From the top of the fifth hill, John looks ahead. He can’t see the eight remaining hills. From the start, it seemed like a hill with multiple ups and downs as told by the guide. They are thirteen in total, all connected to one another, the leader said. One after another he climbed up and down, one after another the trekkers followed the leader, and one after another they are withering away in the wilderness. John wonders how many will be left to reach the designated endpoint of the journey. He was shivering just now but the sixth hill has a different story to tell. Suddenly, he starts sweating. There is no wind, no ominous sounds. He hears people breathing heavily around him. A trekker took out his inhaler. How can an asthma patient be on this trip, John thought. This is trekking 101. No one with recent surgery is allowed. No one pregnant is allowed. No one with any major illness is allowed. But who’s this audacious idiot out here to prove the fundamentals wrong?
‘Yeah, I know. I’m not supposed to be here,’ the man said. He catches John’s eyes fixated at him.
‘What made you dare?’ John asked.
‘My daughter. She passed away last year. I promised her…’ His voice breaks and he sobs. John taps his shoulder thrice.
This is all a coincidence. Someone else died and a family member is here. Just like Mary John has this eerie feeling empowering him. He senses loss and grief in each of his peers. Then what is he doing here? He wasn’t close to his sister-in-law. They hardly saw each other. The night is filled with confusion. Each hill brings out anomalies making the journey relentlessly eventful.
It’s been two hours but John feels like he’s been walking forever. He has just finished four hills and the headcount of the participants reduced to half. He wonders what’s going on with the diminishing trekkers. He wonders when this suffering will end. His back has taken a beating. The rucksack weights nine pounds comprising mostly of water and snacks. He’s shivering from the sudden intense cold winds coming in from all directions. The windcheater is not helping him now. The sweat on his brows has vanished. His eyes are craving for fluidity. He takes out his eye drops and pours a couple of drops in each eye. This makes his eyes move normally again.
It goes dark while he’s halfway up the fifth hill. He switches off his head torch and turns it back again. There must be an error in the circuitry after being switched on for so long or the batteries might be running out of juice, he thought.
After climbing the fifth one, he looks down and finds few trekkers being attacked by something. They are trying to run but they go down one by one. It happened so fast that John is still trying to figure out what he saw. He heard of mountain lions from some people before the trek. He thought they were trying to scare him. Were they right, John shivered. He also heard about snakes. He feels his brain would explode with all such theories. It’s too much to take in. One night is not enough to process such disbeliefs which are coming out to be true. He reminds himself of all the horror stories he has read during his teenage years. He can’t be a part of one.
A similar fate serves a dozen of the group members. They roll downhill and lie still with no help in sight. How could it be, John thought. How can others just leave them behind? How can Mary be okay with whatever’s going on? He couldn’t make sense of anything. He senses something in the wind. It is cursed. The hills may be haunted. Or he’s just hallucinating. He can’t get anywhere without rummaging the rough terrain. The trek is getting tedious and hazardous. People are missing and possibly losing their lives. Things are happening around him. But Mary doesn’t seem to be bothered anymore. She is hardly communicating. She walks like a bewitched soul unaware of her movements.
The top of the third hill has a large tree, one which can house a million birds. John sees a range of eyes popping out all of a sudden. Then, a flutter follows with a loud screeching sound. The bats emit sonar which echoes in unison. John covers his ears and then grabs Mary. He ducks and expects the same from her but she stands still like a rock.
No one seems to be affected. Maybe, John is losing his mind in the dark. He remembers seeing movements around him earlier. There can’t be people living in this area. But from the figures, he could make out they were humans mocking his silly toes fighting against his shoes, trying to provide him some stability. No, there can’t be. IT’s all in his mind. That’s’ the only movement in these hills other than the group trying to move like machines in a factory unaware of their existence and purpose.
‘Bon Soir, Monsieur! What a lovely day! Good to see you again,’ the security personnel greeted John at the door.
‘It’s good to see your sturdy face. It’s a pleasure, actually.’ John’s grin made the guard’s eyes squinch. The guard found it out of the ordinary, something different from yesterday as if he is seeing someone else. He thinks that something must be going on in his life. Maybe, he has a personality disorder. Maybe, his wife was good to him last night. The thing that he didn’t know was this Monsieur was slapped by a cock last night and he loved it.
