by Jessica Fortunato
Her name was Anne, and she detested exercise. In fact, detested was too kind a word for how she felt now that she had carted herself up over 3,000 feet simply to look upon the world from a different perspective.
She had been traveling across Europe alone, making friends and seeking shelter at youth hostels. It was what free spirited people did before dedicating years of their lives to college and a medical career. She’d chosen to travel alone because she preferred her own company to the whims of others. Anne, both regimented and goal oriented had planned every part of her trip. She rarely checked in with her parents, she was an adult now and would have to learn to live apart from their reassurance. If there was one word to describe her, everyone would have agreed that word was pragmatic.
Therefore, she had surprised even herself when she began a spending time with an attractive man named Eli. He had a deep Texas drawl that made Anne think of her native Dallas even as they sat silently watching television in a German youth hostel. It was this comforting feeling that eased her into saying yes when Eli suggested the hike up the mountain as a once in a lifetime experience.
During the climb, Eli had been kind in keeping a slower pace for Anne who was unaccustomed to climbing anything but stairs. In every way, she was free. She wondered then, why she felt so trapped.
Eli said he was going to circle the side of the peak, and Anne was fine staying on the footpath. She pulled her camera from her pack. Surely, she should bring back proof of such a daring adventure. She took pictures of the snow above her, the breathtaking sunset, and leaning over took photos of the jagged peaks below.
The days that followed went quickly. Eli had left, next going to France. He hadn’t even asked her to accompany him. He’d barely spoken at all since their trip and she decided she hadn’t needed a love life after all. She was concerned he’d stolen her camera, which she had searched for but had never found. The hostel had become empty with summertime ending.
She lay half-asleep under the comforter twisting and kicking feverishly. She awoke disoriented but with the hairs on her neck standing straight. The room was still empty. She got up and followed the moonlight to the bathroom. As she slowly trailed the hallway she couldn’t shake the feeling she was not alone. She suddenly thought of the dark fairytales her grandmother had told her and goose bumps rose on her skin. She told herself she was being foolish, a child, but even her pragmatism was not bringing her its usual comfort.
Someone had left the medicine cabinet open and it took all of her strength to close it. As the hinges creaked she stared out the small window, fearing at any moment a wicked witch or evil spirit would be looking back at her.
Anne fiddled with the faucet but nothing came out. She sighed heavy with frustration looking up to take in her own reflection, but there was only darkness.
It was as though she was staring into a black hole. As she lifted her hand to her cheek, she realized the darkness took shape. The shadow in the mirror appeared to be touching its cheek as well with frighteningly elongated fingers. She appeared taller in this shadow reflection, lankier, more menacing.
Anne ran from the bathroom to her neatly made bed. Her mind racing, she tried to play back the past days, yet all she could remember was the exhausting hike up Brocken Peak.
With her hiking coat on, she trudged in her boots to the pub across the street. Her logical brain told her that no one there would know how to help her, yet she had a sudden and foreign urge not to be alone. The only patron sat nursing a scotch. She went around the counter to face him. When the man looked up, he was startled and fell from his stool.
Anne raced to the base of Brocken Peak. Her heart thudding in her chest she kept telling herself she would find answers in the place she last remembered. Yet every windowpane and car mirror along the way projected the ghostly image of a dark and exaggerated shadow of her former self.
As she neared base camp, there were already emergency vehicles present. A familiar voice pulled her attention to a nearby car. Her mother sat quietly crying. Anne had never wanted to feel the warmth of her mother’s arms more than she did in that moment.
She nearly reached her mother’s side when she caught sight of the open body bag on the ground.
Inside, she finally gazed upon her own reflection. In her bloodied hand sat her mangled camera.
She looked up hoping to see her mother’s face but the people and vehicles were gone.
She stood, surrounded by the grossly drawn out shadows of dozens upon dozens of others.
They reached for her greedily with their long blackened fingers…