As promised, I’ll be posting the first chapter of my novella, The View from Here, over the next 10 days in anticipation of the $0.99 sale which begins on Dec. 1. It started out as a short story in my collection, The Knot at the End of the Rope.
The View from Here
The handwritten note on the dashboard read: Not Abandoned. This was a nice courtesy to others, but unnecessary since the car was parked in the parking lot at the head of a popular hiking trail called The Ridge. My curiosity piqued, I studied the vehicle—looking for what, I don’t know. It was a little dusty, not dirt road dust, but the kind that accumulates after several rains and drying winds, which we had experienced recently—two, three days ago? I wasn’t sure, but it had to be at least two. I had reluctantly put off my hike to avoid rain. I usually don’t mind hiking in inclement weather; it keeps the other hikers away. But The Ridge is notorious for looking like a muddy river on days like that.
There was no camping along the trail. Once you got past the easier first section, it was a difficult out and back, which according to the trail sign should be a half-day hike, about six hours. I once did it in three. I had come close to repeating that speed a few times, but that day was my crowning glory. Now, in my sixties, I usually finish it in four.
Since I wasn’t there as an investigator, I checked my backpack: water, jerky, M&Ms, half a baked potato, and my first-aid kit. And my knife. Never go without a knife, was what my father taught me. I saw only one other car in the lot. The couple it belonged to were starting out just as I pulled in, so that gave them a twenty-minute head start. Not that it was a race or anything; I just like to know these things. I was sure to catch up with them. OK, it’s kinda a race, I thought.
After kneeling to tighten my laces, I did a few stretches—getting older sucks—and started up the path. The first section of the Ridge trail is wide and hard-packed. Most people go to the first lookout, take a few pictures, and head back. It is a stunning view. The trees stretch upward, providing a decent amount of shade, while letting in magnificent shafts of light that give the forest a surreal quality.
It took only half an hour to get there. I’d been expecting to see the couple making out on the bench and was pleased to have been wrong. Leaning on the rail, I took a drink of water and started to chew on the jerky. No matter how many times I’d come up here, I was always blown away by the view: the valley, the mountains rising along the river, and the sea of green forest as far as the eye can see.
After the lookout, the trail begins to rise steadily. A bit narrower, a few more rocks and roots to put you off balance. But I had come to know where each and every one was. One rock, right in the middle of the path, is so smooth and black from all the shoes stepping on it that it is almost as reflective as a mirror. At about 11 a.m., depending on the time of year, it seems to glow. I had been on this trail a lot.
As the terrain on the left side of the trail begins to drop away, the incline on the right gets steeper. Most hikers hug the right side as they’re going up. I always kind of liked the feeling of being on the edge, so I was a lefty this day. It had surprised me to learn that no one had ever died on this trail. Lots of injuries, though. I have a scar to prove it.
The hikers in front of me must have been moving at a good pace. I should be able to hear their voices, I thought, since sound carries in this valley. Despite the heat and breathing harder than usual, I picked up my speed a bit. I took another sip of water and a then few bites of potato for a little more energy.
I was lost in my thoughts. Looking at my watch, I saw that I had been hiking for an hour and a half, which meant I was getting close to the end. I had the feeling I was exceeding my normal pace. A little competition will do that. I decided to stop and listen for voices. Nothing.
After another twenty minutes, I finally heard voices. It sounded like they were getting closer. Rounding the corner, I saw a woman and a man coming toward me. Knowing the narrowness of the path and the steep bank, I called out, “What side do you want to pass on?”
“We’ll take the inside,” the woman replied. “Chickenshit here gets a little dizzy!”
He slapped her on the shoulder and said, “I tripped on that root and nearly fell over! Excuse me for being cautious.”
“Been there, done that, and I have the scar to prove it!” The three of us laughed. “Have a good one,” I said as they passed me.
“You, too,” he said back. In a few minutes, I was alone again. I completely forgot to ask them about the car, I thought. They probably would have mentioned it, wouldn’t they, if they had seen something?
Finally, I arrived at the trail end, marked by a stone and concrete wall with a metal railing, which must have been quite the task to build. There were still old wooden posts sticking up through the ground, remnants of a wall that had to be replaced after the avalanche twenty-five years ago. I sat for a moment, had a drink, and looked around. From here, a person had three choices: go back, go down (straight down), or up (straight up). I got up and walked to the metal railing, then turned and looked up at the sheer rock face.
