The snow would be beautiful if it weren’t about to kill me.
I don’t know how long I’ve been running. All I know is that I have been for far too long. The steps I take are the only things keeping me alive.
I won’t last much longer. My body aches. My head is spinning. My lungs are burning. My muscles are numb from the cold. Each step becomes more difficult than the last.
I’m doing everything that I can. Maneuvering between the pines. Leaping over every fracture in the ground. Ducking beneath the stray branches. Barreling over the jagged rocks. I’m not fast enough.
The falling trees are massive, and they come within inches of crushing me under their weight. Flocks of birds scatter overhead into the gray sky.
I feel the rapid pounding of my heart in my chest. There’s a torrential downpour of sweat across my entire body. I’m feeling exhausted, and I don’t have the time to catch a single breath. The avalanche is only feet away from devouring me. I’m not strong enough.
The longer I run, the weaker I feel. There is no hope in sight. My running slows until I finally fall to my knees.
I look dead ahead, towards the base of the mountain. I need to get there, but there’s no possible way. I’m not enough. I’m just James.
I take my final breath. I lost, but that’s nothing new. The avalanche consumes me. With it comes a wave of excruciating pain.
The world goes black.
Not that I’m complaining or anything, but how the hell am I alive? An attempt to move sends a sharp, burning sensation down my spine. I can’t even lift a finger. It didn’t kill me, but the avalanche definitely broke every bone in my body.
I’m still coated in sweat. There’s a slight ringing in my ears accompanying my blurry vision. My heart rate has remained dangerously high. My lungs burn relentlessly as I try to take a few deep breaths to get it down to a reasonable pace. All my senses seem to be dialed up to full blast, overwhelming my brain and causing it to throb. I have never felt physical pain like this before, nor did I think it was even possible.
So, I guess that leads to my next question. Why am I not in a hospital? I’m in what appears to be a hotel room. An extremely filthy hotel room.
I’m lying on what must be the ugliest floral bedspread I’ve ever seen. To make matters worse, it’s decorated with indistinguishable stains. The mattress that I’m propped up on is firm and uncomfortable. The thin pillow does little to cushion my head against the wall.
The plaid carpet contains numerous stains reminiscent of those on the bedspread. The beige walls are cracked, with various spots lacking in paint. The only light in the room is provided by a single light bulb poking out of the ceiling. There’s an overwhelmingly strong moldy stench like rotting wood that causes my nose to tremble.
There’s an empty bed beside the one that I’m on, and in front of me is a wooden desk held together by duct tape. A small TV is flashing back and forth between cartoons and static, and somebody is watching it.
In an old wooden chair sits a boy with his feet up on the desk. He’s dressed in a red flannel, and blue jeans pulled over brown work boots. I can’t see his face, but the back of his head has a thick flow of dark blond hair. He hasn’t seemed to notice that I’m awake, and getting his attention is no easy feat as the words barely croak out of my mouth.
“What’s going on?” I say quietly, but it was enough for him to be so surprised that he spins like a tornado before falling out of his chair. After landing face first, he does a quick push up to stand up. He stares at me with his jaw dropped, completely dumbfounded.
With his eyes widened in shock, I can see that they’re an emerald green color. He’s tall and tan with perfect teeth. He looks like a stereotypical country boy, but also the kind of guy that all the girls at my school would never shut up about.
“You’re awake!” he stutters, his voice not as deep as I was expecting.
“Who are you?” I ask. I can’t tell which one of us is more confused.
“Where are my manners?” he reaches out a cut-up hand to shake mine. I’m noticing that his voice has a very mild southern accent. “I’m Conor Gale. Oh, right, you probably can’t move. My bad.” he says before retracting his hand back to his waist.
“Again, who are you?” I reply.
“I’m cool, don’t worry. Hold on a sec, I gotta get the boss man.”
“Wait!” I yell, but it’s no use. He ignores me and retreats before I can ask any more questions. He went into a room next to the other bed, into what I assume to be the bathroom. I have no idea who this Conor guy is, but he seems to know me.
While he’s gone, I look down at myself and realize something strange. There isn’t a single scratch on me. My clothes are spotless apart from the sweat, and they’re completely untattered. Even weirder, I have never been to the gym to work out in my life, yet my muscles have enlarged tremendously. Dark blue veins are bulging out of my pale skin. I may even be taller. If it weren’t for the pain that I’m in, I’d feel pretty good about myself.
