Waiting for the Mountains
It happens several hours after the Colorado border, around Fort Morgan. Everything is flat. Green has turned into dry, yellow, and broken. Sometimes there are cows standing in trampled grass. Only two strings of barbed wire between them and the interstate. They never try to cross it. Everything’s the same or not different enough to matter. In the beginning, they look like clouds or smoke. And then, suddenly, they appear, solid, rising from the edge of the sky.
“Are you watching?” I asked my two oldest. “First one to see mountains gets a prize.”
This is what my father always said to us on our summer trips to our family cabin, forty-five minutes west of Estes Park up Highway 7. Past the boulder that looked like a bear’s head, across from the dried-up beaver pond. The cabin was my refuge, secure in the forest of the Rocky Mountains.
I don’t remember what the prize was, maybe just bragging rights. It always seemed important to win, though. I glanced at my children in the rear-view mirror. They were staring down at their tablets.
“We’ll be in Hudson soon,” I said.
“Do you think that’s them?” I pointed out the windshield.
Bridget squinted against the sun. She was my oldest, eight, almost eight and a half, as she always corrected me. She had unruly blonde hair, long skinny legs full of bruises and scratches, and an open-mouthed smile that escaped when I least expected it.
“Maybe,” she said. “Are there any more snacks? I’m hungry.”
“Should be,” I said. “The bag is at your feet. Charlie still sleeping?”
She leaned over to peek at her baby brother. He’d been sleeping since Ogallala, almost two and a half hours.
“Yep.” I heard the crinkle of the reusable grocery bag. “You packed weird foods this time.” More crinkling. “Gross, this carrot isn’t even peeled. What are we supposed to do with a dirty carrot in the car, mom?”
I didn’t remember packing that. Most of the rushed morning was hazy.
“Poke your brother?” I suggested.
She giggled. Then sighed. “How much longer?”
“Only about an hour and a half. I think I threw some fruit snacks in there. Check in the bottom.”
“When’s daddy coming up?” asked Nick, my five-year-old, from the back row.
There was a dark pinch somewhere behind my belly button. “Not sure.”
I blinked, erasing the image of my note, propped up against the flowered butter-dish bought on our honeymoon in Mexico.
“Why the last-minute trip, Kate?” my mom had asked when I’d stopped by early this morning to get the keys, kids already packed in the car.
“No reason. Philip is going to meet us after his business trip.” I don’t know why I lied. “Is the cabin available?”
“We were going to head up there, but not for another couple of weeks. Your dad has to finish up the summer class he’s teaching.”
“Great. Well, maybe we’ll see you up there.”
“You’re going to stay that long?”
I shrugged. “Depends on how much time Philip can get off.”
She dropped the keys in my hand. “I could maybe help drive if you wait a day or two.”
“The kids are all packed. We’ll be fine.”
Daisy, my dog, barked from the front seat.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said as I stepped off her porch. “Gotta go.”
I am not a spontaneous person. I always have a plan. I have to. That’s what keeps everything from crumbling. At least I used to think it would keep everything from crumbling.
All I knew now was I was driving. Behind me was Nebraska and a little blue house with a patchy front yard, and a man who didn’t know I was gone. In front of me lay the road, and sky, and then… mountains. We were friends, the mountains and I. Solid and safe, they always appeared. My chest warmed.
We stopped in Lyons to stretch our legs and change Charlie’s diaper. I pulled out my phone to check the time. Had Philip read my note yet? Would he understand what it meant? Did I even know? I’m at the cabin. I’m taking the kids. And Daisy. I’m tired of pretending.
Outside of Lyons, boulders stationed themselves on the right side of the road then grew into hills and cliffs, guarding us as we made our way into the Rockies. To our left there was a stream. Charlie couldn’t see it from his car seat, but the other two could. They kept pointing out logs and tiny waterfalls.
There was a stream by our cabin too, though I don’t think it was the same one. As a child, I raced sticks down it with my brother, threw rocks, stood with bare feet in the rushing water until one of us squealed and gave up, scrambling out to let the warm wood of the deck burn our skin back to life. Philip and I did that once too when we were dating. And then he pulled me into the woods and kissed me behind a tree. I’d made him give me a piggyback ride home because the sticks hurt my bare feet and because I could. I’d laughed, rested my chin on his shoulder, whispered in his ear.
“Am I big enough to ride the horses yet, Mom?” Nick asked.
“Maybe, Bud. In the paddock, at least. We can ask tomorrow.”
“I want to do a real trail this time,” Bridget said. “Margie said I’d probably be ready next time we came up.”
“Horses will definitely be on the schedule,” I said.
“Oh no!” Nick screamed.
My heart jolted, and I gripped the steering wheel. “Honey!” I glanced in the mirror. “What if mommy drove off the road?”