A free climber could probably scale that wall, but I’ve never seen anyone attempting it. I brushed my hand along the rail, following it to where it met up with the mountain. That left my palm quite dusty, so I brushed my hands together and then wiped them on my shorts. Not wanting to leave the rest of the railing unwiped, I began to run my hand back along the top, then stopped. Looking closely, I confirmed there was a boot print in the dust on top of the rail. A jumper? Peering down, I had a moment of vertigo, which surprised me, since I’d been here before. If someone had jumped or fallen, there was no possibility of survival—or discovery. I looked over the edge and could see there was a bit of a ridge protruding from the cliff, about two feet below the wall.
I backed up a bit to see if I could tell how far it went along the rock face. It seemed to curve around a vertical shaft of rock. There was a narrow crack above, paralleling the ridge. A brave soul could possibly inch along, with fingers twisted into the gap, but to where?
I looked at my watch: 3:43. Plenty of time to get back before dusk. My curiosity fought with my good sense. I’d done some climbing before, but always supported. I looked around and spotted a long branch lying by the path. Grabbing it, I returned to the wall. I poked down to the ridge to see how stable it was. It was about an inch wide to start, then narrowed as it approached the corner. I used the branch to flick some of the loose material away and watched the tiny rocks fall to the valley below.
Except for one.
The pebble seemed to hover there, strangely, a few inches from the cliff face. I pulled it toward me with the branch, and when I had it about two feet away, it finally dropped. My head spun. Did I just really see that? I reached out with the branch and tapped the visible ridge. Then, I moved the branch away from the rock wall and slowly lowered it until … it stopped. There’s something there, preventing the branch from dropping, but I can’t see it. I dragged the tip further outward, and it dropped away, three inches from the wall. I looked around and behind me. I was alone—and freaked out.
I lifted the branch, brought it down hard on the invisible barrier, and it broke. I tried to put the pieces together: footprint on the rail, visible ledge, invisible ledge … three pieces of a five-hundred-piece puzzle. Not much to go on. I still had time before I would need to head back, so I made up my mind to satisfy my curiosity.
I climbed over the rail, holding on tighter than I ever had before. I stretched my left foot out to where the rock was and slowly placed it on the … whatever it was. It felt solid, so I put a bit more weight on it. I took my left hand off the rail and put my fingers into the crack above my head. It was deep enough and had an edge thick enough to feel comfortable. Next was the right hand. As my hand ran along the railing, it erased the hand and footprints.
If I fall, no one will ever know. Oops…
With both hands and feet ready, I moved along the ledge. It seemed to get a bit wider as I inched around the corner. The observation lookout disappeared from my sight as I made my way between the pillar of rock and the cliff face. The space was just wide enough for me to stand sideways, my back to the cliff. There would be no way someone standing on the lookout could see this. To my left, a dark crevasse both beckoned and scared me.
Moving slowly sideways, I squeezed through into the darkness. I expected to feel cold, but there was no change. Suddenly, I was in complete darkness, and I stopped moving. I couldn’t see anything, even when I looked back to where I had come in. I should be able to see light. Did I go blind? Feeling panicky, I moved in the reverse direction and immediately was bathed in sunlight. What the—?
It’s not a pleasant feeling to look down and see yourself as half a body. My right side was on the ledge that I had come in on; the other side, well, I couldn’t see anything—just blackness. I tapped my leg with my left fingertips. I could feel that. I moved my whole body into the light, then took a flashlight out of my pack and turned it on. Pointing it toward the entrance revealed nothing. I mean nothing—no reflection, no penetration. This is so weird, I thought.
Sliding back into the crevasse was the same as before. I found myself in complete darkness. I tapped my flashlight on the palm of my hand, without result. Clicking it on and off proved futile. I stood there, quietly, with my back to the wall. For a brief instant, I thought I heard something.
I listened as carefully as I could. I thought I heard movement or breathing, but the darkness was so heavy that it was difficult to tell if the one producing the sound was me or someone—or something—else. It felt like being in a sensory deprivation tank, where time seems meaningless. Did I stand there for a minute, two, more? I reached around, put my flashlight in my pocket, and snapped it shut.
“Hello?” I said quietly. “Is there someone here?” Nothing. “I know someone is here. I saw your boot print on the railing.”
“Shit.” A female voice came out of the darkness.
“I can hear you, but I can’t tell from where,” I said.
“You are probably pretty freaked out. I know I was,” she answered.
I found myself talking quietly. I don’t know why. “That’s an understatement. Where are we? I can’t see a thing, and my flashlight died.”
“Light doesn’t work in here, and sound travels in an odd way, too.”
I realized that I couldn’t tell if she was near or farther away. “Where are you?”
“Weird, huh?” There was a pause, as if she were trying to decide whether to reveal anything. “I have a spot here where I feel safe. Maybe I’ll tell you, maybe I won’t.” She let out a quiet laugh.
