The Summit by David Micklem

Photo by Xiang Lee on Unsplash

Karl couldn’t stop thinking about fucking Jerry. His ass in those washed-out pink shorts he wore, those fantastic thighs. Up ahead on the path, striding powerfully, unaware that Karl had stopped, oblivious to the uncomfortable bulge in the other man’s shorts.

“Hey!” said Christopher, Karl’s partner, slapping him on the backside. 

Karl wasn’t sure when it had started, this desire for Jerry. It might have been at a dinner party that they’d gone to over at Jerry and Amanda’s place. There’d been eight of them and they’d all taken pills after they’d eaten, washing them down with a shot of tequila from the bottle he’d brought. Karl had gone up onto the roof. To get some air, he’d said. He’d watched Jerry leave the room a minute before and had followed him up.

“Don’t tell Amanda,” Jerry had whispered conspiratorially, lighting a cigarette.

Karl had stood there beside him, staring in silence out over the city, the soft down of Jerry’s arm brushing his own. He could feel his heartbeat, hot in his forehead. Climbing the stairs, three at a time, the tequila, and the first waves from the pill sending tingles across his chest.  

Karl’s mouth was dry and Jerry had handed him his bottle of beer and he’d taken it, a swig. He could taste Jerry’s cigarette on the lip and took another mouthful to try and slow it all down. Everything rushing up through him. The shimmer of the lights, the hot acid smell of the city, a siren on the high road. And Jerry, tall and strong and straight next to him.

Karl had thought then that if he kissed him, Jerry would’ve kissed him back. They’d been friends for years and they were both high. The evening had a crazy energy he could feel pulsing in from the Saturday night city and he was sure that Jerry felt it too.

But he’d known that it would have been quickly glossed over. A bit of innocent fun on the rooftop. A moment of madness. A minute together, no different from Jerry’s illicit smoke. Don’t tell Amanda. 

Chris was with Amanda on the trail up ahead, his arm woven around her waist, hers around his, hiking poles gripped in their spare hands. Their backpacks bumped along in unison like two happy kids on the back seat of a car.  

Karl turned back to the valley for a moment, the ribbon of the road they’d taken just about visible through the mist. 

The path ahead was a set of switchbacks traversing a steep face of granite and scree.  

He pushed on after the others, trying not to think about Jerry, his face in a pillow, all the things he wanted to do with him. 

They’d started out early, leaving the car parked up next to the sign that marked the route to the top. Jerry had used his head torch to show the way. Like he’d done it before, the route, the being naturally in charge. Karl had brought a map that he imagined spreading out on the ground when they stopped to eat. Jerry describing their journey with his middle finger, the point where the path splits, the steep section on the far side before doubling back to the south and the final push to the top. Karl could picture him next to Jerry on all fours, bent over the map, shoulders touching.

It took two hours to get to the snowline. There they dropped their packs on a triangle of grass. Jerry took Karl’s map and studied it without sharing. Karl noticed how his brow ruffled, how close he held the map to his face, and wondered whether he needed glasses. 

“Ninety minutes to the top. How y’all doing?”

Amanda nodded, a thumbs up, her mouth filled with a thick baguette, its contents dripping a white cream onto the coat she was sitting on. Chris unpacked tortilla, hard boiled eggs and a huge bag of salted cashews. He’d brought the folding knife his godfather had given him and cut the cold omelette precisely, handing Karl the first piece. 

Karl, Chris and Amanda sat in silence looking out across the valley to the peaks beyond. Jerry stood behind them, legs apart, like he was guarding over them, stopping anyone from running ahead. 

Amanda had told Karl once that she’d known she’d be with Jerry forever from the moment they first met. 

“He’s just about everything I want.”

The way she’d said it made Karl wonder what it was she wasn’t getting. It was the ‘just about’ that he’d hung on to, and, late at night, he pictured Amanda asleep, Jerry on his back jerking off next to her. 

They were a solid couple. Karl knew that. Jerry had been incredible when Amanda’s mum was dying. Taking time off work to ferry her back and forth to the hospice. And Karl knew that she’d helped him so much when he’d lost his job in finance. Jerry had taken it badly, the wave of redundancies across half his firm, and then months in the wilderness, his confidence shot. Karl hadn’t known how to help. It wasn’t his world and he knew then that his motivation for support was blurred, unreliable. It was Amanda who’d supported Jerry, built him back up, found him something new. 

Amanda confided in Karl when she lost the baby. Both times. She told him that she didn’t want to tell Jerry and Karl had wondered whether she meant that she was pregnant, or about the miscarriage. He’d always imagined that Jerry would make a great dad, that he still would. Amanda had only just turned thirty and there was still plenty of time. And her career was going great, her firm expanding, the money rolling in. She worked long hours and the stress took its toll, but she knew how to relax too, to get away from it all.

“You guys good?”

Jerry had finished eating and had his palms on Karl and Chris’ shoulders. 

