Twin Peaks Part Three (Finale)

By morning a few of the torches were still smoldering. He knew he should get more rest, but he didn’t want to waste daylight. Dak packed up camp, gathered his bearings, and set out along the old, spotty trail through the forest. Eventually the trees became more spaced out and the forest thinned. At the same time, the steepness of the path began to increase. His legs began to burn as the climb grew more intense. His eyes burned and ached with the lack of sleep. His head hurt. He was worried about his water supply. Was his pack getting heavier? The closer he drew to the sun above the more uncomfortable his sweaty bandage became. He wondered if he should change the dressing soon. He would need clean water, and he didn’t want to use any of his drinking water for the job.

Dak stopped under one of the lonely trees dotting the side of the mountain. He would only allow himself a moment to rest and cool down. He sat and leaned against the tree, craning his neck to look ahead on the trail and see if it would get less steep soon. The heat of the sun radiated off the rocks, making the ground appear to shimmer like water. He took a small drink from one of his water pouches. He still had one that was full for the trip back down the mountain, and the other was a little under half full. He guessed he was about halfway up the mountain, so he wanted to try to conserve water for a while.

His heart jumped and he swung his head to face back up the mountain. He thought he had seen some movement out of the corner of his eye. In the heat of the day very few animals and beasts were active, but something had definitely moved. He scanned around watching for more movement, but saw none. Once his pulse had slowed again he decided to move on. He picked himself off the ground and brushed off, peering in the direction of the movement again, which happened to be the same direction he needed to go.

While still steep, this part of the path was beginning to get a little easier, or at least he felt as though it was easier. Dak remained focused on the spot where he thought the movement had come from. As he got closer he began to make out a shape. Years later he would hesitate to share what he thought he saw, mostly because he was never quite sure. He was sleep-deprived, thirsty, sore, and had taken a couple bad blows to the head not long before. For all he knew perhaps he imagined the whole encounter. But at the time it felt very real.

The shape was long and twisted, sprawled out in the sun on a large flat rock. Before it came into focus Dak was sure he heard something telling him to turn back. It wasn’t as much of a voice as it was an intrusive thought. Sure, he wanted to turn back, but he wasn’t thinking of doing it. Someone or something was making him think it. “Turn back now,” it repeated over and over. “Go home. You don’t belong here.”

He was able to clearly see his opponent now. It was a large snake, at least fifty feet long and nearly four feet thick at its widest point. It was curled around and twisted about carelessly on the surface of the large rock, but during Dak’s approach the reptile gathered itself in and coiled menacingly. The path ran right next to the rock slab, and so he decided to leave the path and go the long way around. As he circumnavigated the rock, the snake’s huge head tracked him and its black eyes remained unwaveringly fixated on him. Dak could feel himself sweating even more than he had when the cat attacked. The “turn back” command echoed louder with every step.

He wondered how fast something that big could move. Would it strike at him if he took his eyes off it? Would it follow him? He could feel himself getting sick. Nervousness and fear became overwhelming. Eventually he got back on the path far enough from the snake that he felt he was safe, but even then he was worried about it. He walked briskly, constantly looking back over his shoulder or even walking backward to keep an eye on the path behind.

The slope was much more gentle here, and with fear driving him forward he make good progress. By the time the sun was getting ready to set he figured he had to be at least two thirds of the way up the mountain. The terrain was fairly flat in many areas, giving him plenty of options for setting up camp. The lack of trees made it harder to set up a fence, but it also meant fewer places for predators to hide. He hoped he would be safe with just a large fire and a few torches stuck in the ground around the tent.

As he set up camp with the last hour of daylight barely holding on to the sky, he saw clouds moving in from the mountain range to the north. They were dark and moving fast. He cooked a quick dinner and managed to retire to the tent just as the first drops of rain began to fall from above. Within minutes his tent was soaked through and there was a river running through his tent. Lightning illuminated the walls of the tent every few seconds, with ground-shaking thunder immediately following. He wrapped himself in his wet blankets, hoping to keep warm, but it was no use.