“When did you find this place?”
“About a year ago. I’ve come about ten times. Well, in here, I mean. I’ve come up the trail a lot, but if there are other people, I just turn around.”
“So, you come up here and sit in the darkness?”
She started to laugh. “No, no. There’s a lot more to it.”
I figured it was time to introduce myself. “I’m Thomas, by the way.” I had encroached on her secret, and there was no backing out of this.
“April,” was all she said.
“So …” I tried to choose my words carefully, “it’s not like I’m just going to turn around and leave, and I don’t want to scare you. Do you mind telling me what this place is?”
Again, she let out a laugh, but this time it seemed nervous. “Scare me? You should be the one who is scared. I could leave without you knowing and—” She stopped. “You could get stuck in here.”
“OK, OK, I didn’t mean it as a threat. I just mean, this place seems pretty special, not just for you, but in general. Look. Put yourself in my place. Would you be able to just leave without finding out more?”
I waited for her to respond. “I guess not. It’s just, you know, hard to accept that it’s not my secret anymore.”
“I’m lucky you don’t have a gun. You … don’t have a gun, do you?” There was no answer for far too long.
“No,” she answered finally. “I don’t.”
I thought for a while, trying to craft what to say next.
“So, what do you do here?”
“Well, I started by exploring, mapping in my mind the perimeter of the … room. It’s not really a cave, you know. Feel the wall.” For the first time, I turned and placed my hands on the wall behind me.
“About thirty by thirty, but not square.”
“And what’s in here?” I asked.
“Nothing. It’s what’s out there that’s the interesting part.”
I was puzzled. “Out where?”
“One moment, I’ll show you.” I heard some rustling, then a light thump, like cat feet hitting the floor. I stood still, trying to discern where the sound had come from.
“Move to your left along the wall until you come to a bit of a curve,” she said. I did what I was told, slowly, and after about a minute, I felt the wall fall away behind me.
“Get down and keep following,” she directed. I had a moment of panic. Was she tricking me, drawing me into a trap? Why am I just blindly obeying this person? Is it a person?
“I’m not sure about all this. Where are you?”
“Follow me.” I jumped a bit; the voice was right in front of me. “Here, take my hand.” I felt air move in front of my face. I reached out and was relieved to find myself touching a hand, a hand smaller than mine but seemingly strong for its size. “Not much further,” she said. “It’s worth it.” I sensed her crouching down, and I did the same. As we crawled along, I could feel the space narrowing, but thankfully not to the point where it felt too tight.
“I’m going to go ahead; just follow and watch your eyes,” she told me, and it was suddenly quiet.
I moved forward—and was instantly blinded by sudden brilliance. My arm came up reflexively to cover my eyes, and I raked my hand along the wall. “Ouch!” I yelled and put my head down with my arms over it. I heard her giggle.
“I warned you,” she said, still laughing.
I opened my eyes, and through the small space between my uplifted arms I could see a ledge ahead of me. Behind me was blackness, just like the place where I had entered.
“Just move ahead a bit, or you’ll hit your head when you get up,” I heard her say. I crawled forward and began to sit up.
Sitting on the ledge was a woman with shoulder-length brown hair in a ponytail, hiking shorts, and a t-shirt, her bare feet dangling over the edge. She looked to be in her early thirties, maybe younger—I could tell she was fit. She looked over and smiled. “Here we are,” she said as she flung her arms wide to indicate the openness.
We were on a ledge on the sheer face of a cliff. I couldn’t tell how high it went, and below, I could just make out water, gently lapping along the base of the cliff. There was water as far as I could see—except, I thought, for a patch of darkness on the horizon. The sky had a few long, wispy clouds but was mostly … not blue. It had a violet hue to it. There were no shadows from the cliff, and I couldn’t tell where the sun (a sun?) was.
Apparently, the look on my face said it all. April looked at me and said, “Wow, huh?”
I was speechless.
I looked around again. The sheer rock cliff on which we were perched stretched as far as I could see in both directions. The ledge we were on was inset slightly and wide enough that I didn’t feel in danger of falling. Moving closer to the edge, I peered down at the water. I looked back at April. “How far down is it?” I asked.
She looked at me and shook her head. “I don’t know exactly. I dropped a rock, and it took about five seconds. I never did the math.”
I did. Well, I attempted to. I tried to remember my physics classes. What I did remember was thinking, When am I ever going to use this? To answer my question: now. I thought that five seconds would be about two hundred feet, about the height of a twenty-story building. I peered down again. Yeah, that looks about right.
“About two hundred feet?” I asked her.
