On Mountain High – Chapter Seven

Chapter 7 – Matteo

Four Years Earlier

“’The Gods Are Dead,’ by Matteo Baxwoll.”

Mrs. Landers’ cautionary groan pierces the silent 8th grade history classroom. I wipe my clammy palms on the tail of my shirt and clear my throat nervously, keeping my eyes carefully focused on my notes instead of all those judgmental eyeballs staring back at me. I wish my heart would stop racing. Why is my mouth suddenly so dry? Gods, I hate public speaking.

I dare to glance up, and immediately wish I hadn’t. Does everyone have to look so bored?

Inhaling deeply, I adjust the notecards in my hand and begin. “Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago the gods departed from our world. Disgusted by mankind’s evil nature, the gods sought separation and a holier state and ascended into the heavens. In their haste to escape, they left an inconceivably large sum of their holy goods hidden within the Whispering Mountains. To this day, the treasure has yet to be found; because the gods haven’t deemed any past Seekers worthy, or so we’re taught. But no…

“I think,” I pause, suddenly full of dramatic flair, “…I think that no one has found the gods’ worldly trove because it doesn’t exist. The people of this city are being led to chase after a glorified pipe dream. And not only that, the Hunt handles the tricky problem of population control – you’ve got to admit that it’s a highly convenient way to cleanse the city of those who are the weakest, both mentally and physically.”

“Matteo…” Mrs. Landers’ sharp warning lands heavily on my ears. The classroom begins to stir uneasily, and several people exchange skeptical murmurs.

I raise a finger in a silent gesture promising her that I have a point, slipping my notecards into my pocket as my confidence grows. “Think about it – we have no recorded witnesses, no record of any solid proof that the gods did, in fact, leave their treasure for someone pure of heart to find – all we have to go on is the account of alleged truth put into our textbooks. Why are there no witness accounts? In the grand scheme of world history, two-hundred-and-fifty years is not a very long time. Surely one of our great, great, great, great, great grandparents would have seen something, anything. Anything at all to denote where the alleged treasure is hidden. If it’s even out there. For all we know they’re tricking people into searching for something that doesn’t exist, only to kill them off when they’re most vulnerable That’s where the legend of the curse comes from. It makes perfect sense! It is enhanced Darwinism, survival of the fittest, except The Order helps evolution along when it’s taking too long by way of the Hunt.”

My fellow students exchange skeptical looks. A few even roll their eyes. Their blind stupidity only spurs me on.

“Why has it never been found? Because it doesn’t exist. Is the legend of the Whispering Mountains curse real? Of course not. What happens to all those people who go out looking for the treasure and never come home?” I feel the heat rising in my chest, my voice growing louder with every question. “It doesn’t add up, there’s got to be more to the story – something we’re supposed to know. I think–”

“Thank you, Matteo, that is quite enough.” Mrs. Landers’ eyebrows furrow into a furious scowl, her eyes boring holes into mine as she silences my report. “What an …interesting… interpretation of our history and social structure.” Her next snarling words snake their way across the room. “You would be wise to return to your seat before I am forced to report you for heresy.”

I slink back to my seat, more embarrassed by the lack of appreciation for my clever analysis than the accusation of heresy.  sit through seven other presentations before the class period ends. My classmates present perfectly predictable –and safe– interpretations of various moments in our nation’s history: the High Overseer’s first “miracle,” his rise to power, the historical tale of the Temple’s construction.

No one mentions the Overseer’s active choice to ignore the squalor in which so many of us live, deeming this plague of poverty “the will of the gods.” No one mentions the unequal distribution of wealth between those who work within The Order’s protective –if not rather overbearing– reach, and the rest of us. And no one else dared to discuss anything about the legendary curse lurking in the shadows of the Whispering Mountains.

At least I had the guts to use my brain and form a scientific hypothesis instead of regurgitating the ridiculous history textbooks and calling it my final research paper, I think.

Mrs. Landers snatches my arm before I can exit the classroom. Her sharp, pointed fingernails squeezing into my flesh, but I don’t wince – I refuse to be threatened by her.

“Matteo, these…unconventional… ravings of yours are extremely foolish. You’re much too smart to think you can get away with writing a nonsensical final paper – bordering sacrilege, even. Your claims have no root other than in your own twisted imagination, and those sort of opinions do not belong in my classroom. You have two days to rewrite your report into something more…appropriate. I will be speaking with the principal about this.” She releases me with a shove, and I dart out of the classroom before she can say anything else.

My twin brother Matthias appears at my side as I walk through the school hallway. We are in the same grade, but different classes. He gave his presentation yesterday to critical – well, from his teacher, anyway – acclaim. “Hey bro, how’d your presentation go?”

“Don’t ask,” I say with a groan.

“Gods, sorry. Just being polite.” Matthias walks silently next to me for a while, then tries again. “Come on, it couldn’t have been that bad.”