Soon the wind started to pick up. It shook the walls of his tent, threatening to topple the whole thing. The sideways moving rain had an even easier time finding its way into the shelter, completely negating any protection he had enjoyed before. Dak’s eyes ached for sleep. His cloudy mind couldn’t get the snake pushed from his thoughts.

Dak eventually gave up on sleep. He used his cooking pot to collect rain water and refill his half-empty water container. He lay on the soaked sleeping mat and stared up at the drenched tent. He pondered his encounter with the liar masquerading as the honorable teacher Rhoj. He let himself get carried away in anger again, cursing the man and his greed.

When the sun finally scattered the clouds Dak surrendered to sleep. The sun was at its highest when he finally crawled from his tent and removed his wet clothing. By some miracle Dak found that the contents of his pack, including a dry change of clothes, had survived the night without soaking through. He changed clothes, ate, and let his gear dry a little before packing up to leave.

The wet tent and blankets made his pack feel twice as heavy as before. He looked back along the trail to see if the snake was there before he moved on. His whole body was sore.

The trail wound around the mountain and came to run along a steep cliff. He guessed the drop would be at least a few hundred feet. He stuck to the inside of the curve, as far from the cliff as he could, until he came to a spot where the cliff cut into the path. He could tell there was once a bridge there, but it had long since fallen apart. Now there was nothing more than a few posts in the ground and some deteriorated rope hanging from them down into a gap that was only about five or six feet across. He figured he could toss the pack across and jump.

He took out the rope and tied it to his pack. If the pack didn’t make it he wanted to have it tied to something so he could retrieve it. He hurled it across the gap and watched it roll into a muddy puddle on the other side. It wasn’t a tough toss. The distance wasn’t too bad.

Still holding the rope, as though the pack would hold his weight if he missed, Dak took a running leap to the other side. His heart pounded as he nearly slipped back into the crevice after landing. He made it.

He stowed the rope and shouldered his muddy pack and carried on. The path remained at the edge of the cliff for another hour or so. At one point it ran past the opening of a cave. Inside he could hear sickening sounds, like some kind of great beast eating its victim raw. He hurried past as quietly as he could.

A short distance from the cave the path hit a dead end. The cliff wrapped in on itself and the path ended. To his left, leading up the mountain, there was only the wall of another cliff. He could see that there was a tree at the top of the cliff, maybe thirty feet above. “I guess I have to climb,” he said, wishing he could just pay Jur, the goat cart driver, to help him with this one.

Dak had little experience scaling cliff faces. As a child his parents had taken him to the mountains once, and they say he climbed a ten foot cliff all alone, but he had no recollection of the event. Now he was wearing a wet pack that weight half as much as he did when it was dry, slowly digging his hands and feet into whatever features allowed him enough purchase to support his weight. He breathed dust into his lungs with his face pressed against the rock, leaving a smear of sweat every inch of the way up. His heart beat so strongly against his chest that it threatened to push him away from the cliff he was clutching so dearly. He closed his eyes to squeeze the burning sweat out so he could see again.

His arms and fingers hurt. He looked down and found that he had only ascended a little more than his own height. Less than halfway. He groaned and looked up to find his next hand hold. Tears began to flood his vision. His right foot slipped. He barely caught himself. His heart was pounding. He imagined himself tumbling down and away from this cliff only to spill over the one below, plummeting the full distance to the bottom. He could see himself grabbing desperately at anything he could reach to try to stop his momentum from carrying him over the edge. He saw his own panicked eyes judging and blaming him as he fell silently into the void.

“You can do this,” he told himself, taking some deep breaths to clear his head. The strength in his arms was nearly gone, and his sore legs had to do all of the lifting. All he could do with his hands was hold himself close to the cliff.

Eventually, dirty, scraped, sore, and drenched in sweat, he pulled himself up over the edge of the cliff and grabbed onto one of the roots of the tree. There he stayed for a moment, grasping the root with all of his strength, heaving great breaths in and out, his legs still dangling over the cliff. He cried a little, but eventually collected himself and crawled away from the cliff.

