Climbing changed everything.
It nearly killed me a few times. From falling rocks to unbearable frustration . . . the mountain lion I’d run into last fall. Life or death moments that passed in the blink of an eye. I’m sure that a person only gets a select number of those on-edge seconds and I’d had most of mine on a rock. I’d lost endless layers of skin, hours off my life, and precious minutes of sleep for this. Learning something new every day, with every climb. But, even after years spent mastering problems, warding off death and tearing my hands up, nothing prepared me for the day I met Sparkles.
Emmett was attempting to flash the Ship In A Bottle when I saw her.
Spotting Emmett was always a dubious task. He easily had a hundred pounds on me, every single ounce of it solid fucking muscle and I’d come to learn that he required an entirely different level of help off a boulder than any one else did. Jasper was easy enough to catch and steady, closer to my own size and lithe enough to control. Emmett, however, fell with such force that there was no way I could treat him the same. I’d taken to basically grabbing ahold and pushing him onto the crash pad when he fell, figuring that getting him to a soft landing as fast as possible was my best course of action.
He would flatten me otherwise.
I did the route first, administering some beta along the way and pointing out a problem spot to him once I’d come back to earth. There was a mangled crimper four holds up that bit painfully into my calluses and I’d only managed to move on by tucking my thumb into the crease first, resting my other fingers on top of it and gritting my teeth through the pain. Emmett listened and even asked some questions, but I knew he’d probably just do it his way instead.
The guy could palm a basketball and make it look like an orange. His climbing technique couldn’t be called graceful, but he got the job done.
Just as Emmett started, a flash of color caught the corner of my eye and I pulled my eyes from his back to spot a tiny little woman dart by with a timid wave. Her hair was loose and covered most of her face so all I really saw was the palm of her hand, smooth and clean, and a neon pink chalk bag dangling from her backpack.
No friends, no crash pad.
I kept my eye on the break in the trees she’d disappeared into, doing a really shitty job of spotting Emmett while I waited for her to reappear. Climbing out here alone was an unspoken taboo ever since James cracked his skull on the Passion Pit last summer. Emmett and I had just warmed up on the Problem Queen, the last boulder on the trail along which the lone girl had vanished.
There was no one else there.
Emmett dropped off the rock with a huff, muttering as he stooped to dunk his hands into his giant chalk bag. The girl still hadn’t come back.
“I uh, forgot something back at the Problem Queen,” I mumbled, scrambling for a legitimate excuse. I was getting a feeling of dread at the bottom of my stomach that I had no idea how to explain. All I could think about was that girl out there alone and the rock cairn that squatted at the base of the Passion Pit in remembrance to James.
“Fine. I gotta take a breather anyhow.” Emmett flopped back onto the pad, eyes closed against the sun, breathing heavily. For all his muscle, it took a lot out of him to haul his massive bulk up a rock. I tugged off my climbing shoes and shimmied my toes in my sandals, setting off after the girl and fighting down a feeling of panic. The forest was quiet, shadowed and calm compared to the thrumming of my heartbeat in my ears.
I spotted the boulder just in time to see her fall.
Even now, I couldn’t tell you how I moved so fast, but I made it just in time to catch her, setting her on her feet with my head reeling. That sick feeling in my stomach had not been misplaced. She smelled so good, clean and fresh up against my sweat and dust that I let her go rather reluctantly.
“Thanks,” she gasped, face pale, eyes wide and dark. She was tiny, her head barely reaching my chin, slender limbs and delicate hands with not nearly enough chalk on them, raw and red. They looked like they hadn’t seen a rock in ages.
“Chalk. Every time. Or at least every other time, until you build up some calluses.” I spoke low and gravelly, blaming it on the nausea that had boiled up my throat and plucked her pink chalk bag from the ground. I tied it around her waist while she gulped air like it was going out of style and it was only then that I realized I hadn’t remembered to put my shirt back on.
Her breath hit my skin like a blow torch.
“You don’t have a crash pad?” I asked, my hair tickling my eyelashes as I fumbled with the last of the knot and let the chalk bag fall against her thigh.
“A what?” She finally looked up at me, enough for me to see that her eyes were brown but I hardly noticed. Her face was shining. Sparkling in the sun with tiny flecks of silver and gold and I could barely believe that this was real.
I might be so dehydrated I was hallucinating.
“A crash pad. Big squishy thing? Breaks your fall?” I stuttered.
“Well, no, but that sounds helpful.”
How could she not know this? Whoever told her that this was a good idea, by herself without the proper gear and not a single fucking clue as to what she was doing, should have the shit beaten out of them. She didn’t look like she belonged out here at all, much too pretty to be a climber. Pretty girls don’t climb rocks, pretty girls stay home and paint their nails.
“What are you doing out here, Sparkles?” I asked her, voice stained with wonder.
She glared up at me, evil enough to wilt flowers. “What did you call me?”
“You have glitter all over your face.” I laughed without meaning to.
She rubbed her cheeks vigorously in both palms and inspected them, not believing a word I said until she saw the evidence to herself. Her face went red and she muttered something that sounded like a bad word, that or she was cursing someone named Alice under her breath, plopping into the dust and struggling to remove her shoes. I could tell it was painful, the first few weeks in a new pair weren’t ever pleasant to begin with and I was a little worried she was going to pull her ankle out of its socket if she wasn’t a little more careful with herself. I knelt in the dust to help her, slipping them off and marveling a little at how nice her feet looked. Just like her palms, smooth and soft and not all mangled and chewed up.
Give her two months on a rock in a pair of climbing shoes, and she’d start to look like all the rest of us.
I trailed her back to Emmett, trying to keep my eyes off her ass and failing miserably. She left with a stuttered a thank you and a hesitant goodbye that I followed up with something lame that probably sounded a bit like teasing before she left.
“What, exactly, was she thanking you for?” Emmett nudged me as she disappeared, imagination gone far dirtier than required.
“That’s a Gumby, for sure.” I watched her disappear between the trees and spent all night thinking about the way her face sparkled in the sun, wondering if I’d ever see her again.