Thousands of Kindle Nation readers have enjoyed Gary Ponzo’s first Nick Bracco novel, A Touch of Deceit, which has previously been excerpted as a Free Kindle Nation Short. That was followed by A Touch Of Revenge, reuniting FBI agent Bracco and his “connected” cousin as they go after terrorists.
Today’s 4,000-word Free Kindle Nation Short introduces readers to another side of the gifted storyteller — he is also a consummate craftsman in the short story form. The View From Above, the title story leading off the book of four short stories, takes you on a Mt. Everest adventure.
All four of the short stories collected in THE VIEW FROM ABOVE have been previously published in magazines and two were nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Each one has a twist ending in the tradition of an O. Henry story. Some have labeled them similar to a Twilight Zone episode.
Ponzo is fast making a name for himself, as evidenced by this remark from self-publishing Wunderkind bestseller John Locke:
“Gary Ponzo’s thrillers are so powerful, the government should consider using them as a renewable source of energy.”
The View From Above
by Gary Ponzo
5.0 out of 5 stars – 2 Reviews
Kindle Price: 99 Cents
Copyright © 2011 by Gary Ponzo and reprinted here with his permission.
Each time the tent door unzipped, Stephanie Rogers held her breath. Each time that it wasn’t her husband crouching through the opening, she blinked back a new set of tears. There seemed to be no bottom to the well of emotion that surfaced with every worn face that plunged into the tent.
“Andy’s fine,” Dr. Merton consoled her with his arm around her for warmth as much as comfort. “He’s the best climber on the mountain, including the guides.”
Stephanie forced a brave smile. The conspicuous lack of conversation unnerved her. Almost all of the twelve climbers huddled in the tent had reached the summit of Mt. Everest and rather than celebrate their accomplishments, they lay prone, sucking on oxygen canisters, or curled up in a ball as they rocked back and forth in their down jackets, sipping hot tea made from melted snow. No one dared to remove their gloves for fear of seeing the frostbitten fingers they felt throbbing beneath them. Their excitement subdued, beaten down by the unexpected storm that smacked the side of the mountain with minus eighty-degree punches and hurricane force snowfall that reduced visibility down to ten feet. No one could summon the energy, nor could they enjoy their feat when there were three members of their expedition still missing. Including Andy Rogers.
The powerful gusts of wind terrorized the nylon walls of the tent and prompted several climbers to grab hold of the weakening tent-poles, keeping their backs to the sides of the shelter knowing their lives depended on it.
A bundled climber crawled into the tent, squirmed into the middle of the shelter, then collapsed face-down with a thud that shook the ground enough to jostle the tea kettle from its post.
Stephanie’s heart raced while Dr. Merton and the lead guide rolled the climber over. They pulled back his hood and pulled up his goggles. Balls of ice the size of grapes matted his hair and eyebrows. Dr. Merton felt for a pulse. The guide placed both of his open hands on each side of the man’s face and yelled, “Dave! Where’s Andy and Frank?”
The climber moved his mouth like a baby wanting a bottle. Dr. Merton stretched open the man’s eyelids and flashed a penlight across his eyes. “He’s hypoxic. Get him a canister of oxygen, and see if you can get him to sip some tea.”
Stephanie brushed ice and snow from the man’s face, then felt his forehead, “He’s frozen to the bone.” She lifted his head and placed her knee underneath him while the guide tilted a cup of warm tea into his mouth.
“Drink up, Dave,” lead guide, Todd Trent, instructed while Dr. Merton slid a sleeping bag around his legs.
Trent moved his eyes across the inside of the shelter and noted the condition of the remainder of his expedition, “Nobody leaves this tent without my permission,” he growled. His eyes paused when they got to Stephanie, “Understand?”
She knew what he meant. No rescue attempt for her husband. “I won’t let him die out there,” she informed him.
“Stephanie,” he said, “when I left to search for climbers, I was no more than fifty feet from this tent and was completely lost. It took me forty minutes and a lot of luck to find my way back.”
Stephanie listened, undeterred.
“The Sherpas saw Andy fall from The Hillary Step into a crevasse. That’s two thousand vertical feet from here. Unfortunately, there’s not enough oxygen to support a helicopter’s blades. The only way up is to hike and that’s at least three hours away under ideal conditions.” Trent seemed to realize his words were falling short of their target. “I’m sorry, Stephanie, but if Andy is any more than a hundred feet from this very spot, he might as well be on the moon.”