“But I forgot my army guys,” he whined. He kicked out and hit his sister’s seat.
“Hey!” she said.
“Can you tell dad to bring them when he comes up?” Nick asked.
The emptiness pinched again. “We can get you some new ones when we go down to Estes Park for groceries.”
“Green and brown?”
“With horses and tents?”
“Yep. If they have them.”
“I want a new toy too,” Bridget said.
“A unicorn figurine.”
“If we can find one that’s not too expensive.”
“Will you tell daddy to bring my other ones up?” she asked.
“I don’t know if daddy is going to be able to make it this trip.”
“Work,” I said, swiping at the dust suddenly visible all over the dash.
It was suppertime when we turned onto the gravel road leading up to the cabin. I got Charlie out first and told the other two to bring their little suitcases inside. I spread a blanket on the floor and set Charlie in the center and then went to finish unloading.
There was a box of noodles and a jar of spaghetti sauce in the kitchen cabinet. I peeled and boiled the carrots. No one was hungry.
“If you ever want ice cream again you will each eat at least five bites.”
When it was dark, after the kids were asleep, I poured myself a glass of wine, wrapped up in a blanket, and went out to sit on the back deck. Daisy padded along behind me and curled up on my feet. After a couple of minutes, my toes started to tingle but I didn’t move her.
Philip and I rescued Daisy together, but she was my dog. Always had been. Everything in our lives was separated like this. Rooms, projects, hobbies, shows. His and mine. Except for the kids. They were ours. But I had taken them. So maybe that meant they were mine now. The last tie between Philip and me taunt and fraying. I closed my eyes and listened to the stream running through the trees.
We used to be an us. Back when we stood together and let that water shoot daggers into our feet. We are going camping. We like fish. We didn’t care for the movie.
Now we were a collection of informative texts: I’ve arrived. My flight is delayed. Don’t forget the milk. Your mother called. The bathroom sink is leaking again.
Before I would ache when he was gone. Hide in the bathroom and cry and then laugh at myself for being so silly. Time my days around his calls. Lie on the bed with my phone screen frozen on a picture of him. Always waiting.
I had woken up last night to him bungling through the kitchen. Crashing plates, swearing. Purposefully audible. I’d pulled myself out of bed so he wouldn’t wake the kids. He’d started talking to me before I’d even reached the bottom stairs.
“I know you try your best, but it’s really hard to come home from a long trip to dirty dishes in the sink,” he’d said.
“That’s a nice greeting,” I said, walking into the kitchen.
He leaned over the sink. “There’s goddamn mold on this one! Honey, Nick is allergic to mold. You can’t leave that lying around.”
“The leftovers went bad.” My breath was getting bumpy. I hated how easily he could make me cry. “I was going to clean them in the morning.”
“Which morning?” He lifted a plate crusted with what I believed was several-day-old mac & cheese.
He opened up the dishwasher and began shoving unrinsed dishes in between the metal prongs.
I winced as the tray rattled loudly. Philip never did anything quietly.
“It’s late. Do we have to do this now?” I asked.
“You’re not doing anything.”
“They’re not going to get clean like that.” I hated that I was crying.
Philip moved away from the half-loaded dishwasher toward me. It was dim on my side of the kitchen, so I’m not sure he could really see, but he knew I was crying. He sighed and brushed his hands against his jean to dry them.
“What percentage am I right now?” he asked.
I didn’t smile at the inside joke. Philip had a tendency to charge recklessly forward. Years ago, while we were arguing about something I can no longer remember, I told him, “You are ninety percent jerk right now.”
It had made him laugh and the arguing had stopped.
Ever since then, if I started to look upset, he would stop and ask, “What percentage am I right now?”
It had ended a lot of fights. But I was tired of playing.
“I’m going to bed,” I said. “Don’t wake up the children.”
“Kate?” His voice was finally soft.
I paused, my hand on the doorframe.
“I have to leave again tomorrow night.” He sounded sorry, but it was too late.
The cabin phone rang the next morning while I was filling the coffee filter with grounds.
“Kate. What are you doing?” It was my mother.
“Not what I meant.”
I stayed silent.
“Philip came by this morning,” she said.
“He did?” I hadn’t even expected him to bother with a call.
“He had questions.”
“I left a note.”
My chest burned. “He’s always leaving. Why can’t I?”
“He travels for work.”
I heard a cry coming from the bedroom. “Mom, Charlie’s up. I have to go.”
“He’s a good man, Kate.”
“You know when we were twenty-two and we came to tell you we were engaged and you said we’d change, but we’d change together?”
“Well, we didn’t.”
My mother sighed. “So change again.”
“Honey, it’s marriage. Nothing is simple.”
Charlie called out again.
