Mallory was going to break up with Everett. Their relationship had been going downhill for months now and they’d only been together a few years. It was fine while it lasted, she thought, but it was over now. Time to move on. Everett on the other hand thought their recent troubles were simply a test they must overcome and that they should work together to reach a new level in their commitment. This might have seemed charming to Mallory, if she weren’t already accustomed to Everett’s recent, positive outlook on life.
When their relationship first started to get rocky, Everett had become depressed. Mallory became ambivalent. One night though, Everett woke Mallory up excitedly to proclaim he’d had a reawakening. He’d watched an inspirational video on his phone, and everything was going to be okay. He began exercising more after that. He started waking up earlier every day. Meditating. Eating right. In lieu of television he followed self-help gurus on Instagram. It was the weekend he went on the hiking retreat for daily empowerment on Mt. Ascendant that she decided it was over.
He had returned from that trip, happier than she had ever seen him. He was enlightened now. “We should take this journey together,” he said to her with all the earnestness of a hiking novice. She tried to break it off right there and then, but Everett would not accept. They owed it to each other to make this work, he told her. They owed it to themselves. “At least go on this hike with me,” he said. “Let me show you that you have the power to save us.” This was exactly the kind of talk she was growing more and more uncomfortable with. But Everett had held her hands firmly, looked into her eyes and spoke with a conviction she’d never heard from him before. He was also so much more fit than he’d ever been. So, before she broke up with him once and for all, she agreed to go on the hike.
The morning of their journey, Mallory took time before they left the apartment to answer emails and make appointments for the coming week. Everett was careful not to nag her about timeliness and this calculated nonchalance only served to irritate her more. By the time they reached the parking lot at the base of Mt. Ascendant, there were no other cars left in it. They were of course, behind schedule.
They parked near the entrance to the trail that lead into the heavily wooded base of the mountain, got out of Everett’s Jeep, and took a moment to stand together and take in the scenery. In front of them was a wooden sign with chipped yellow paint that read “New Adventure Trail” at the top, and Mallory thought it was a bit too on the nose. There was a map painted on the sign and this put her at ease, though she wasn’t aware why she had been uneasy.
“This is a beginner’s hike,” Everett said as he pointed at the map. His finger followed the winding trail up to a spot that touched the edge of the mountain. “There’s a lookout spot here where we can rest a bit and check out the view and then make our way to the end of the trail. The whole hike there and back, should only take four hours, but we are cutting it close to get back here before the sun goes down.”
“Why do we need to get back to the car before the sun goes down?” Mallory asked, though she certainly did not plan to be there after dark.
Everett turned from the wooden sign toward Mallory. He grabbed her elbows and pulled her closer to him. She felt a chill trickle down the back of her neck. This was a different Everett than the one who only a few hours before, said nothing, while she checked emails that could have waited. She felt the hairs on her arms rise. She wondered if she was turned on. “Because,” Everett finally answered. “Weird stuff happens on Mt. Ascendant after the sun goes down.”
She smirked but did not respond. For a moment she felt totally game for what he had in store. Maybe she would let go, she thought. Maybe she would make it to the end of this trail and come back a different person. Maybe she wouldn’t break up with Everett after all and they’d resolve to go on this hike together once a week until they moved on to the intermediate and advanced trails. And they’d come out a power couple with thousands of followers who would revel in their testimony of a stronger partnership manifest from the physical and mental rigors of hiking the world together. This thought inspired her to pull her phone out of her pocket and look at it.
Everett shook his head and took his hands off of her. “Take one last good look at that thing because you’re in the real world now. You’re out here among the trees and the rocks and the fresh air. You won't even notice your phone after a while.”
Mallory was shook from the reverie of imagining their future as a backpacking power couple. Still she simply shrugged as though this was something she was prepared for.
“If it’s not such a big deal, maybe you should leave it in the car.”
“I’m not going on this hike without my phone.”
“Take it,” he said. “You won’t get reception anyway.”
She hesitated for a moment. “What if there’s an emergency and we don’t have reception? What are we supposed to do?”
“Well,” he said. “If you really need to make a phone call, there’s a little cabin at the end of the trail for the park rangers. It’s really just a cinderblock room with a tin roof. The whole thing is painted tan or beige. Inside there’s nothing but a desk in the middle of the room with an old rotary phone on it.”