Chris nodded, taking a fistful of nuts and emptying them into his mouth.

“He’s been training,” said Karl. “Look at his legs!”

Chris was tall and skinny. Karl had encouraged him to go the gym more often, to change what he ate, to put on weight. He’d been surprised when Chris stuck at it, putting the hours in, on the rowing machine, the cross trainer. 

“You’re looking great, Chris. Super hot.”

Karl craved Jerry’s attention and now he’d gone and focused it on Chris. He shut his eyes for a moment and wished it was just the two of them on the mountain. Jerry was standing behind him, his legs wide, and Karl rubbed his palm on the back of his calf. 

“You good, Jer?”

Karl could feel a vein snaking its way across the hard muscle and resisted the urge to trace it with a finger. Jerry squeezed the back of his neck and Karl kept his eyes shut tight against the view.

Chris pointed at something across the valley. It could be a bird or another peak, but Karl couldn’t care less. He loved the same things Chris did, their friends, their adventures. But sometimes he just wished he’d be quiet, enjoy the silences. He was one of those people that struggled to be still. He seemed uncomfortable when the conversation lulled and had a habit of filling in when he didn’t need to. It wasn’t that Chris wanted attention. More that perhaps, he feared it might be turned on him if the silence permitted. That a joke or a comment or an observation, about a bird or a mountain, might somehow deflect focus away from him. Karl often wondered what it was within these spaces, these silences, that his partner sought so hard to avoid. Was there a darkness, something hidden, that he was desperate to paper over? Or was it just a fear of emptiness, that that’s all there was? Noise and chatter at the edge of a hollow void, extending out beyond him, forever.

Amanda was on her feet, her arms looped around Jerry’s neck. She kissed him and Karl noticed the mayonnaise on the back of her coat. It looked like bird shit. 

“You ok hon?” Karl asked, pulling Chris towards him, pushing any sense of impending sadness away. 

Chris kissed him, softly, and for a moment the four of them were frozen in a tableau that might suggest modern love or mountain climbing or friendship, or something.

Amanda pulled out her phone and scrolled through her messages. 

“Everyone good?” asked Jerry.

Chris and Karl packed their stuff away and got to their feet. Jerry was up at the snowline bent over. The snowball was tossed in a high arc and it exploded perfectly on the back of Amanda’s jacket.

“Hey! Not fair!” and then, “eeugh…” as the ice melted down her neck. 

Karl wanted to get Jerry back, to trip him over in the snow, pin him down. But he knew he had a tendency to go too far, that his judgment might be off. He’d stood up too fast and felt dizzy for a moment, grabbing Chris’ coat sleeve, grinning through the momentary blur.

“Altitude,” he said, before Chris had a chance to worry.

They hiked up into the snow, Chris with Jerry in front, followed by Karl and Amanda.

Amanda’s poles were clutched under her arm and she scrolled one handed on her phone. She was preoccupied as they set off and Karl found himself hoping it was bad news, something to do with work, a case that couldn’t wait. He let her go on ahead and followed her footprints, aware that he shouldn’t think like this. 

He knew it was all projection. That he wanted Amanda to be unhappy because he was. He wished he was more like Chris, more accepting, caring. He’d been touched when Amanda had confided in him, felt valued for his friendship, his discretion. But as he plodded through the snow he wondered if he’d been secretly happy that Jerry wasn’t about to be a father. That parenthood would have cemented his relationship with Amanda forever, filling any tiny fissures, plastering over the odd imperfection in an otherwise perfect union. 

Karl hated himself for these thoughts and imagined that he could swallow them whole like boiled eggs. His stomach was a dark and secret reservoir that held all that he disliked about himself. A hidden place that no-one else would ever discover. To the rest of the world, he was Karl. Smart, successful, confident, trustworthy. Always up for some fun, last to leave a party, occasionally outrageous. Sometimes a little too quick to judge those he didn’t warm to. But a good friend, loyal and wise.

The path was marked with stones on either side that were visible through the snow. It was hard going and after fifteen minutes they stopped to remove layers, stuffing coats and scarves into backpacks. It was odd to be in t-shirts on the snow. Chris got Karl to rub sunscreen into the back of his neck and the patch where his hair was thinning. Jerry checked the map and said something to Amanda, kissing her on the forehead. 

The path wound round to the north side of the mountain and vanished into the thicker snow. They cut across a col towards a cairn piled with rocks. Fresh powder dropped away steeply into trees that disappeared into the grey mist. They marched in single file and Karl whistled a John Denver song.

At the ridge they stopped again to put on jackets and check the route to the summit. Karl and Jerry craned over the map, tracing their journey, agreeing the spot. Amanda handed Chris her phone and he took a selfie of the four of them in a tight huddle. 

The journey to the summit was easy going. An exposed ridge had only a thin layer of snow and with poles they traversed it confidently. There wasn’t a breath of wind and they sung a show tune, their voices soaring in the clear air. It was a beautiful day and Karl felt like he’d shaken off whatever it was that had been bothering him earlier. 