I shoot him an ironic and challenging glance, then exhale a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding in. “It doesn’t matter, I’m smarter than my classmates and have the highest grade going into the final reports.”

“And your humility is admirable,” Matthias adds with sarcasm.

I roll my eyes. “I have the feeling Mrs. Landers won’t be grading my final paper based on the merit of my actually quite logical argument. But even if she gives me a failing grade, I’ll still pass her class.”

“You always were the smart one,” Matthias’ congenial smile warms his face. “Don’t worry about it, she’s a dragon lady. Everyone knows that. It’s amazing you’ve managed to escaper her clutches all semester with that mouth of yours. Just keep a low profile these last few days and you’re good.”

I nod and sigh heavily. “You’re right. Let’s just go home.”

We begin the two-mile trek through the snow-covered city streets back to our family’s apartment building, shivering in our worn jackets every time a gusty wind kicks up. Rounding a corner, I make out what appears to be a small mountain of worn, tattered blankets. A wrinkled, dirty, sun-leathered hand loosely clutches a half-empty bottle of clear liquid in its position on the ground.  A worn cardboard sign reads in a jagged scrawl, “Hungry. Anything helps.” There is no sign of movement beneath the blankets.

I know without even seeing his face that that it’s Old Sam, notorious survivor of The Hunt and legendary alcoholic. His wife kicked him out a number of years ago, citing his incessant fondness for drink and lunatic ravings about hauntings in the Whispering Mountains as reason. Now he begs on the city streets, entering the Pearl’s dormitories for the homeless only when the street police pick him up – usually on particularly cold nights.

I’ve always felt sorry for Old Sam. No one knows what he saw out there, but it drove him absolutely mad. I can’t imagine what it could have been. Nor can I imagine being evicted from my own home, especially by my wife. I mean, I don’t have one, or even a girlfriend for that matter, but it still sounds pretty rough. Despite his name, Sam’s not actually even that old – he can’t be more than 20 years my senior. He volunteered as a Seeker six years ago. I scrounge around in my pockets for something – anything – to give him, and find a few loose coins.

The wind picks up again. I pull my jacket tighter around my chest as I bend to drop the coins into the chipped bowl next to the cardboard sign. I’m standing again when a rigid, icy hand shoots upward in the blink of an eye and locks around my wrist. I am breathless with shock.

“They’re watching,” the voice from under the blankets is shaky, but dense with terror.

“Sam,” I say with caution, “you’re drunk. Nobody’s watching. Go get yourself some hot soup at the Pearl.” I try to slow my beating heart as I gasp for air. I see Matthias’ face, full of urgent concern, but I nod that I’m all right.

But Old Sam’s grasp tightens around my wrist, pulling me back down to the filth-covered ground. I smell the acrid stench of stale liquor and fresh vomit, and stifle a gag. I try to wrangle myself free but his bony fingers only ensnare me further. “They’re always watching. They watched me in the mountains. Tried to kill me, they did, but they didn’t get me. Nope. Not Old Sam. They didn’t get me.”

Who is watching?

“I know they didn’t Sam, you’re very brave. One of these day’s you’ll find that treasure.” My tone is placating as I try to unwrap his fingers, which maintain hold their iron grasp on my arm.

Sam’s head has emerged from the blankets, and shakes sadly in a drunken stupor. “No. I won’t. They’re always watching. For I know where, the prize that leads to your grave…I know where… Old Sam knows where…” His voice trails off, leaving the dark lullaby haunting my ears.

I finally manage to free myself from his grasp. “Let’s go,” I say as I quicken my footsteps, leaving Matthias trailing behind me. I can hear Old Sam’s incoherent shouting echoing in the distance. “They’re waaaatching. Aaaaalways watching. Old Sam knows where…the prize that leads to your grave…” His maniacal cackles linger in my ear.

Twenty minutes later Matthias and I are home. We race up four flights of stairs to our family’s unit, where the smell of chicken soup greets us. Removing my coat, I shake off the snow and try to rid myself of the lurking feeling that I’m being watched. Don’t be ridiculous, I think. Old Sam is crazy as hell and a drunk on top of that. Just the crazed ravings of a poor old inebriate.

I try to shake Old Sam’s words from my mind, but I can’t. Earlier I was so certain that the curse was completely made up, a figment of the city’s collective imagination. But something –or someone– definitely got to Sam out in the mountains. What was it? Or who was it? And why would someone try to kill him if the lost treasure didn’t exist?

No, I decide. He’s a crazy old drunk, nothing more. The alcohol probably makes him paranoid; of course there’s no one who tried to kill him in the mountains. Like I’ve always suspected, the myth of lost treasure cannot be real.

But that night I dream that I am lost in the mountains under a midnight moon, hot on the trail of an incomparable fortune with a million jealous eyes following my every step.

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