It was getting dark. He figured this plateau would make as good a camp as any. A hundred feet from the cliff he found another tree and set up his tent at its base. This time the rain clouds rolled in earlier. Before he could finish his dinner he had to retreat to the still-damp tent. It smelled bad inside. He would have to make a new one later, he decided. This one had been made from some of the best tent cloth made in his town, with finely carved wooden support sticks and strong cord for tying it down to the stakes. The cord and sticks would be salvaged, but the cloth was ruined.

Dak felt the hairs on his neck stand on end and heard a sharp crack accompanied by a bright flash of light. More cracking and creaking and the sound of something rustling outside, he grabbed his sword and stepped tentatively out to see what was going on.

He couldn’t see anything from the door of the tent, but above him he saw the branches of the tree moving. Maybe it was just the wind? No, the branches were moving too fast. They were moving toward him! He ran. Behind him the tree came crashing down on his tent. Sticks snapped and flew up in all directions. “No!” he cried. “My pack! My food and water!” Dak rushed over to where his tent had stood. He was relieved to find that the corner where his pack had been was not buried by the tree. He used the sword to cut through the cloth and pulled his pack free.

Though grateful to be alive and have most of his supplies, he now realized he had even less protection from the rain. “At least my pack will be lighter,” he tried to chuckle to himself. He watched the rain pound away at the pack, rinsing the mud away. “And cleaner,” he added.

Tears welled up again and fell unnoticed down his rain-drenched cheeks. He dropped to the ground and leaned against the fallen tree trunk, burring his head in his arms to cry. “I should turn back,” he sobbed. This time it wasn’t an intrusive thought. It was his own.

Again unable to sleep, he put himself to work trying to see if he could dig his tent out from under the tree. At the very least he could use the cloth to set up some kind of covering, if he could get it out intact. By the time he pulled the tent out it was morning and the rain had stopped. It wouldn’t have mattered though, as the tent was completely torn to shreds.

Weighed down with exhaustion, needing the rest but once again determined to see if any guru lived atop the mountain, he willed himself on. His broken body refused. Even with the lighter pack he had never had more trouble taking steps. He could feel his lungs getting tight from illness. His throat was sore. Mucus wouldn’t stop flowing from his nose. He had heard tales of men staying out all night in rain storms and falling ill later. It was often fatal.

Dak didn’t give himself time to worry about it. Looking up along the trail he realized he was much closer to the peak than he had initially thought. He took heart and shuffled a little faster along the trail. He was there. He dropped his pack and stumbled about, frantically searching for any signs of life. He calls out. “Tahl?” He tripped and fell to the ground. “Anyone?” He pulled himself up again. On the other side of the summit he called out again. “Hello? Anybody here?”

He paused for a long time, listening carefully. Nothing. Even the trees there were still. He stood at the edge of a perilous cliff looking down on the mountain he had climbed. Though the two peaks were equal in height, this one felt taller to Dak. He could see the other peak, fully illuminated by the sun that hovered high behind him.

He scanned the face of the opposing peak, following it down to the crook between the peaks, then he looked south at the village where he had been raised. He thought of all the people there, living their lie and trying every day to believe it. Why? Why would they do that? Was it true? Would they really find happiness that way? He thought of what it would have been like to find the great teacher here. What a wonderful service it would be, to impart such teachings of happiness, he thought. To share happiness…

The beauty of his view began to sink in, and in a moment of utter clarity he realized something important. He thought back on his journeys. He pondered the service his parents lived out for him every day of their life. He took in the beauty all around him. Turning around he realized that there was a small pond behind him. The whole time that he had felt that he was surrounded by silence, that pond had been letting a small brook flow forth, gurgling a quiet secret. The landscape opened up to him, suddenly spilling forth with sounds and secrets. By the pond there was a tree stump that had obviously been cut by a manmade tool. Dak felt short of breath and filled with excitement. He looked around. On the ground, covered in overgrowth behind the stump, he found a dirt-encrusted axe. He pulled it, yanked it from the ground that had claimed it so long ago. He scooped water out of the pond and used it to wash the axe clean of the dirt and mud that had caked itself on so thick over the years.