“You mean like a landline?” She asked. “Does it work?”
Everett shrugged. “Yes, actually, during the retreat some of the other hikers used it to call their past selves to bestow words of wisdom.” He grinned as he said this.
Mallory raised an eyebrow. “Well, I don’t know about all that. I was thinking more like calling 9-1-1. You know, like if we run into a bear or something.”
“When you get to the end of the trail you can use the phone for whatever you want, Mallory. Now we’d better get moving.” He moved passed the wooden sign and ducked as he walked underneath the branches of the trees that seemed to bend into an archway to their new world. Mallory took one last look at the already dwindling bars of reception on her phone before she put it in her pocket and followed Everett into the woods.
They were halfway up the trail and Everett had been going on about how every step they took was like ascending further into a higher state of consciousness. “Don’t you feel like you can do anything right now?”
“I feel tired,” Mallory said. “I feel like taking a break.” The trail they were on had finally led them to the lookout point, a steep cliff with a panoramic view of the city.
“It’s only about a half hour till we get to the cabin,” Everett said. He opened his arms wide toward the sprawling metropolis below them. “Take a look at that.”
Mallory pulled out her phone and looked at it instead. There were no bars. “Well, I officially don’t have reception. And is it getting darker already?”
“We’re on a mountain. And yeah, maybe a little.”
“I know we’re on a mountain. I just feel a little disconnected. Didn’t you say weird stuff happens here after dark?”
“The point is to connect with yourself. What I meant to say was that weird stuff happens here no matter what time of day it is.”
Mallory rolled her eyes.
“You just have to trust yourself. Trust in the universe.”
“I get it,” she said. “The universe. The higher power. But there are some things out there that all the believing and wishing and wanting, just aren’t going to fix. The higher we ascend, the less reception this phone is going to get and if something goes wrong, there is nothing the universe can do about it.” She was only just getting started and she had a lot more to say, but then her phone began to ring.
They looked at each other with wide eyes. It rang again. They both laughed. She looked down to see who was calling. She wondered who in her life had the power to break through the boundaries of zero signal strength. The phone displayed her own phone number. She looked up at Everett. “Apparently, I’m calling myself.” The phone rang again.
“That’s weird.” He said.
She was relieved to hear him say anything was weird. It rang again.
“Answer it,” he said.
“No,” she said. “That’s even weirder. It’s probably a glitch. Or a scam.”
“Or maybe you really are calling yourself.” He grinned.
“Yes, Everett.” She played along. “I’m calling from some higher state of consciousness.”
“Well, you should definitely answer it, then.”
“Or maybe I should just decline.” And with that she cut the phone off mid ring. Everett looked disappointed.
“What?” She said.
“Nothing.” He shook his head. “I mean it would have been interesting to see what would’ve happened if you had answered it.”
Now that the phone was no longer ringing, Mallory felt like she’d done something wrong. She impeded on a moment that in all its strangeness, was just for the two of them. Everett’s excitement almost seemed endearing and her first response was to cut it short. “Well, it was definitely weird.”
“So, does that mean you still have reception?” Everett asked.
Mallory felt a pang of hope. A hope that felt familiar and unsavory. But still her phone showed no signal strength. She shook her head.
“Maybe it only works if you’re trying to call yourself.”
“You want me to call myself? What if I don’t pick up?”
“Knowing you, Mal, you probably won't.”
She hadn’t heard Everett call her that since they’d first moved in together. Now it seemed to come out of him naturally. “Well I think that I will pick up,” she said.
“You have to call yourself first.”
“Maybe I will.” She was smiling wide now as she dialed her own number.
The phone began to ring on the receiving end. They looked at each other again and laughed. It rang again. Their mouths and eyes were wide open as they both stood in silence. The phone rang again. Mallory was more excited now than weirded out. A part of her wanted to hear her own voice on the other line. Another part of her wanted nothing to do with any of it. She and Everett looked at each other and the phone rang again but stopped mid ring. It went to voicemail. Mallory finally hung up.
They both burst into laughter.
“Clearly, I’m not there yet,” Mallory said.