John has a way about him today. His gait has changed. He feels upbeat. He goes on a shopping spree. He wants to look good all of a sudden. He lays his hands on premium underpants, feels the texture, smells the freshness, and admires the cherries printed on them. He gets a boxful of 1876 collection by Jockey. He gets tank tops for the first time in his life.
Yes, that’s it…You look great…Go for that one…Always a hit…Don’t you dare miss them…That matters, if not now it will…
He feels all eyes on him, telling him to act and react. His wandering eyes catch a group passing by. He checks them out one by one – the faded jeans, the hole-ridden jeans. He loves them all, the low hanging fruits. The excruciating desires engulf his veins making his blood pump vigorously. He feels his heart beat faster. He goes for his crotch but stops when his eyes meet a little girl’s. He smiles at her and rushes to the premium restroom for shoppers with premium bills.
Jeremy finds his bicycle missing. He scratches his head and blames the rascals of the town. Five miles to go and he’ll be late. He goes to a bus stop and enters a bus punching his destination on the notification on his mobile. He immediately sees a frowning emoji saying ‘5F added sadly.’ He swears at the rascals but keeps a stupid smile in front of the other passengers. He thinks of them upping their carbon footprints as well. But he doesn’t belong here. He had an impeccable run till now. This must be a stand against him by the non-believers. People hate him for being the poster boy of town. He is seen as a role model by some. Parents tell their children to be like him. They are correct. Their progeny’s future depends on it. It’s the year 2088 and the world has seen a dramatic shift in the carbon housing effect. Now people are considered good or bad depending on their devotion to the planet.
Jeremy messes up with his good boy routine. He reaches the office and finds himself at crossroads. He sits on the fifth floor and he’s getting late for the meeting. He switches his normal path to jump in an empty elevator. He makes his F score lift up by five floors. He curses his luck again.
He is beware of another rise in his score. He dreads the tally so early in the morning. He can’t do without his morning cup of bliss. So he waves his mobile device and out comes the aroma of fresh coffee.
The trekkers ask for a break when they reach the summit of the second hill. Most of them are out of breath. Sippers come out and click open with some kind of resonance. The thirst is natural. Every soul feels it. Their dry throats move up and down like the engines provided with oil.
Mary opens her snack pack and bites into an energy bar. John expects her to share it but she keeps on munching like it’s the last one. She is getting anxious, he can tell.
‘It’s just the start, honey. We got to keep moving with the guides. Hear them out, follow their advice.’
‘Yeah! I know. So, they keep on telling us. Dumb fucks.’
‘Excuse me.’ John is alarmed at Mary’s swearing twice tonight. She’s not like this. He has never heard her swear. There’s something different about her. She looks like she needs to quit this right now. It is messing with her head. Plus, many of his peers are not there with him at the moment.
‘Aren’t they worried? I mean what’s up with the guides. Why aren’t they helping the ones who aren’t back?’ he whispers to Mary.
‘You mean the dead ones. Let them be,’ Mary laughed.
‘You find this funny. What if it’s us?’
‘Can’t be.’ Mary picks up her rucksack and moves ahead step-in-step with the leader.
The trekkers dare their lives going through a dry wasteland. Most of the hills are devoid of grass and wherever the grass is, it seems that life is sucked out of them. Their dryness makes it look like a wry smile on the downtrodden folks risking their way through the number thirteen. They embark on their first one and find the trees barren, without life on them. There are a few leaves on some but dry as an old corpse. The branches are thin and pointy. Some trekkers get some cuts and bruises brushing against the forlorn branches. Everything is as dry as it possibly can be on the planet. The lifeless surrounding is not helping the cause of the trekkers. The up-down journey is difficult as it is.
During the first downhill journey, some trekkers slip and they roll downhill hurting themselves real bad. The pebbles under their feet led to the mishap. Mary and John also find it very difficult but they somehow manage to get down. Mary wanted to help the fallen ones but John said to carry on. ‘Let’s save our energy,’ he said.
‘Aren’t the guides going to help them. Why aren’t we halting? What’s the matter?’ Mary gives John a quizzical look. She marches forward leaving behind a dozen trekkers who wouldn’t move, get up and get going. She sheds a tear for them thinking about their ill fate.