She understood the words that were coming from his mouth, but failed to register their gravity. Rational thinking was a scarce commodity at twenty-six thousand feet. The oxygen-depleted atmosphere at that height could reduce a climber’s brain to that of a six-year-old. She leaned back against the rippling nylon wall, lost in thought. She recalled the first time she’d ever seen her husband. They were at a mutual friend’s wedding on the back lawn of a local resort back in Seattle. Andy was easy to spot, he wore a brown and white ski sweater with khaki pants; which was exactly one suit and one tie less than every other man was wearing on that occasion. It was refreshingly clear to Stephanie that he kept his own agenda. He was thin with a narrow jaw and high cheekbones that seemed to pull his mouth up into a perpetual smile. Miles of running and hiking left his frame tightly wound, however, the thing that most impressed her about him was his blatant shyness. Unconsciously, she returned his smile and he quickly looked away as if he was caught hiding Playboy Magazines under his mattress.
She asked a girlfriend who the guy in the sweater was. Her friend shrugged apathetically, “Oh, that’s Andy Rogers. He’s some sort of mountain climber or something. Kind of strange, I think.”
“Why’s that?” Stephanie asked.
“Well, do you remember Agnes Murdock from high school?”
Stephanie nodded, recalling the chubby girl with the plain face.
“Agnes was the bridesmaid for a good friend of mine who got married about six months ago. You remember what she looked like back in school?”
Again Stephanie nodded.
“Well, she’d put on a tad bit more weight since then and was struggling to find a date to the wedding. When Andy found out about it, he called her and asked her to go with him.”
“Really. Everyone knew it was a ruse, but you couldn’t tell by the way Andy treated her. He slow danced with her all night long. She was beaming like she was just voted the prom queen. She’s never been the same person ever since that night. He’s a free spirit, Stephanie. I’d stay away if I were you. I mean look at him. It’s a wedding for crying out loud and he’s wearing a sweater.”
“Yeah,” Stephanie smiled, “look at him.”
Her friend’s words proved to be true. Andy Rogers wasn’t much interested in other people’s personal lives. What they wore. Who they slept with. Later, after five blissful years of marriage, Stephanie came home one night with the juiciest tidbit of gossip she’d ever heard. Her sixty-year-old married boss was sleeping with his twenty-one-year old secretary. “Isn’t that outrageous?” she asked him.
Andy shrugged, pulling on a pair of white socks, about to go on a run. “I guess,” he said with a perfunctory nod.
Playfully, she threw his running shoes at him, “You’re just no fun to gossip with.”
“I’m sorry, Steph,” he said. “Try it again, I promise I’ll act surprised.”
She told him again with even more zeal than before. He stood up, smiled and said, “Oh well, sounds like two people in love. Gotta go.”
She jumped on him, dragged him to the floor, and they laughed and kissed and laughed some more. He never did make his run that night.
Stephanie snapped back from her dream world when she heard Trent unzip the tent door. He stuck his head out, then pulled it back in like a frightened turtle. He looked at Stephanie and shook his head with a dour expression.
Stephanie grabbed a nearby radio and once again pleaded into the mouthpiece, “Andy, are you out there?”
Just like the last transmission and all the other transmissions for the past hour and a half, there was no response.
“It could be that his batteries have gone dead,” a considerate member of the team suggested.
Her eyes puffed up and released newfound tears. Tears from a life she’d lose without him. Tears from the time she’d spend wondering what their future would have held had she put her foot down and said no. No, you may not go to the top of the world. No, you may not realize a dream that you’ve kept hidden from me, because it’s your nature to cage your thoughts and dispense them with the careful attention of a birdfeeder squeezing an eyedropper of medicine into the open beak of a frail and wanting baby bird. No, you may not comfort and care for me with ceaseless devotion for five short years only to dissolve into the open spaces of the Himalayas.
She was about to press down the button to talk into the radio when a familiar voice scratched its way across the air waves, “Steph?”
“I’m here, Sweetie.”
“Where are you, Andy?” she strained for control.
“I’m up here.”
Stephanie laughed nervously, along with some climbers who were now huddled around her. His presence, even over a walkie-talkie, breathed life into the hurting team. Trent said, “Ask him what he sees.”
Stephanie groped the transmitter with trembling fingers, “Andy, what do you see?”
There was an uncomfortable silence, then finally they heard, “Steph, to be honest, I can’t see a thing. It’s all white and I . . .well I . . .”
“What, Andy? You what?”
“I can sense a presence. Steph, I’m sure of it. I can’t hear anything, I can’t see anything, but . . .well . . .I’m not alone. I wish I could explain.”
The guide shook his head discouragingly, “He’s losing it. He’s delirious.” He cupped his hands around the radio while it stayed in Stephanie’s hands and leaned down into it, “Andy, hang in there. I’ll put a team together and get to you as soon as the storm breaks.”
