death from cancer. She had cried for him, for what they had been, for how much they had lost, for how much this larger than life man probably suffered, and for how she had been a fool to have not returned his ambiguous phone call. What an idiot she had been! When the lawyer had called, had given her the check and his ashes, along with his wish, she was stunned. How could he have made these plans for her, without even a warning? But that was Blue—a guy who operated by his own code. It was his greatest gift and his worst attribute. She needed stability, a plan, while he lived for the moment. Maybe his soul knew he had only a little time here and had to embrace the seconds.
It was so god damned quiet up here. She didn’t understand where all the animals were—no birds, no lizards, not even a worm. The silence became too much, and she ran her hand over their initials, which she had remarkably found again. She cursed the heavens, and wept for a solid ten minutes imagining her tears as boulders pounding the waters 5,000 feet below.
Then she tried to stop crying when a lone hiker came upon her, but she was too late, he had noticed.
“You okay,” he said several times before she could get herself together enough to answer.
She nodded, wiped her eyes with her T-shirt sleeve.
“Yea, I’m fine. I was just … just overwhelmed by the …” she swept her hand out towards the fjord.
“Yes, it is moving,” he interrupted. “Are you going up or down now that you have exhausted all your tears.”
“I’m supposed to be going up.”
“Well, come along then. I could use the company.”
She tilted her head at the fellow, sized up whether he was an axe murderer or rapist. Then she laughed to herself. I’m almost at the top of a remote mountain in the middle of nowhere all by myself. I deserve to be raped or killed for the pure stupidity of it all.
They made small talk, Erik was a Norwegian-American and a graduate student studying architecture in New York. He was spending August with his aunt and her daughters, helping out on her cider farm. She withheld that she was also from New York because it was too familiar, too kismet. She had decided to run from her life and didn’t need any more complications. Though she reluctantly admitted that his ease of ascending the Nepalese stepping stones was a welcomed distraction to her. She hadn’t been sure if she could have made the top alone.
“See any trolls on the trail?” Erik asked. She turned to roll her eyes and he replied with a smirk across his sun-tanned cheeks.
“Many, well actually just one. He tried to lure me into his hut, but he was so dim-witted that when I told him to hold on I’d be right back, he believed me.”
Erik chuckled. “I can’t even scare you with talk of trolls eh Bug.”
Andee was a few steps in front of Erik, her hand on the guardrail, her brain trying not to look down over the steep edge. Erik’s last word, made her slip and she turned her ankle. She stumbled backwards into Erik’s strong and agile torso. He caught her. Her mind was all jumbled, and she didn’t know what to address first.
“Are you okay?” he asked. She took several deep breaths.
“You, you called me Bug,” she said, astonishment laced around her words. All of a sudden she felt territorial. “You can’t call me that. No. No.” She shook her head and fought back tears.
If Erik was taken aback, he didn’t show it. “I’m sorry, that’s just what’s written on your backpack, and since you hadn’t told me your name, I assumed it was that. But now I see I was wrong. I’m really sorry.” He was being sincere, she could tell. But it still didn’t make sense.
She wrestled her arms out of her backpack and plopped it on the ground and stared at the front. There it was scrawled in capital letters with a black sharpie across the grey canvas—This bag belongs to Bug, Now Bugger off—. She wrinkled her eyebrows as a memory returned to her. Blue had started calling her Bug after she had told him how terrified she was of bugs and then, on one of their hikes in New York in preparation for Norway, he had written this. She had been pissed, the bag had been an extravagant purchase but then found his nickname for her endearing. Why hadn’t she noticed sooner? How many times had she opened this backpack in the last few weeks? She was losing it, that was for sure. She went to strap her arms in the backpack when pain shot up her ankle. She grimaced.
“Nothing, I’m fine, let’s just get to the top.” She started walking, but within a few steps it was clear that her ankle was not okay.
“I can help you get to the hut, then we can call for help.”
“You don’t understand. I have his ashes with me. I have to scattered them. He put it in his Will. Now my ankle is twisted and I’m terrified of heights and of bugs, which there aren’t even any here, and, and I just can’t even do this right.” She was crying now, her eyes stinging and her head thick with fog.
Erik handed her his hanker chief and sort of hugged her awkwardly. After a few moments of heaving into his chest, she settled, thankful for a warm body to lean against. She took a few big gulps of clear breath and moved slightly away from him. “I’m usually more controlled, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
He said, “It’s okay. I understand. You don’t have to explain. We have to get to the top, and there is only one way now to do that.” He put his own backpack down on the ground, squatted a bit, tapped his shoulder and said, “Get on.”
She stared at him. “I’m not going on your back.”
“It’s not safe, I mean that’s crazy.”
“Come on, there are only a few steps left and we’ll be on the flat. It’s good training for me. But, I’m not going to do it for free. You’ll have to come to the farm to buy some cider. You know, support the locals.”
“But you’re from New York.”
She was unsure, but seized the moment, because she was out of options. She draped her arms around his neck and he hoisted her onto his back. He moved slowly and cautiously forward, holding onto her legs. He explained he had been a Boy Scout and a Football player. Yes, it was odd, but it got him into a good school. Within a quarter hour they were at the top of the mountain. In the hut, he had found medical supplies and had wrapped her ankle enough for her to walk gently on it. He had spoken to the two burley trail workers and was told they could helicopter her down during the next drop-off, which would be in an hour. He left her by the lookout, to retrieve his backpack from the trail.
Alone, she stood under the prayer flags with the urn held close and recited one of Blue’s favorite sayings:
May I be filled with loving kindness,
May I be well
May I be peaceful and at ease,
May I be happy
May you be filled with loving kindness,
May you be well
May you be peaceful and at ease
May you be happy.
She opened the urn just as a lone bird appeared overhead. As his ashes were pulled into the heavens on the back of a fine breeze, the bird took the lead, almost as if it were a guide to bring Blue’s ashes home.
When it was done, her heart felt broken, really broken, but it also felt complete. There were so many things left to say, but now she knew that all that didn’t matter. He had known through his very gift to her that she needed to do this. He was thinking of her, not himself in his instructions. There on top of that mountain she came to realize that he had been right all along, that she had left him too soon because she was too stuck and too stubborn to see the truth.
Erik returned. How much he had seen, she didn’t know. But his standing there in silence in the shadows, allowing her time and space to say goodbye, felt nice.
Soon, the helicopter rose over the peak and she watched it land. Erik walked to her, offered his arm, and together they climbed into the helicopter and descended to the lodge.
“I’m sorry to have ruined your hike,” Andee said.
“You made it better, Andee, I hope we can keep in touch,” he said.
“You can call me Bug,” she said.
He studied her face. It felt like he was tracing every line, every curve, like she was a building and he was deciding whether it was strong enough to stand up to the elements. She looked back at him. He was quite handsome. She fiddled with the string of her shorts.
“Nah, Bug doesn’t suit you. You’re an Andee, all day long.”
She didn’t understand.
“Your name. It means brave. And you, Andee, are one of the bravest girls I’ve ever met. Just look at what you did today.”
He pointed through the window at the mountain peak that was as high as the heavens.
“You did that. You say you did that for him. But I know you did that for yourself.”
Yes, she thought. I did do that for myself. I really did.