IN THE MOUNTAINS UP HIGH by Jad Kaado
Chris and Donny Antoun joined their new friends, Sarah, Laila, and Adel for a camping trip over the weekend. The brothers were newly arrived in Lebanon and thrilled to go up the mountains for the first time abroad. They rode with their newly acquired comrades up to a mountain range that sat fifteen hundred meters above sea level.
When they arrived, Chris and Donny were awed by the magnificent view that awaited them at the campgrounds. The brothers were taken aback by how tall the mountains were, and how far they could see. They soaked in the view for a few minutes, and then rejoined their group to help set up for lunch.
It was the perfect escape for Chris, the furthest away he could be from the inner-city pressure building up back at home. Here, he didn’t have to deal with things such as traffic or the news. Here, he knew he could just live and enjoy what’s around him.
After they ate, the group sat around and brewed Turkish coffee on a small bundle of coals. Laila told Chris and Donny about a summer tradition that they always performed on their first day of camping. “Every year, Sarah reads to us our fortunes by examining the patterns left by the coffee grinds. Then, later in the evening she does some magic around the campfire.”
“Why don’t we do some fortunes right now?”, Sarah asked. She stood up and draped the crimson scarf that was resting on her shoulders over her hair and slowly walked around her friends.
“Who will I choose first?” Sarah continued asking. They all looked gleefully at each other, except for Chris, who kept a stoic face.
He noticed how everyone was intrigued by Sarah, even Donny, and it bothered him. Chris leaned over to his brother and whispered, “Do you really buy into this?” Donny kept listening and paused a few seconds later upon the realization of his brother’s question. “What…uh, dude, just enjoy the moment. Who cares.” Chris then leaned back only to find everyone staring at him.
Sarah walked over and sat down in front of the brothers. She reached over and gently took Chris’ hands. “I’ll read your fortune for you. Let’s see what see what the coffee has in store for you my friend.” Donny sighed.
“I’m sorry, but this is stupid”, Chris stated, while pulling his hands away from Sarah. “I mean it’s like really dumb. Do you genuinely believe you can predict the future? This is just a way to prey on people’s emotions and psychology.”
Everyone laughed at Chris’ observation, except for Sarah, who let out a small smile. After composing herself, Sarah responded back to Chris, “You don’t know enough about what I do or what’s around us. This is part of our culture. Just because it’s not a part of your belief system or traditions doesn’t mean that it’s dumb.”
Chris threw a sardonic glare at Sarah and, without missing a beat, continued his diatribe. “So your telling me that fortune telling is real? What’s next? Are they going to teach astrology in college? Do doctors prescribe crystals? Chris belted out a goofy laugh. “You guys can’t be serious about this.”
Adel spoke up with conviction, “You Americans are all the same. You come in explaining your ways of thought as the only acceptable ones. You don’t know what exists around this part of the world. There is a cultural value to all this that you’re missing. There’s a sense of safety and comfort in what she does, even if it’s not literal.”
“Told you to leave it alone,” Donny said as he took a puff of a hash cigarette. “Can’t leave it be.” The group erupted with laughter again.
“Which is why I perform a protective spell at night,” explained Sarah to Chris, “it’s a tradition.”
“Ha! Protective spell from what?!” he yelled. Sarah glanced at Chris with an upset look on her face. She paused and drew a deep breath to calm herself as she was running out of patience. Collected, Sarah responded back to Chris, “I know that you’re young, but there are spirits in these mountains way older than you and anything else on this world. These camp grounds are protected from what is around us.”
“The only thing around us, Sarah, is nature. The trees, the dirt, the sky, and moon.”, Chris replied, “And I’ll prove it to you. What’s the scariest area that’s nearby?” he asked, looking around at his friends.
“There is the old graveyard about like 30 minutes or so from here,” Adel responded enthusiastically. Sarah shook her head with disappointment. Adel continued, “but you wouldn’t last a night in that place. It’s creepy.”
Chris smirked, “This will be perfect. Tonight, I, Chris Antoun, will spend the night in an old creepy cemetery! Want to show me where it is, Adel?” Sarah wanted to chime in but realized the futility of the situation as she watched them wander away.
Chris grabbed his tent and backpack as he saw the rest of the group follow him, including Sarah. He nodded towards Adel, acknowledging that he was ready for the hike. The sun began to set as the cohort walked up a beaten path near their grounds. The first kilometer was mostly an uphill walk, bringing them around the mountain from where they camped. The earth eventually evened out to reveal a small clearing, containing the cemetery they were seeking.
It sat there, deserted and still, with burial vaults scattered throughout like a small village, silent. It was situated on a barren part of the mountain, which no one had visited in years, including wildlife and vegetation. However, it intrigued Chris, almost enticing him. “Yo, this place looks like ancient ruins. It’s going to be dope,” he exclaimed to modest laughter emanating from Laila and Donny.
Chris ran down towards the center of the cemetery, and laid his stuff for unpacking. The group followed suit, albeit slower so they could examine the vaults. Each of them looked like a war-torn house, a reflection of the poor maintenance they endured over the years. There seemed to be Arabic carved alongside of the vaults, which Sarah explained was really Garshuni, but no one in the group really seemed to care.
Chris began pitching the tent, while Adel and Donny set up a small campfire for him. Sarah walked up and put her hand on his should. “Chris, I beg you,” she pled, “You don’t know the energy that lingers here. It is a sanctuary for the dead, not the living. You won’t be protected.” He looked at Sarah, assuring her that he has a better chance of encountering a hyena than a ghost, but was then interrupted by Adel.
“So, Mr. Chris, if you can last the whole night in this cemetery, until the sun rises, then you’ll have proven all of us wrong. Very easy.”