“You’ll get there.” Everett responded. She wanted to roll her eyes again but stopped herself. Instead she looked out over the cliff. This was the first time she’d even noticed the view. She felt in awe of the city in front of her. It was so far beneath them and they were only halfway up the trail. It looked so far away, so otherworldly. She stood next to Everett now at the edge of the cliff. There were only trees and bushes below and the grandeur of a blue sky melting into purple behind the city. Mallory put her arm around Everett’s waist, and he put his arm around her shoulders. Everett’s phone began to ring. The fragile tenderness of the moment was shattered. They looked to one another again. This time there was no laughter, but their eyes grew wider. He dug his phone out of his pocket and looked at it. He showed her the screen. It read “Mallory.” She shook her head. Her phone was still in her hand and still there was no reception.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m going to answer it.”
“No, don’t.” She stopped him.
“But it’s you Mal. It’s you calling me.”
“I’m right in front of you.”
The phone rang again.
“Well. Imagine you were trying to call me right now and you knew that I knew you were calling. Wouldn’t you want me to answer?” The phone rang again. The dash of logic didn’t really reconcile the illogicality of the situation, but Mallory grasped at even this paltry doling of reason.
She shook her head. “Just answer it.”
He did not hesitate. “Hello? Mallory?” He smiled as he looked at Mallory.
“Everett!” said a woman’s voice on the other line. She sounded frantic and composed at the same time — determined was perhaps the best word. She certainly sounded like Mallory.
“Are you okay?” the voice asked.
“Who is that?” Mallory asked standing closer to him now.
Everett’s smile went away as he looked at her in disbelief “It’s you.”
“I’m right here,” Mallory said. She shook her head at the absurdity of the statement.
The voice on the other line yelled this time. “Are you ok? Where are you? Are you hurt?”
“I’m ok. I’m right here.” Everett yelled back into the phone. “I’m on the mountain. Where are you?”
Mallory grabbed at Everett’s arm now. “I’m right here Everett. I’m right in front of you. Hang up. This is too much. Just hang up.”
He could not hang up. “Mallory?” He asked the voice on the other line “Where are you?”
Mallory couldn’t take it anymore. “Enough,” she said and grabbed Everett’s phone out of his hand and hung up.
He grabbed the phone back out of her hands and put it to his ear. “Are you still there? Mal?” There was no response from the other line. His phone had no signal.
Mallory yelled at him again. “I’m right here in front of you Everett. I’m right here.”
“No” he said. “That was you on the other line. I don’t know how to explain it but that was you. You were calling me, and it sounded like you needed help.”
“I can’t take this anymore. You are acting crazy. This whole hike is ridiculous. I just want to go back.”
“We can’t go back Mallory. Don’t you see?” Behind him the purple sky melted into orange. “I need to find you.”
“I’m right here.”
He looked at his phone, brought it close to his mouth and said, “Call Mallory.” But there was no response from his phone. He put it down. He looked up at her, breathed out solemnly, and took a step back. “I don’t know what’s going on and I know you don’t either,” he said. “But that was you on the other line and you seemed scared and I don’t know exactly how to handle this but I’m not leaving this mountain until I find you or this other you or whichever fucking Mallory is willing to fix this bullshit relationship of ours without rolling her eyes or making some sort of sardonic, nihilistic commentary about our doomed future.” His face was red. The veins in his neck bulged and Mallory thought she’d never seen him look so assertive. He opened his arms wide and began to walk backwards up along the trail. “Now I’m going to finish this hike. You can come with me if you want but I’m not stopping until I get to that cabin up there and figure out what the hell is going on here.” There was so much determination in his eyes as he said this. Mallory almost felt compelled to follow after him. To help him unravel this mystery and seek out this other version of herself intent on infiltrating their hike. Everett looked hard at Mallory as he walked backward, waiting for her to say something, or to inch closer to him in a show of solidarity. “And another thing,” he started, but he took one step back too many, and fell backwards down the cliff.
Mallory ran to the edge of the cliff. All she could see was dust coming up from the bushes and trees below. There was no sign of Everett. She screamed his name. He did not answer. She screamed his name again. No response. Her phone was still in her hand. She dialed 9-1-1 but there was no signal. She tried again. Nothing. She screamed his name again. No response.