“That makes sense,” she said, “and at least that high.” She pointed up.
I looked down again at the cliff face, searching for any marks, any sign of structures, and repeated my investigations upward. I knelt and studied the rock. It was slightly rough, like granite, but not cracked. There was no sign that anyone had climbed up or down it at this spot.
“Do you climb?” I asked.
“I have, but I don’t think that that’s an option. I don’t think you could anchor on that,” she said, and I agreed.
I turned my gaze back to April and said, “The only way here is through there—” I pointed back to the tunnel. “Or by … flying?”
“That’s what I figured,” she replied.
“If we got a drone—”
“Tried that,” she interrupted. “Nothing electrical works here.”
“Sorry if I’m annoying you with questions and options. I’m sure you have thought of it all,” I said.
“It’s OK. It’s kind of nice to have someone to share this with.” She looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t know how long I would have kept coming here alone,” she told me.
“Have you seen anything out there?” I gestured to the view.
“No animals, no sign of any life. It’s as if it was abandoned.”
I walked back and forth along the ledge, running my hand over the rock, thinking. “Well, someone may have made this. Any ideas?” I asked.
“I started reading about parallel worlds and universes, ancient alien theories, disappearing civilizations, and stuff like that,” she told me. “I don’t have any solid theories. All I know is that when I’m here, I feel at peace, content—and energized when I leave.”
“Why were you sitting in the dark?” I asked.
“I was on my way out. I heard you come in. I never thought that anyone else would find it.”
“Is there anything in the room?”
“Not that I’ve found, and I’ve gone through it quite thoroughly. It took me a couple of visits to find the tunnel to here.”
I sat down next to her. I didn’t feel uncomfortable on the edge. It felt … natural. “Someone could have constructed it to leave this place for some reason.” I pointed out over the water. “Escaping rising water?”
“Or, bringing people here, perhaps. There may be land out there,” she said.
I pointed up, “Or up there …”
I suddenly realized I had no idea how long we had been there. I looked at my watch: 4:03. The second hand wasn’t moving. That would have been the time that I entered the cave. “We should probably start to head back—not that I want to, but you know how the trail is in the dark,” I said.
She glanced over at me and replied, “I wouldn’t worry about it. We have plenty of time.”
“How long have we been here?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve camped here before, and when I left, it was still the same day. Maybe a few hours had passed,” she told me. “It’s not always consistent, though.”
“This place is quite the conundrum, isn’t it,” I murmured, mostly to myself. It wasn’t a question I was asking or expected an answer to.
We sat there for a while, legs dangling off the edge. The ocean breeze tossed her hair, and there was a faint hint of salt in the air. The sun, much brighter than ours, sank on the horizon, radiating reds and yellows across the sky and making the water shimmer.
“Are you going to tell anyone about this?” she asked.
“No, I don’t think that I will.”
We talked for a while and agreed to meet the next weekend. She would bring the food and camping supplies while I purchased the climbing gear I didn’t have, plus an inflatable boat from the surplus store. I figured a week’s worth of supplies should be sufficient.
I slept well the first few nights, but after that, my excitement kept me from getting the rest I needed. We met up a few times to consolidate some of the gear and divide the rest. The last morning required a double espresso to get the day started.
She had beat me to the parking lot, her familiar Not Abandoned note appearing on her dash. I left a note too, just an arrow and the words I’m with stupid. Old joke reference that she probably wouldn’t get, but it made me laugh.
“What took you so long?” she said as I turned that last corner to the lookout.
“I’m old,” I replied, and she smiled and extended her hand to me.
“Nice to meet you, Old; I’m April.”
She might get the joke that I left after all.
“Ha, ha, ha, let’s go before someone comes.”
So, in case you are wondering, that is the end of the original short story. As with many short stories, it ends leaving the reader to fill in their own interpretation of what will become of the characters, but I kept thinking if I needed more closure, surely the readers deserve it as well, so when NaNoWriMo came around, I decided to continue the adventure. Now, three books later, I know what happens to Thomas and April and you will two when the final book is released in spring 2023.
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Leon Stevens is a multi-genre author, composer, guitarist, songwriter, and an artist, with a Bachelor of Music and Education. He published his first book of poetry, Lines by Leon: Poems, Prose, and Pictures in January 2020, followed by a book of original classical guitar compositions, Journeys, and a short story collection of science fiction/post-apocalyptic tales called The Knot at the End of the Rope and Other Short Stories. His newest publications are the novella, The View from Here, which is a continuation of one of his short stories, and a new collection of poetry titled, A Wonder of Words.
Book Two the The View from Here trilogy is now available: The Second View
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