We are haunted by the beasts,
not of the past, but of the future.
We are paralyzed by the things that could have been but aren't.
We are left to put the pieces together,
only to realize that life isn't a puzzle.
There is no consolation prize for dying last.
It took a while for me to process everything that had happened, and to be honest, I don't know if I really realized the extent of what went on up on that mountain until I had come back down off of it. I barely made it out myself, and if we had to split the water, neither of us would have made it back. Maybe he planned it to be that way, or maybe he felt responsible for my life after dragging me into this, or maybe he would have jumped regardless.
There's only one way to survive; you've got to keep on going; you keep up, or you're left behind. I guess this is where Danny got off the ride, and as much as I wanted to remain at Judgment Pass and grieve for him, I had to trudge on. There was no way I would be able to make a solo trip back down the same way that we had come up, so I explored on the far side of Judgment Pass and found a passage that opened up onto the other side of the mountain. I followed it until I arrived at a ridge where I could see where I might descend on this side. I knew there were some villages in the foothills, but I had no idea how far away they were, and I couldn't see any from where I was. Still, it appeared less threatening than the side we had come up from, though neither seemed to have any water sources.
I started my way down the far side of Judgment Pass, not knowing if I would make it... but I would certainly try. I don't really remember much about the trip down the other side. I was just trying to take it one step at a time. I was tired, my head was flooded with thoughts concerning the events up at the pass, and my being was filled with a general lack of life. It had been several days, and I must have been within inches of death from being so dehydrated. I remember thinking to myself that I had begun to truly reach my limits; I had never pushed myself that hard before, and I promised to myself that I wouldn't do anything this crazy again if I made it out alive.
I was starting to get delirious, but I had to keep going. I started seeing the shadows and glowing eyes again. I wasn't scared at all this time until one of them started slinking along straight toward me. Oh man, I was hallucinating pretty hard at that point. It got closer and closer... and then it split into two shadowy beings and they stopped right in front of me. The one reached straight into its blackened chest cavity and pulled out an ominous canteen with glowing smoke pouring out of it as the he stood there with a sinister smile. He lifted the canteen closer to my face. I looked over to the other shadow and it nodded at me with those piercing glowy eyes... so I drank the liquid from the canteen.
As I came back into it, I realized that the shadows had actually been a man and his mule, and he had given me a canteen of water. I was deep in a valley and couldn't even tell whether I was still in the Restless Mountains. I didn't know quite where I was or how far I had made it, but it must have been quite a long ways. I didn't think to ask him where we were, because I was in bliss riding on the back of that mule, I was still a little out of it, and honestly, I didn't care; I just wanted to go home. The man gave me some of his food as well, and took me to the nearest village, where I spent a few days recovering. I eventually made my way back to the real world and started building up my life again. In the safety of a warm house, I had time to reflect, and I took this whole ordeal as a sign that I was meant to stay here on Earth for a while longer. I hadn't told anyone exactly where I was going when I originally left with Danny, and I never talked about what happened, but there were now legends of a man who crossed through Judgment Pass. I would occasionally hear of people attempting to make it through, but no one ever did. I don't know why or how I made it through; there is every reason that a person shouldn't be able to.
I had taken some of Danny's things down from Judgment Pass with me, but I threw my backpack in a closet when I got home and didn't even so much as look at it for a long time. Some years later I became brave enough to go through the stuff. I opened the bag and pulled out the water bottle I had found next to the tree at Judgment Pass. I had forgotten that it had "Danny" scratched. I know I thought it was odd at the time I found it, but I couldn't remember why... there was a lot about that trip that I didn't remember or probably didn't remember correctly. I set the bottle back in and pulled out Danny's journal that I had salvaged from his backpack. It held all of Danny's stories that detailed his entire life all the way back to our childhood. Whenever you hear a story, it's always about the good parts, but these journals mirrored the true reality of life, the harshness that Danny had faced but never talked about. It made me realize just how strong he was, to have taken such a beating and still been his positive Danny self.
I read through the journal, reliving the good times we had growing up. He wrote about me a lot in high school; I hadn't realized how important of a friend I had been to him, and I felt a bit guilty for not having gone with him and Sam when they left Brentwood. Strangely, his journal stopped shortly after that time; he hadn't written anything about what he'd been up to for the last seven or so years. That didn't really seem like Danny... to just stop writing and still carry the journal with him, but he did seem to have changed in some way since high school, though I couldn't have told you what it was. I finished going through his things and decided it was finally time to put Danny to rest. I tucked the backpack back away in the closet and headed to the cemetery.
It was very surreal having to take care of his funeral arrangements all by myself. His parents were dead, I had no idea where Sam was, and I didn't know if there was anyone else Danny would have wanted at the funeral. Even though I knew it was just survivor's guilt, I felt like I had failed to save Danny up there, and now I was finally paying for it by having to go through all of this. No amount of homage could ease the pain of his absence... not that he was around at all before, but just knowing he was out there somewhere had been inspiring.