“It used to be,” I said.
After breakfast we went to visit the horses at the nearby lodge. I shopped at the tiny convenience store because I didn’t want to go all the way down to Estes yet. In the gift shop, Nick and Bridget found the toys I’d promised. They were overpriced but I bought them anyway. Then it was lunchtime and naptime for Charlie. It was hard to get him to settle down in an unfamiliar room, hard to keep everyone else quiet enough, hard press a smile onto my face when Bridget or Nick asked me a question.
Before supper, we all went on a walk in the woods by the cabin. Then, we came back to the stream and Bridget and Nick threw stick after stick into the water while I sat on the ground with Charlie and tried to stop him from eating dirt. I listened to their conversation: arguments about whose stick was faster or bigger or had the coolest bend; thoughts about why the water was so cold and why a certain tree had a big black knot on its trunk; memories – always including daddy, even though I was the one who was constantly home.
That night, the smell of pines rushed in through my window. My room would be freezing in the morning, but I kept it open anyway. He had talked to my mom, but there were no messages on the cabin phone. He hadn’t called me.
Tomorrow I’d have to make a menu, get food. If I timed it right, maybe Charlie would fall asleep on the way back up to the cabin. Maybe Bridget and Nick would play outside quietly. Maybe I’d have time to plan or process or think.
I pulled my phone off the night stand and opened up out texts. There was nothing new. Couldn’t be anything new because there was no service. But I kept scrolling, too fast for any of it to come into focus, as if there were an answer in the old, unread, black-blurred lines traveling beneath my thumb.
I had been so sure when I stood in front of the judge with Philip twelve years ago. Everything crisp and clear and vibrating. Now I couldn’t remember what it had felt like to be that girl, staring up at the boy who made everything fit into place. Now, I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be anyone, really.
I tossed the phone onto the other side of the bed and tucked the thick blankets under my chin. Daisy jumped up, turned around once, and curled up against my back, warm and comforting. The window blinds clattered in the breeze. I closed my eyes.
When we got back from Estes Park with the groceries, he was standing on the front porch.
“Daddy!” Nick squealed. Somehow it didn’t wake up Charlie.
Nick and Bridget rushed to meet him. He wrapped them up and swung them around. They all laughed. There was no extra car. He must have flown. I stared. Turned off the car. Sat back against the seat.
He never remembered bedtime or naptime or mealtime. His kisses only felt like skin and pressure. He yelled when the stock market went down. Grunted into my pillow while I turned my face away during sex. He was always, always leaving. And I didn’t miss him.
He hadn’t called. But he’d come to the cabin. The mountains had let him in.
He said something to the kids. They ran off to Battle Rock, as Nick called it. There was a whole scene of army guys already set up on it. Philip must have done that. I looked back at him. He was looking at me. The sun was hot. The air was thick. There was so much dust on the dash. I unclicked my seatbelt and got out of the car. I opened the trunk. He walked over.
“Charlie’s asleep and I have to get the groceries out.”
“Kate.” His voice scraped against my spine.
“I bought ice cream. It’s going to melt.”
“Who cares about the damn ice cream?”
I still wasn’t looking at him. I grabbed three bags in each hand. “Nick. It’s his favorite.”
I walked around him and to the cabin door, but it was locked. My keys were in the car.
“Here,” said Philip, crunching and jangling as he came up behind me.
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
When I got back to the front door, he was carrying a sleeping Charlie on his shoulder. I went outside for the rest of the groceries and then started putting everything away in the kitchen. There was something dark opening up in my chest. It burned. It was new. Yet, it had always been there. There was no us anymore. But he’d come.
There were footsteps behind me. “Did Charlie transfer into the crib?” I asked without turning around.
“Yes. Is there anything else in the car?”
“Kate?” There was no hidden anger this time.
I couldn’t turn around. I shoved a box of Frosted Flakes into the cupboard.
“I told the kids I’d play with them,” he said.
I picked up a can of tomatoes. There was something in my throat. I tried to clear it. “Ok.”
“Mommy, Mommy, Daddy brought my old army guys from home and then I got my new ones from my room and we set them all up together and threw pinecone-bombs at them!” said Nick as he bounded up to the porch.
I closed the book I hadn’t been reading. “Wow. That sounds fun.”
Nick’s eyes were wide. They were the same color as Philip’s. He did a slow nod. “I have so many guys now, Mom. Probably ninety-seven zillion or something.”
“Daddy said I needed to come ask if it was time for supper.”
I looked at my phone. It was already past six. I hadn’t been paying attention. “I haven’t started anything yet. Are you hungry? Should I just put in a pizza?”
“Sure,” he said, turning back toward Battle Rock. “Sounds great.” He galloped to the deck stairs. Galloped and bounced, with a stiff front leg and a noodle neck. I laughed. He was a strange kid.