Chris shook Adel’s hand with excitement, and replied, “Very easy indeed.” Adel let go of Chris’ hand and gave him final instructions, “We will meet you at the entrance of the cemetery at sunrise, bright and early,”.
After Chris was set, the crew headed back to their grounds and lit the campfire for the night. They drank and chattered to themselves, while Sarah began her protective spell. “It wasn’t much,” Donny thought to himself, as he watched her throw some incense in the fire while singing. Although he was a few beers in, Donny was fixated on what she was doing, all while puffing the mountain hash. After what seemed like seconds, Sarah stopped singing and then took a seat next to Laila. Donny looked around to see if there was something else that he was missing and then asked his friends, “That’s it?”.
“Yup,” they retorted in unison. It was almost song like. The whole argument and hiking over to the cemetery was over a one-minute process that barely anyone noticed. Donny let out a sigh before taking another puff and collected his thoughts.
“Here’s an idea, gang,” he proclaimed. Adel, Laila, and Sarah looked at him inquisitively. “We should mess around with Chris and totally scare the shit out of him.” Everyone laughed, except for Sarah, and agreed to Donny’s suggestion.
Laila’s face lit up and yelled out, “We should dress Donny up as a ghost! Then creep up behind him when’s not paying attention!” They all laughed again, while Sarah still sat in silence. Adel went up to grab some of his blankets and began tearing out holes for Donny to fit through with a small pocket knife he was carrying.
“This should do it,” said Adel as he tossed the blanket to his friend. Donny slipped it over himself, adjusting the holes to his eyes. He quickly took off his belt and retied it around his waist to keep the blanket in place. Donny then ran around to test it out and, once he was satisfied, grabbed his sleeping bag near the tent.
“Remember how to get to the cemetery?” asked Laila. Donny nodded under the blanket and waved his flash light to his friends. “Yup! I’ll just crash with Chris when I get there, so that way I don’t wander around too much at night.”
“Good,” said Adel, with a sly smirk, “that way you could record the whole thing and upload it to YouTube. This is going to be brilliant.” Donny bid his adieu for the night and wandered out into the darkness.
Chris sat in front of his small fire, eating some chicken and veggies that he roasted over the pit. Once he was finished, he grabbed a stick and whittled the end point with his knife, sliding a plump marshmallow on it. He found some nice embers on the edge of the fire and began patiently roasting his dessert like a rotisserie until it turned a nice a shade of golden brown and warm and gooey on this inside.
As he was about to pull his marshmallow out the pit, Chris felt an ice-cold hand strongly grasp his shoulder, sending a powerful shiver through his whole body. He paused with a slight shock, and slowly turned around to find a tall pale figure staring sharply at him. Chris resisted his urge to scream and took a second to realize that the figure that grabbed him was that of an old man. Chris smiled and said, very shakenly, “Have a seat, my friend. I have plenty of food and drink with me to share.” The old man kept staring at him, never breaking eye contact with Chris as he sat down next to the fire.
The sun shined radiantly the following morning, and the sounds of birds humming gently woke Sarah from her sleep. She felt well rested, which she hadn’t in a while, and momentarily forgot about where she was. “Rise and shine, ladies!”, she heard Adel yell from outside her tent, “it’s time to check on the Antoun brothers.”
They packed their bags, water, and breakfast for the hike and started along the upward path to the other side. For the group, going uphill was more difficult this time, as they felt the weather get increasingly warmer as they got higher. Once they reached the halfway mark, Sarah called for them to take a water break and rest up for a few minutes. The trio found some shade under an outcrop not too far off the path and decided to rest under there. While sipping on their water bottles, Sarah heard a faint sound of a familiar noise. “Do you guys hear that?” she asked. Adel and Laila paused to listen, and shook their heads in agreement. “It’s snoring,” Adel replied. All three quickly spread out to find the source of the snores, and immediately found Donny sleeping on the ground.
“What the hell?!” yelled Sarah, kicking the sleeping beauty. Donny woke up, startled, to find his friends standing above. “Oh, thank God, I’m glad you guys found me,” he said in his gravelly morning voice. They all looked confused at him, until Sarah spoke up again, “What happened, are you okay?”
“Ah man,” replied Donny. “It was wild. I was hiking up this way, when I slipped and screwed up my ankle. I dropped my flashlight and phone somewhere, and I was stuck. I yelled a bunch of times, but no one heard. So, I decided to limp my way over here and sleep it off.”
Adel and Sarah helped Donny off the ground and checked out his swollen ankle. “Think you can walk with this if you lean on me?” asked Adel. Donny nodded yes, and leaned on his friend, while grimacing in pain. Adel held on to him tightly and reassured him that they’ll tend to it at the graveyard.
After another twenty minutes or so of walking, all four campers reached the entrance of the cemetery, where they had agreed to meet Chris. They sat around and waited for him, while checking out Donny’s ankle and helping him extend it out so it could stay elevated. A few minutes later, Laila spotted a figure walking towards them from the distance and loudly proclaimed, “Hey it’s Chris!”
They all stood up, except for Donny, and got ready to greet their friend and officially concede the bet. However, they felt something was off. As he got closer, the campers noticed something drastically different about Chris. He was slightly hunched forward, and his hair was pearly white and scraggly. Chris’ skin was tighter, as he had lost a significant amount of weight, and his fingers were contorted in all different directions. For every step that Chris took towards his friends, they heard a different bone crack and Chris whimper out in pain. Just as he got close enough, he lifted his arm up and struggled to point towards Donny. Desperately trying to call out to him, Chris was only able to muster a weak cough. His eyes rolled to the back of his head as the rest of his decrepit body fell forward, turning into dust, leaving nothing behind but the screams of his friends and brother in the mountains up high.