I had never decided just what to write on Danny's gravestone. And on those rainy and windy nights when everyone would huddle up inside, I liked to go to the cemetery just to think about what I could possibly say to do his life justice. The first many times I went, I couldn't think of a single thing to describe Danny, at least, nothing worth mentioning. It eventually got to the point where it was hanging over me so much I had to stop going to the cemetery; I needed to be able to move on with my life.
Many many years went by and I would think about Danny here and there. I would reminisce and wonder about the times we had shared together, from childhood antics to our awesome adventures, from leaving behind his life to saving mine with his extra bottle of water. I eventually married and had children, and that was all very nice, but nothing ever had as big an impact on me as Danny. After my kids had all left the house to pursue their own dreams, I one day decided to tell my wife about Danny (whom I had never mentioned before). As I was telling her about Danny's funeral, she asked if we could go see his gravestone, and I had to tell her that I never thought of what to put on it. I knew that I couldn't avoid it forever, and she made me promise that I would figure that all out... for him and for me. That night I sat in my studio with a pen, ready to capture whatever came to mind. I started thinking about all Danny's adventures, the ones I was there for and the ones I wasn't. I sat there in a pile of notes and journals, some were mine, but most were his. I read through all his writings again, and I eventually got back to the one about the monk. I decided to try to find a meaning in the monk's words. Danny never did tell me if he figured it out.
It wasn't an "ah ha" moment, but more like a sunrise. Everything just started to fit together and the concepts made themselves clear; the monks words had finally become meaningful to me. I began writing down my thoughts, and the words just came to me as clear as anything else I had ever known. As much as you can capture the essence of a person in words, I hope I had chosen the right ones for Danny; they certainly felt like the right ones. After I scribbled it all down, I walked back to the bedroom where I put the paper on the nightstand next to my wife, and I wrote her a note at the bottom.
I'll be gone for a while, so please take care of Danny's gravestone for me. If I don't make it back, know that I am sorry I didn't get to spend more time in this life with you, but it was time to conquer these monsters of mine.
I won't bore you with the struggle of an old man climbing the same mountain for the second time, so we'll skip to the good part. Although it's worth mentioning that I did manage to get up the tricky sections going solo... though getting down will be a different story.
Sitting there at the top again, it was as amazing as I remembered, and just like last time, I could do nothing to fight the pull of it... compelling you to sit there, marveling at the beauty of existence. Reality hit me eventually, and I checked my water supply to find that I had only two water bottles, just like last time; it was going to be a tough trek back. I pulled out a water bottle to take a sip, noticing it was Danny's water bottle... the one that saved my life. I held it in my hands for a while, staring at the story of this water bottle, told through the scratches and dents it had endured. I wondered just how crazy I was going to be today.
Finally, I had come to a decision. I drank as much as I could, poured out the rest, grabbed a piece of paper and a pen from my backpack, and wrote down the poem I made for Danny's grave. Finishing the poem, I read it out loud into the nothingness in case he could somehow hear me.
To Danny The Departed
To know where the edge is you have to be crazy enough to seek it out.
To take the next step out into the abyss is as crazy to the divergent man
As the divergent man is crazy to the rest of us.
Two abstractions too far for most of us to even comprehend,
Here's to the ones that boldly depart from the status quo,
Growing beyond what was once considered human.
How far can we go?
How far will you go?
Gone too far too fast,
Aimed for the edge of all life.
Still we are human.
I hope you found what you were looking for,
Wondering if I would ever be so brave as to face the unknown head on, I placed the poem into the bottle and cast it deep into the emptiness beyond the edge in case he could somehow feel me. I was torn between staying there and rejoining the world, seemingly bound to this reality somehow; I don't know how Danny managed to free himself. Danny was almost inhuman, as I feel he not only survived the experience, but transcended into something of greater prominence that the monsters he faced. I cannot help but be unfathomably inspired by Danny for achieving what we all seemingly strive for. His inhuman-ness finally reached the point where we cannot follow, and bound to these human bodies, in this real world, we can only gaze into the nothingness... the infiniteness... the endlessness... and be humbled at the emergence of all that is from all that could have been, and prospect and dream up visions of the future from all that could be.
Stories are only ever told by the survivors, and while I wish Danny could have spoken of this adventure through his eyes, his legacy can now only be known through the obfuscated words conjured through the minds of others. But I guess it was never really about Danny so much as the ideas he personified.
So here's to the Danny in all of us, and to those so daring as to take that step into the abyss:
May we all find the courage to live our lives liberated from the fear of the unknown. May we live boldly and without regret, but aware enough to always be learning. May we be brave enough to seek out and find what we're looking for... whatever it is we're looking for. And may we find the strength to grow into the people we want to be, undeterred by the harshness of reality.>
To anyone reading this story having found this water bottle:
You may have now realized that I dumped out my other water bottle and placed this note inside to be found by those who venture this far, to the top of the pass. Whether I make it down isn't what's important here, not this time. My stories need no more telling.