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by Terry Sanville

     Walter groaned as he climbed from his Toyota, arthritis reminding him of his age. He grabbed his knapsack and joined the other hikers at the trailhead. Walt hadn’t seen them in thirty years. Way back when, they all had been part of the same law firm. Now with gray hair and artfully disguised paunches, including the lone woman, they sipped Starbucks coffee and stared at Walt as he approached. Hey, I don’t look any worse than these fools, he thought as they exchanged greetings.


     “So how often do you do these hikes?” he asked Chet, his former boss.


     “Once a week. We hike for a couple of hours then go out to lunch.”


     “Yeah, after arguing about which restaurant,” Larry piped up.


     “This is my first hike with you guys. So go easy on me.”


     Linda grinned. “If you can’t keep up we’ll just push you off a cliff.”


     “Like you did on the Bradley Case,” Walt said. “I still have the bus’s tire marks across my back.”


     Linda continued grinning, but her eyes weren’t smiling.


     “Come on guys,” Chet said. “No talk about history until we have a few cocktails over lunch.”


     “Yeah, that’ll make it so much better,” Timothy said. He and Walt had worked cases together with Tim doing the grunt work and Walt handling the trials and settlement conferences. Walt liked the guy but didn’t think much of his legal acumen.


     He stared at the mountainside trail that snaked upward across chaparral-covered slopes, a 1,300-foot climb to the ridge top. The reward: spectacular views of the city, coastal valleys, and the blue-green Pacific to the west. He checked his glucose meter. His blood sugar level had risen after breakfast but stayed in the normal range. As an insulin-dependent diabetic for close to fifty years, Walt always worried about heavy exercise and the lows. Cans of fruit juice and granola bars filled his tiny knapsack, there just in case he needed a sugar boost.


     They started the hike slow enough and Walt felt his muscles loosen, his breathing regular. It felt good. The joint pain backed off, helped by the Norco caplet he’d downed before leaving home. Better living through chemistry. Walt laughed to himself at DuPont’s old advertising slogan. In the ’60s some of the hippies used it to refer to their drug culture.


     The trail steepened but Chet didn’t back off the pace. They traversed a series of switchbacks and continued on without taking a break. Bringing up the rear, Walt grabbed for his water bottle clipped to his belt and gulped a few mouthfuls. The group pulled away and disappeared around a bend. He hurried to catch up but failed to close the gap.


     His glucose meter beeped a warning and he downed a can of pineapple juice, never stopping, continuing to push forward. Ahead, he saw Linda step off the trail onto a flat boulder and look back at him. Their office affair had been a cliché – sex in the supply room or in the boss’s office on nights they worked late. She had been hot, demanding, controlling. Afterwards, Walt felt as spent as he started to feel hiking the mountain. Is she throwing me under the bus again, with the old crew watching in glee? Was I that arrogant? Were any of them really my friends?

     Linda waved and hurried to catch up with the others. He continued plodding, one foot in front of the other. Fuck ’em. I’ve never failed to finish what I started. His sugar-starved mind thought back to his time in high school, running cross-country races, never winning but always finishing, just on the verge of passing out. He knew how to empty the tank and run on fumes. He’d felt that way when he’d quit the firm thirty years before. He had the best record of any of them, most favorable outcomes in court or out-of-court settlements. They despised him for it, for getting the good assignments from Chet, for the annual bonuses, and for his dalliance with Linda.


     But it had all come crashing down with the Bradley Case and he got sold out and quit soon after.


     So why did Chet ask me on this hike . . . and why the fuck am I here with these guys? What did I think would happen – we all go off into the sunset singing “We are the World?”


     His thinking about past messed-up relationships provided a momentary diversion from the pain. But the pain won out. Then a pebble worked its way inside his left hiking boot. He tried shifting it to a position where it didn’t hurt, without success. It provided a new distraction from the way his entire body felt. He remembered reading a story somewhere about a man who smashed his finger with a hammer to distract himself from the pain of a fractured leg. That’s nuts. But maybe this hike is my finger and my fucked-up history with these guys is my leg.


     The trail steepened yet again and Walt struggled, placing a hand on a knee and pushing down when climbing over boulders that straddled the trail. He removed his sunglasses and stared upward. The narrow path continued to climb, seemingly into the scudding clouds high above, a real stairway to heaven, or more likely to the deepest circle of hell. Wiggling heat waves rose from its surface. Yet Walt felt a chill run through him. He checked his glucose meter, its screen outlined in red, signaling a very low reading. He quickly downed another can of fruit juice, shivered, and sat on a huge rock, arms wrapped around himself. Nausea washed over him and he vomited into the bushes. His old-man bladder cut loose.