Dr. Merton shook his head, “He couldn’t possibly survive that long. Not a chance. You’d be risking more lives for a futile cause.” He looked over at Stephanie. “I’m sorry, Darling, he can’t possibly be helped. All you can do is hope he can move downhill.”
There was another long pause which caused Stephanie more concern, “Andy? Are you there?”
“Honey, hang on, please.”
“I don’t think you understand, Steph,” Andy replied. “I feel I’m being guided somehow.”
From the far corner of the tent came a small gasp. A pair of Sherpas, local mountaineers whose villages had been scattered across the landscape of the Himalayan mountain for centuries, were both wide-eyed and mumbling, “Jomagangla, Jomagangla.”
Stephanie turned and searched Trent’s face for an answer. He squinted with a discomforting expression. “There’s an old Tibetan legend that claims somewhere near the summit of Mt. Everest is an Angel who guides climber’s souls through the doorway of Heaven.”
“Jomagangla,” a Sherpa nodded in agreement. “The Angel of Mercy. That is who he senses. Yes, he follow Jomagangla. Take leap of faith. He make it to Heaven. His soul be safe.”
Trent waved at the Sherpas with antipathy, “Forget about them, all Sherpas are superstitious. Andy is simply snow blind. What he needs is shelter.”
“Andy,” Stephanie spoke into the radio, “how are your hands and feet?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Stay put,” she said.
“SSStephanie?” Andy slurred.
“No matter what happens, I need you to know something.”
“What’s that?” she sniffled.
“I love you with all of my heart.”
“Don’t you dare give up on me, Andrew Rogers. It’s not over yet,” she said, firm with fear.
“Sweetheart?” Andy responded.
“I can hear music.”
“Stephanie, is that you I hear coming?”
“Are you sure? I think I hear someone coming.”
“Jomagangla,” a Sherpa offered.
Trent grimaced, “We’re losing him. Keep him talking.”
“Andy,” she said, “keep moving your limbs. Keep your blood circulating.”
“Jomagangla,” the Sherpa repeated. “Follow the music. His soul lost. Must follow music.”
“Tell him to brace himself,” Trent insisted.
“No!” a Sherpa yelled. “He not on Earth anymore. His soul is lost. Follow Jomagangla.”
“Stephanie,” Andy said, “where are you? How come I can’t see you?”
“I’m here, Sweetheart. I’m on the radio.”
“What’s happening to my husband?” Stephanie asked no one in particular.
Dr. Merton rubbed his temples. Trent looked away, pretending not to hear Andy’s struggle with reality. One of the Sherpas worked his way over to Stephanie, crouched down in front of her and placed his hand on her shoulder. “My uncle,” he said, “he great climber. He make it to summit ten times. With no oxygen. One day he get caught in storm. Worse than this. He no make it back. No one can find his body.”
The Sherpa’s eyes shined while he spoke. “One night my uncle come to me in my dreams. He tell me where his body is. I only fourteen but I tell father where my uncle is. The next week, he climb mountain and find my uncle’s body, same spot I tell him.”
Stephanie listened uneasily.
“My uncle still come in my dreams. I wake up always with smile. One night he tell me about Jomagangla. He tell me if I no make it while on mountain, my soul will stay lost unless I follow the music. Andy no make it. His soul lost. Help him find peace.”
The radio crackled and a faint voice called out, “Steph? Is that you playing the music?”
“No, Andy. It’s not me.” She looked over at Dr. Merton. “What’s happening to him, Doc?”
Dr. Merton shook his head bleakly, “Could be any number of altitude illnesses.”
“Andy,” she called. “Can you hear me? Andy?”
A static-filled transmission vibrated from the speaker, “I’m near some sort of ledge. I can’t see the other side, but I feel I need to jump. Am I losing it up here or what?”
Stephanie looked intently into the Sherpa’s eyes. He nodded his head. “Yes. Must take leap of faith. Save his soul.”
Trent gritted his teeth, “Don’t you dare tell him to do anything but stay put. We can still get to him.”
Andy said, “I think I need to jump now, Steph.”
Dr. Merton sat quietly by himself. He could tell by her stare that Stephanie wanted his opinion. He looked up and shook his head with a blank stare. “The earliest we could get to him is by morning. No living thing could survive a night at twenty-eight thousand feet without shelter.” He pointed to the door, “Especially not this night.”
“He must jump,” the Sherpa insisted. “Take leap of faith, yes.”
“You mean a leap to his death,” the guide said. “He’s obviously snow blind and delirious. Tell him to stay put.”
The tent was filled with climbers arguing the point. “Tell him to jump,” one said.
“You’re nuts. He could be standing on the edge of Lhotse Face. That two thousand feet straight down.”