Out of the blue, I hear a door’s loud creak! Conor emerges from the bathroom, joined by an unfamiliar man. Was this guy in the bathroom the entire time?
This new guy carries the strong smell of freshly brewed coffee, which I assume to be what he’s drinking from the white mug in his hand. The scent only slightly overpowers the rotten smell of the room, but at least this is much more tolerable. He looks at me with strange gray eyes through a set of glasses over his round face. The eyes are slow and gentle, like every sight he sees he’s capturing it like a photograph.
He’s tall, pale, and skinny. Dressed in a blue button-down shirt tucked into a pair of khakis, the kind of outfit that I used to be forced to wear to church. His short black hair looks as though it has started to gray, creating the appearance of mixed salt and pepper. I’d guess this guy is in his thirties, but the bags under his bloodshot eyes add a few years of age to his appearance. He must’ve had enough stress to last him a lifetime.
Conor returns to his wooden chair, flipping it around to sit in it backward. He rests his arms atop the backrest, then plops his chin down onto the back of his hands. With a heavy breath, he directs the wind from his mouth upwards to brush a strand of blonde hair out of his eyes. The other man sits on the additional bed and locks me into a stare, driven by a currently unknown intent.
“Hi James,” he says. His voice is low and hoarse like he’s suffering from a sore throat, “I’m glad to see that you’re awake. I had a feeling you would be up soon. My name is Devin.” he picks up a glass of water from the bedside table. At least I hope it’s just water. He begins to pour some into my mouth, and it sends a cooling relief down my throat to soothe small amounts of the pain. He sets it down after I quickly finish the entire glass, then he looks back at me, “Don’t worry, most of this pain will alleviate rather quickly.”
“How did I survive? Did you guys pull me from the avalanche?” I ask. Conor and Devin exchange glances with one another.
“There wasn’t an avalanche,” Conor says, “Well, there was, but there actually wasn’t.”
“If I were you,” Devin interrupts, “I’d be even more confused than I’m sure you already are.”
“I’m sorry,” Conor adds, “I was just so surprised that you were only out for two days. Hell, I was out for nearly three weeks after my first Reckoning.”
“What the hell is a Rednecking?” I ask, “Who are you guys anyway?”
“We were friends with Ben,” Devin’s words hit me like a truck. Nobody, besides my mom, has even mentioned my father’s name in years. My stomach drops, and I feel even more nauseated than I already did.
“I need to know what the hell is going on,” I demand, feeling frustrated.
“Yes, you do,” Devin agrees, “but in order to help you make sense of it all, I need to know everything that happened before your awakening here.”
“I already told you,” I rebuttal, “I was in that avalanche.”
“What Conor was trying to say was that the avalanche did not physically happen,” Devin continues, “it was part of what he mentioned prematurely, something we call your Reckoning.”
“Can you please explain what this Rednecking thing is?”
“Reckoning. Think of it as your spiritual trial.”
“Personally, I think we should start calling it Rednecking.” Conor chimes in. Devin quickly shuts him down with a glare before I continue.
“Trial for what? If it didn’t physically happen, then why can’t I move?”
“We’ll get to that. As I said, it will make more sense once you tell us everything that physically happened. Think back to before the avalanche.” Devin instructs. I’d rather keep talking for more answers, but I decide to be less problematic and do as he says. The memories feel distant, as though they were only a dream.
Come to think of it, they’re more like a nightmare. A wave of sadness overwhelms me. I was repressing these memories for a reason. Talking about what happened will force me to relive the worst moment of my entire life.
“My mom… This can’t be happening. I don’t know if I can do this.” I creak out at them through my dry throat.
“You can, James,” Devin says, “I know the past probably terrifies you, but sometimes facing our worst memories is the only way we can grow. I know you don’t know us, but we’re here to help you. We need your help too. You’re much stronger than you think. We’re in this together, and we’ll be there with you every step of the way.” he finishes his pep talk. He seems awfully confident in someone he had just met.
I don’t have the words to respond, I just breathe through the silence. If what Devin says is true, that they really knew my father, then I need to figure out what’s truly taking place here. Given what has happened to me, it’s not like I have much of a choice other than to trust these guys.
A tear rolls down my cheek as the images flash before me. I feel an emptiness inside me, right where my heart should be. I no longer feel the physical pain in my body, just the mental trauma that left with me that day. That day was apparently only days ago, but it feels like it was part of a different lifetime. That day hurt me more than the avalanche.
That day is where it all began.