Dad left three and a half weeks ago with a mug of coffee, a box of chocolate-glazed donuts, and a backpack with everything he needed to climb Denali. Before he left, he pulled me into a bear hug and said, “See you after I touch my toes to the summit.”
“You bet,” I told him, already eager for his return.
As Dad backed out of the driveway, I waved from the porch, wishing more than anything that I could hop into his truck and tag along. Climbing mountains is the surest way to kiss the sky and sleep close to the stars. And Dad always said that from the top of Denali he could taste a little bit of heaven.
Dad touched his toes to the summit, all right. His climbing partner, John, told us he did it on a no-breeze, blue-sky day.
But something happened on the way down.
The phone rang yesterday while I was making Dad’s welcome-home brownies. Sophie and I raced each other through the kitchen to answer it, but Mom beat us there.
“Hello,” she said, her eyes lit up with expectation. Sophie and I stood side by side, watching for Mom’s big smile at the sound of Dad’s voice. But the smile never came. Just weird silence, and then her hands started shaking—?hard.
“Are you sure?” she asked, and she took in a really deep breath and held it. She nodded slowly, and when she finally let out her breath, she said, “No, no, no!” Each “no” was louder than the one before. She clicked the phone off and staggered through the back door and onto the porch. She slumped over the railing with her head in her hands.
I chased after her. “What is it? What is it?” I asked as my face got hot and my body started shivering even though it was warm and sunny outside.
Mom lifted her head from her hands and said, “He’s gone.” She paced back and forth along the porch before sitting on the edge of the flower box that Dad had built in time for Mother’s Day this year.
“What do you mean, ‘gone’?” Sophie asked, standing in the doorway.
“He fell in a crevasse, and they can’t find him.”
“Well, they must not be looking hard enough,” I said. It didn’t make sense: Dad knew everything about crevasses, and he knew exactly how to rescue himself if he fell inside one.
“Was he roped up?” I asked.
“No,” said Mom, but Dad always roped up on glaciers.
Mom continued, this time whispering: “They’ve tried everything. He’s gone.”
I shook my head. “No way.”
Mom stood up from the flower box. Her eyes flashed with a panic I’d never seen before. “I told him not to climb that mountain again,” she said. “I had a feeling that something would go wrong.”
No! Denali was Dad’s sacred mountain, and he’d climbed her six times before. Why would he have a problem now?
Sophie ran back into the house and didn’t bother shutting the door. Her feet pounded up the staircase, almost as loud as the pounding in my head at the thought of Dad trapped anywhere.
“Mom, what can we do?” I asked.
She looked across the backyard to nowhere in particular and said one horrible word: “Nothing.” Then she bowed her head like a wounded bird.
“We have to do something,” I said. “I’m not giving up on Dad.”
“Lily, sometimes the mountain wins.”
“No!” I ran into the house and up the stairs. “Sophie, Sophie!” I called.
I found her in Mom and Dad’s closet. She was pulling clothes to the floor just the way she taught me how to make a hide-and-seek spot when I was a little girl. She took Dad’s blue flannel shirt off its hanger, and his gray woolly socks from the drawer, and his tan Carhartt pants that were folded on the shelf. She kept pulling clothes to the floor until the mound was high. Then she lay down and buried her face in the faded fabrics that smelled of Dad and campfires and adventures.
I collapsed too and buried my face in Dad’s favorite blue flannel, but here’s the thing: I knew better than to give up on Dad.