     I’d better ask for help. He gazed up the trail. The group had disappeared, swallowed by the head-high chaparral that baked in the sun. He grew colder. Out of nowhere, a thick sea fog rolled up the valley and engulfed him – a genuine whiteout. He curled into a fetal position and squeezed his eyes shut. But the whiteness invaded his brain.


     He lay on the knife-edged ridge of a snow-covered mountain. A gale-force wind threatened to push him off his tenuous purchase. Ahead, the crew of old retired lawyers stood on the peak’s summit. They passed a bottle of champagne between them while Chet took snapshots with his iPhone. The crew looked happy, jubilant at reaching the top. Walt lay in the snow unable to move, a failure. Maybe this is how they felt about my successes. I had no idea how they felt . . . I never asked, too busy savoring the wins.


     Walt raised an arm and waved but none of the celebrating crew noticed. He struggled to his knees and sucked in deep breaths that burned his lungs but did nothing to revive him. He checked his oxygen supply, the gauge showed it near empty. He removed his mask to shout but the blast of Himalayan air froze his lips and the saliva in his mouth. He forced himself up and waved frantically. The crew stopped celebrating and stared but didn’t make a move toward him. He sank onto the hard snow. The light faded.


     “Walt! Come on man. Sit up. Drink this,” somebody yelled at him. He opened his eyes. Four old lawyers surrounded him, his head resting in Linda’s lap. Larry held a can of juice to his lips. Walt forced his hand up, took it and downed the liquid.


     “You scared us for a minute,” Chet said. “We got to the top and looked down and saw you curled up.”


     “Yeah, and you were shaking, like you had some kind of seizure,” Tim said.


     Walt sat up and shook himself, his clothes soaked in sweat. He checked his glucose meter; blood sugar levels were still below normal but climbing. The nausea had disappeared and the rubbery feeling in his muscles had slacked off.


     “Thanks, guys. You really saved my ass. I just couldn’t keep up with you.”


     Tim smiled. “Yeah, well we’ve been hiking together for years, know our abilities, know when to slow down and when to press on.”


     “Chet wanted you to join us,” Linda said. “He thought maybe . . . maybe you had changed and we, I mean all of us might reconnect.”


     The group removed their knapsacks and sat next to the trail, breathing slow and easy, waiting for Walt’s response.


     “Yeah, about that. It’s . . . it’s occurred to me that . . . that I may have been a real asshole back then.”


     “May have been?” Linda said and broke into loud laughter. The group joined in. Linda continued, “I thought sabotaging The Bradley Case for you was the most righteous thing I did. And Tim taking it over when you bailed worked out for the client and all of us. But now it’s something I regret, because I became you for just a moment and it’s bothered me ever since.”


     “Yes, well one of me is enough.”


     They sat in full sunlight, listening to the sounds of the high chaparral. Red-shouldered hawks floated on the thermals as the mysterious fog cleared away to expose blue infinity.


     Walt pushed himself up onto wobbly legs. “How far is it to the top? I’d like to see the view, take some photos.”


     “Forget that,” Chet said quickly. “I’ll email you photos. Besides, we’re ready for lunch, a nice place downtown that serves good wine and Italian food.”


     “Not that place again,” Larry complained. “I need protein, preferably a big ole burger with cheese.”


     “Yeah, and with enough grease to lube your car,” Chet said.


     On the fast trek down the mountain the group argued about where to eat lunch, finally settling on a sloppy hamburger joint that had a full bar at the north end of town. Walt stayed silent, thinking about what had been said. Is everything better now? Have all the loose ends been tied? Do these guys really want me to join their group? Or will we fall into the old relationships? We can’t undo bad memories.

     In the parking lot they scattered to their cars.


     Chet took him aside. “That was a killer hike. Probably should have done something different for your first.”


     “No, that was okay. I’m just not in as good shape as you guys.”


     “Are you joining us for lunch? Our next hike will be easier, I promise.”


     Walt stared at his old boss and extended a hand. “Thanks for the invite. But I don’t think so.”


     “You sure?”


     “Yeah. You guys are a group of friends. I don’t want to intrude on that. I’m . . . just a sad memory.”


     Chet grinned and nodded. “Yes, you are. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Call me if you change your mind.”


     “I will.”


     Walter climbed into his Toyota. His arthritis pain had disappeared, leaving him to think about the broken leg and not the smashed finger.

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California, with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, and novels. His stories have been accepted more than 550 times by journals, magazines, and anthologies including The American Writers Review, Bryant Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He was nominated four times for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

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