Was leaving going to take his bounce away?
It was dark again. The kids were in bed. Daisy lay on my feet. Philip and I were sitting on the porch. He was talking. “I guess I just don’t understand.”
I leaned forward and scratched Daisy’s ear.
“I go to work, everything seems fine. I come home to pack, and you’re gone. You left me a goddamn note, Kate. You drive ten hours away, with the kids, without notice, and leave me a goddamn note.” He was getting loud again.
“I’m surprised you even noticed.”
“So we’re just jumping right into the melodrama. Is that what this is about? My traveling?”
“And if it was, would you stop?”
“That depends. Do you think the kids want to keep eating?”
I didn’t respond. Philip got energy from pushing, cornering, outmaneuvering. Everything was a game to him. Maybe that’s what made him such a good salesman. The only way out of the problem he’d created was the solution he gave.
“And Kate has left the building. Very productive.”
I wiped at my face. I was mad that he’d made me cry again.
He punched his thigh and stood. “I’m always the jerk. Why do you always make me into the jerk?”
I felt so brittle, like the ash line of partially burnt paper.
“I existed before us,” I whispered.
He collapsed back into the chair. “What?”
“I had a career. Friends. I’m smart.”
“I know. You’re amazing”
“No. Don’t just throw words around. Don’t pretend you give a shit now.” I was so tired of being quiet, of being small and useful and conveniently available every time he needed someone to hold or yell at. “I know Nick has mold allergies. I know because I was the one at the doctor’s office pinning his arms to his sides while they pricked his skin. I was the one who took him in every day for a full week until they took me seriously and found a specialist. That was me. You were gone.”
“For work. It’s not like I leave you alone to lie on the beach and get drunk with my buddies.”
“Fine. I’m gone.”
“And then you return, briefly, and try to take everything back over. ‘Turn your lives and your systems upside down, people, Philip’s back.’”
He sighed. “So my percentage was high Tuesday?”
I looked into the black sky, speckled with stars, held up by the invisible peaks. The burning in my chest was so intense it felt like I’d swallowed one of those stars and it was trying desperately to escape, only I didn’t know how to let it out. Daisy whined at my feet and I bent over to scratch her ear.
“Sometimes I wonder why we got together in the first place,” I said.
“We don’t have anything in common.”
“Sure we do.”
“Maybe we used to, but not anymore.”
“We have the kids.”
“Is that enough of a reason to stay together?”
“I…” He tucked his head toward his knees and clasped his hands together, squeezing the back of his neck. “I do love you.”
The swallowed star pressed against my ribs. “I don’t miss you when you’re gone.”
His voice cracked. “I miss you.”
We sat in silence for a while. Then he said, “Do you remember coming up here when we were dating?”
I looked over at him. His face blurred with my tears. “You mean the time your trail-horse tried to unseat you by taking you under a tree?”
“And the bird stole your sandwich.”
“And we stood in the stream until we couldn’t feel our toes.”
“And the shower.”
I laughed and wiped at my cheeks. “Of course, you’d remember the shower.”
He grinned. “It was a good shower.”
I looked out at the trees. During the day, they almost sparkled. At night, they were a collection of whispering shadows. I pulled my feet out from under Daisy. “I’m sorry I only left you a note.”
He reached over and touched my wrist. For the first time in a long time his fingers felt like more than just someone else’s skin. “I want to try to get back,” he said.
“Get back where?”
“To us. To the couple who made fun of British sitcoms together and ate cereal for supper and hosted poker nights with Oreo cookies for chips.”
The emptiness hooked itself into my belly button, tugging and tightening my insides into a gnarl of tissue. I pulled my arm away from his. “I don’t know how.”
Daisy pushed her nose into my lap. I shifted her away and reached down to unlace my shoes. “I’m going to go find the stream.”
I stood up and walked to the stairs.
I nodded and stepped down.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
I looked back at him. He was sitting on the edge of his chair, hand gripping the armrest, eyes white against the dark. I didn’t answer.
The wind was louder in the trees, amplified by the voices of the leaves. The twigs and stones scraped at the skin of my feet and ankles as I walked. I lifted my arm, afraid I might run into one of the aspens behind the cabin. The night was brighter by the water. I stood near its edge, unsure if I was waiting for Philip, listening and watching the stream. In the moonlight, it looked like satin rushing over the forest floor, dark and sprinkled with stars.
Tacheny Perry earned an MFA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She has been published by the Tangled Locks Journal, Boys Town Press, and Voices of the Plains anthology. She lives in Nebraska with her husband, her three young boys, and her two mostly saintly dogs. For more information, please visit Tachenyperry.com or follow her on Twitter @TachenyPerry.