“Put him out of his misery,” one suggested.
“He should dig a hole and wait out the storm.”
“No. Must jump. While there’s time.”
“My uncle. He tell me. He no lie.”
Andy’s voice faded with every transmission, “Steph?”
Stephanie lowered her head, closed her eyes tight, then pulled the radio to her mouth and shouted, “Andy, jump, Darling! Follow the music.”
“I’ll come find you, Steph. I promise.” Andy’s last words echoed inside of the small nylon tent.
The conversations ended abruptly. The only sound left was the furious flapping of the tent. Stephanie couldn’t be sure in her oxygen-deprived state, but she thought she saw the Sherpa wink at her. She looked down at the walkie-talkie as if it were a smoking gun. “What have I done?” she murmured.
Dr. Merton rubbed her back while her eyes glazed over with an expression of someone who just let something very fragile slip through her fingers. She waited in vain to hear Andy’s voice once again.
Finally, Trent poked his head outside the tent door and spied a lone headlamp flickering its way down the side of the mountain. A crowd of climbers stretched their necks to catch a glimpse of the promising sight, allowing a conspicuous path for Stephanie to reach the front of the group. A low undercurrent of encouragement developed momentum until it reached a crescendo of applause as it became apparent that the climber was taking a somewhat circuitous route to base camp. Several members of the team stood outside and began banging pots and pans together to steer the climber home. With only fifty yards to go Stephanie could tell that the climber was wearing a bright red jacket. Not the color she was hoping for.
A bearded man with an oxygen mask dangling from his chin lifted one foot at a time and plodded a serpentine path towards the tent. Trent and another climber hustled out to greet the man. He collapsed into the guide’s arms and the two of them dragged the man the remainder of the way to the tent.
As soon as it was known to be Frank Saunders, one of Andy Rogers’ best friends and closest climbing companion, the cheering became subdued out of respect for Stephanie. She stared at Frank as if she didn’t trust her own eyes and any moment he would turn into Andy. Dr. Merton opened a sleeping bag and created an area for him to lay inside the shelter. Individually, each member of the team patted Frank on the shoulder or quietly gave a thumbs-up to support his arrival. Frank dropped down and was instantly handed a cup of tea. He leaned over and allowed the steam to rise and thaw his arctic face. He conspicuously repelled Stephanie’s stare. When his eyes finally made their way to her, he broke down. With quivering lips he said, “I’m . . .I’m really sorry, Steph.”
“About what?” she asked innocently.
“What about Andy? Were you with him?”
Frank nodded reluctantly.
“Where?” Stephanie urged, “When?”
Silently Frank gathered his thoughts. “On The Hillary Step. He fell. Snapped his neck. I’m so sorry. He died before I could even get to him.” The man sobbed, recalling the uninvited images that swam in his head. “I sat with him for an hour. I talked to him about life. About why we do what we do. I got sick to my stomach, but before I left I buried him in the snow. I don’t know why. I just did.” Frank looked around at the bemused group listening to him and asked, “Was that wrong?”
Everyone knew what Frank did was irrational, but of little consequence. They all mumbled their approval as something they would have done under similar circumstances.
Stephanie, however, was dripping with denial. “How long ago did this happen?”
Frank shrugged, puzzled by the question, “I don’t know, maybe four hours ago.”
“You must be wrong because I just spoke to Andy on the radio not ten minutes ago,” she said.
The Sherpa sitting next to her spoke up. “I try to tell you. You no speak to Andy. You speak to his spirit.”
Trent pointed his finger at the Sherpa, “You keep your beliefs to yourself. Can’t you see what you’re doing to her?”
“I’ve heard stranger stories about this mountain,” someone commented.
“Leave the poor woman alone,” another added.
Stephanie sat still, confused by the conversations surrounding her. She held up the radio she used to talk to Andy with and showed it to Frank. “It was him. I know his voice. Maybe you made a mistake. Maybe you buried someone else by mistake. Your mind can play games with you up there,” she pleaded.
Frank nodded softly, still catching his breath. He reached into the inside pocket of his down jacket and pulled out a small black radio. He handed it to Stephanie. On its side was inscribed the name, ‘Andy Rogers.’ “I took it with me when I left him in case my batteries went dead,” he said. “He couldn’t possibly have contacted you.”
Stephanie bit her lip, turned to the Sherpa, and dug her head into his shoulder while he comforted her with warm, gentle words. She wept until her body, drained of all its energy, melted into the Sherpa’s lap. The Sherpa slid her down onto her sleeping bag and watched while she evaporated into a deep, exhaustive sleep. He leaned over, brushed her hair back and whispered, “Dream, sweet woman . . . Dream long and smile.”