Mallory looked at her phone and pressed her thumb on the screen to activate voice command. “Call Everett,” she said as calmly as she could into the phone. Then she heard a ring. “Come on,” she said aloud. “Answer… Answer…” It rang again. “Please.” She wept into the phone. “Pick up.” It rang again. And then someone on the other line picked up. “Hello?” She heard Everett’s soft and assured voice. “Mallory?”
“Everett!” she yelled into the phone. “Are you okay?”
He said something on the other line, but it was muffled.
Mallory yelled this time. “Are you ok? Where are you? Are you hurt?”
“I’m ok. I’m right here.” She heard him say. “I’m on the mountain. Where are you?” Then there was a pause before she heard him say, “Mallory? Where are you?”
“Where are you?” she yelled back into the phone in frustration. Why was he asking where she was? He was the one who’d fallen. He was the one who needed finding. “Where are you Everett?” She yelled again but there was no response. The call had been dropped.
Mallory called down the edge of the cliff again. She noticed how richly purple the evening sky looked before her. She felt strange for taking note of it and how beautiful the city below looked as it began to sparkle in its own shadows. She turned her attention back down the ravine. It was as steep as it was jagged. How could anyone survive a fall like that? Everett hadn’t even sounded hurt on the other line.
She could not possibly climb down the treacherous ravine after him. She wondered if she should go back down the trail. There might be a chance she could run into another hiker or maybe a ranger. Even if she didn’t see anyone she could at least get to Everett’s Jeep. Which was locked, of course, and he had the keys. She would just have to break a window, she thought, but without the keys she wouldn’t be able to turn it on. At least she’d have reception again. But that would still be another hour and a half, and it was getting darker faster than they’d anticipated. She cursed herself for making them late earlier. She had done it on purpose. A small but obvious rebellion in exchange for relinquishing control to Everett.
Naturally, there was the option to continue going up the trail to reach the ranger’s cabin. The tan or beige cinder block room with a tin roof and a landline phone. That was only about a half hour's hike away. She could get there before dark, right?
Figure this out, she thought to herself. She peered over the cliff once more. “Can anyone fucking help me?” she yelled into the ether. Her despair echoed down the mountain, bounced off rocks, scrapped by bushes, tumbled down wayward foot trails and was heard by no one. She looked at the darkening city below. If they could only just be down there, she thought, having dinner at Dino’s again, ordering the cheapest wine by the glass and not talking to each other. She yelled into the uncaring sky again and turned around to finish the hike toward the lonely cabin at the end of the trail.
She hurried up the trail through the woods. It was getting darker faster and the trees that before seemed quaint and novel, began to gnarl into sinister silhouettes. The purple sky above her was deepening and stars began to twinkle defiantly. As she moved along the trail she was more and more sure she would see no one else. She was by herself in the woods. This frightened her but she could not stop. She was more afraid of running out of time. She was even more scared that she made the wrong choice to go up toward the cabin instead of back down to the Jeep. It was as if she were being drawn to the cabin. To the phone inside that sat atop a desk. Was there really a phone there at all? The way Everett spoke, it sounded more like a legend. Or a joke. That was his way. To make lite of everything. When they first met, she was so drawn to this, to the ease with which he spoke to everyone. On their first date they’d gone to a restaurant she could no longer remember the name of but insisted on going to at the time. They sat at the bar while they waited for a table. There was a strange old woman sitting next to them who kept butting into their conversation. Mallory had wanted to be annoyed but Everett had taken it in stride, joking with the woman about this or that. By the time the hostess had their table ready he said it was ok, that they were going to stay and eat with their new friend at the bar. Mallory hardly got a word in over the old lady, but when she and Everett finally got back to her place, they fucked like crazy.