The summit itself was a flat rectangle about the size of a pool table, perched atop a granite plug. From the ridge they had to pull themselves twelve feet up a jagged face to mount it. Amanda went first, finding handholds and then pulling herself onto the top on her belly. She stood up and let out a howl like a wolf. Chris was next and made light work of the face, stepping up on to the top in one fluid movement. Karl had to search the rock for better footholds and then pushed himself onto the summit, refusing Chris’ outstretched hand.

“I got this,” he said.

“I’m gonna do the north face,” Jerry called from below.

Amanda rolled her eyes and Karl and Chris embraced her.

“Mandy sandwich!” Karl giggled. “C’mon, Jer!”

From the far side of the summit, the sound of something snapping and a hollow thud. Karl imagined Jerry stepping up onto the ridge like he might off an escalator. His artfully tousled hair, one eyebrow cocked. They waited for him like a greeting party, Amanda in the middle, framed by Chris and Karl, their arms around her waist. At the centre of the summit their poles were topped with upturned gloves.

“C’mon, Jer!”

Karl wanted to believe that Jerry was playing a prank. That he’d hidden on the far side of the rock, waiting for them to look over the ledge. Amanda wanted another selfie, just the three of them at the top. They turned to face the sun and grinned.

“Love you guys,” she said, and kissed Karl, then Chris, on the cheek.

“C’mon, Jerry. Stop fucking around!”

Karl felt the fear bubbling up inside him like a poison, a single ounce of quicksilver. He didn’t dare acknowledge its presence to the others, for fear that it might infect them too. 

“Jer?” called Chris.

“Maybe he’s taking a pee?” said Amanda, and Karl was sure that it was in her too, the fear of what else might explain his absence.

Karl knew that Chris would be catastrophising. Once, not long after they’d first started dating, Karl had snorted something at a party and passed out. Later, friends of theirs had said that Chris had tried to call an ambulance, but he was shaking and crying, convinced that Karl had had a heart attack, that he was dying. Karl had been out for thirty seconds and when he came to everything was slow and floppy, like he was watching the party frame by frame. He remembered through the fog, Chris bent over him, his eyes red, hot hands on his cheek, his neck. 

Karl swung his arms and yawned. He couldn’t look at Chris. He knew that if he did, they’d both be done. 

He took Amanda’s hand and gingerly edged to the far side of the summit. 

Jerry was slumped in the snow below them, facing the rock wall. 

“Jer? What the fuck?”

“Jerry!” shouted Amanda, sharp, precise.

Karl scrambled down the rock and jumped into the snow. 

“Jerry?” he said softly, his hand on his shoulder.

Jerry’s eyes were open and he stared unblinking at the summit rock. A cobweb of saliva stretched from his lip to the front of his jacket.

“Jer? Stop kidding, will you?”

Jerry sat stock still, his legs crossed awkwardly beneath him, like a kid who’s been too long at the school play. 

There was blood in his hair, and then Karl spied the rock, like a deflated football, in the snow.

Amanda was next to him, her face in Jerry’s, snapping her fingers, slapping his cheek. Chris sat on the summit, his legs hanging over the ledge above them.

They pulled him over, onto his side. 

Amanda ran her fingers around the inside of his mouth. There was blood.

She ripped his jacket apart at the zip and placed her ear against his chest. Karl knelt in the snow and knew that he was gone.

“Put him on his back!” Amanda snapped. 

Karl did as he was told, gently, and then lent back on his heels. He felt the urge to let out a terrible sound, something animal, hurt, but swallowed it all.

Amanda started to pump Jerry’s chest, counting out loud. At thirty she stopped and placed her mouth over his. After two breaths she started up on his heart again. 

Karl was unable to do anything. For Jerry, nor for Amanda. He could hear Chris, the words “no, no” stretched, plaintive, pleading. 

Amanda kept it up until she was done. She turned and sat in the snow and stared out over the valley, the far peaks. Chris was sobbing, uncontrollably. Karl leaned over the body. Jerry’s eyes were dull and unfocused, and he closed them gently with the back of his hand. His eyelashes were soft like a feather.

“What are we going to do?” Amanda shrieked at Karl, unexpectedly.

A fresh wind blew a fine dust of snow onto them.

Karl searched Jerry’s face. He hadn’t a clue.

About The Author

David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. His first novel, The Winter Son, is currently on submission through his agent Robert Caskie. This year The Broken Heart and A Highland Reunion were published in STORGY Magazine, The Witching Hour in Lunate, Crows was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2021 and The Hesitant long-listed for the Brick Lane Short Story Prize. He lives in Brixton in South London.

Details of recent publications and links:
The Broken Heart – https://storgy.com/2021/01/13/the-broken-heart-by-david-micklem/
The Witching Hour – https://lunate.co.uk/short-stories/the-witching-hour-by-david-micklem
Representation – Robert Caskie – https://www.robertcaskie.com/david-micklem

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