The winding trail seemed to be getting steeper as Mallory went on. She tried to remember the faded map she’d seen earlier. She wished she'd taken a photo of it with her phone. This stupid phone. She saw a flash of Everett lying unconscious in a ditch. Pick up the pace, she told herself. You’re in the real world now, she heard in Everette’s voice. Move, she told herself. Find your more evolved self, she heard Everett say. She shook his words off. Even when she was trying to save his life, he annoyed her with this stuff. Why did it bother her so much? Certainly, he’d become a better version of himself than before. But this new version of him was really a lot like the version of him she’d first met. Before the nights out together started to become mundane. Before living together just seemed like the obvious choice. Before she became bored with what looked to others like a perfect relationship and he became complicit in her detachment. That was when he became depressed. When she stopped being impressed by his charisma. And now after a couple years of him sitting on the couch after work, gaining weight, losing himself in whatever game was on, he was back. The retreat. The YouTube meditation. The diet change. The hikes and the higher state of consciousness. It was all only a matter of time. He was never meant to be depressed. If it wasn’t Mt. Ascendant, it would have been a workout regimen or a nonprofit or some business venture with a douchey friend of his she already didn’t like. Being depressed was only how Everett dealt with Mallory. It was his sensory response to her innate ability to find negativity in everything.
Mallory pulled her phone out again and turned the flashlight on. It wasn’t completely dark yet, but the trail seemed more allusive. Branches clawed at her and the ground beneath her trembled in the bouncing beam of the flashlight. Her thighs and calves burned with fatigue. She felt herself scowling. In this moment she hated everything. She hated being here on this trail alone on this mountain. She hated the crackling sounds of the woods. She hated the responsibility of having to go find help for Everett when she was supposed to have broken up with him by now. She hated him for his self- empowerment and for this reawakening.
Her phone rang again. It startled her. She felt more alone now than ever. She looked at the phone screen. Caller unknown. It rang again. She did not want to answer it. Maybe it was Everett. This is crazy she thought. She was on her way to find a rotary phone, in a secluded cabin in the middle of a mountain, that had no visible telephone lines, to make an emergency phone call and here she had in her hand, her own phone, that despite not showing any reception, was still somehow receiving phone calls and she was afraid to answer it.
The trail in front of her became dark as she put the phone to her ear. “Hello?” She yelled into the phone. “Who is this?”
There was a pause at first and then she heard it. “Mallory?” The voice was crisp and unmistakable. It was her own. She said nothing in response. “Time to move on,” her voice said to her.
She couldn’t take it anymore. She threw her phone down in front of her onto the dirt trail and she heard it crack against the ground. A beam of light from the phone, still shone up into the trees until it dissipated into the darkening night sky. She ran as fast as she could up the trail unsure if she was trying to get to the cabin or just running away from her phone. Was that real? Did she really just answer a phone call from herself? Time to move on? How could she? She was trying to save him. She was panting hard now. The trail was getting more difficult to see and she had no idea how much time had passed or how much longer she had to go, but she did not look behind her. Then she saw it. A light in the distance that lurked through the trees as she trotted closer. The cabin. It was real and she’d made it. As she got closer, even in the dark she could see that it was just as Everett had described, a small cinder block room with a tin roof in the middle of the woods. There was a fluorescent light that hung above the doorway. She was out of breath and exhausted, but she did not stop running until she made it to the cabin.
She stopped at the front door and took a deep breath as she placed her hand on the doorknob. She was half scared that it would be locked. She imagined herself trying to break the door down with her body. She imagined breaking windows that weren’t there. She turned the knob and the door opened. The little room was illuminated by another fluorescent light bulb hanging over the doorway on the inside. The walls were not tan or beige, she thought, but more of a light brown. In the middle of the room was a desk and atop the desk lay the famed rotary phone attached to a line that connected to a jack on the back wall.
Breathing hard she walked up to the desk. In her head, she knew exactly what to do. Pick up the phone. Dial 9-1-1. Calmly tell the operator that a man had fallen from the lookout point along the New Adventure Trail on Mt. Ascendant. Then she would wait there. That was all she could do at this point. But still she had this feeling that this wasn’t all she could do. She had to do something else. Something more. She picked up the phone and put it to her ear. There was a clear dial tone. This was it. All she had to do was dial three little numbers. She saw Everett again. Dead or hurt in a ditch. Dirt and blood covering his beautiful face. The room was so silent. The light inside the cabin was bright and welcoming. She put her finger on the 9 of the rotary phone, and then she pulled it back. She would call for help, of course, there was just one phone call she had to make first. Mallory dialed her own number and stood silently as she listened to the phone ringing on the other end knowing exactly what she was going to say.