As he cleaned the handle he saw that letters had been carved into the handle. As he uncovered them one by one tears came to his eyes. He had found it! He had found what he was looking for.

* * *

“And can you guess what was carved into the axe’s handle, young one?” Dak asked.

The young girl, probably only eight or nine years old, pondered deeply. She sat cross-legged across from Dak, at the edge of the pond. Dak had managed to help the girl clean her face, but the rest of her body was covered in mud and scrapes. She had arrived hungry and crying, but Dak had taken care of that. Now the girl was thoroughly distracted, trying to figure out what the axe could have had carved into it. She pursed her lips in deep thought.

Dak smiled and reached behind him. The axe never left his side. It was his most prized possession. With it he had built his hut, skinned animals, and carved furniture. He kept it in a sling under his robe at all times, always behind him as a reminder.

As he produced the axe from beneath his cloak the girl’s eyes lit up. “Is that the axe?” she exclaimed excitedly.

“Yes,” he said.

He handed it over to her reverently, and she accepted it as though it were a great honor. She turned it over, admiring how beautiful it was. Then she found the word carved into the handle and smiled. “Of course,” she said, as she handed it back to him.

Twin Peaks Part Two

He awoke in the morning sore all over with his eyes still burning. The first rays of the morning sun were beginning to peek out from behind the neighboring peak, casting a bright halo around its pointed top. Dak was sick with hunger. He tried to recall the last time he ate. Dinner, the night before last, he was pretty sure. He groaned as he tried to sit up. His pack was still slung over his shoulder, untouched from the day before. At least the cheating thief hadn’t snuck out and rummaged through his belongings overnight. Dak took a small bar of dried food from inside the pack to help his stomach. Slowly he got to his feet and looked around. Memories from the day before flooded his mind. In a matter of seconds he was flung through a ferocious fury and into a pitch black despair, back to being furious, and then to deep desperation. He had never felt such disillusion, such intense disappointment. His emotional state continued to swing back and forth between depression and anger. At times his wrathful disdain for the man calling himself Rhoj could have driven him to murder. Other times his anguish and misery tempted him to take his own life. Was there truly no hope for him? Was he destined to be unhappy for the rest of his life?

Writhing with fury inside he glanced back at the Teacher’s door one final time, growing sick to his stomach again. He snorted scornfully and started back toward the path, clenching his jaw. As he began to sink below the summit along the path he heard the crook call out to him. “Don’t forget the contract! On pains of death you’ve agreed to never share what we talked about here! We have people all over the village. You so much as whisper a word of it and we’ll bring you back up here. Your family will be told you wished to make the trek a second time, but this time you won’t return home!” Dak nearly turned around to respond, but thought it best to return home. That man had nothing more to offer him. Even revenge wouldn’t appease him in any way at this point.

He had more food than he had anticipated having for the return journey. Once the path started curving around the mountain again he looked down to his right where a straight path could take him directly home. Some parts of the decent that way would be quite dangerous, but what did he have to lose? He wasn’t even sure there was much point in living anymore.

For some of the descent he was sliding, tumbling, and falling his way down. Other times he took a more cautious approach, moving slowly and taking each step deliberately. Sometimes the tears in his eyes forced him to sit for a while and cry. Other times he got so angry he’d punch a tree and spend the next few minutes tending to his bleeding fist.

A day ago he had originally thought to return to the inn to see if he could learn the young woman’s name, but no such thought crossed his mind as he pushed his way through the thicket near the inn on his way to the base of the mountain. He could see the river now and the wretched toll house far below. That toll bridge should have been his first clue, he realized. He hated himself now for not seeing the signs. Of course the man at the fork in the road must be in on the scam as well. Had he not encouraged Dak to take the path to the left?

His cheeks flushed and he tensed the muscles in his body. He wasn’t just angry at those who had lied to him, he was angry at himself for failing to realize he was being swindled. Not only had he failed to see the con, he had convinced himself that he was being clever: That it was his own intelligent will that had guided him through the ploy. His stomach churned and he felt dizzy. How could he have been such a fool? He gathered himself and prepared to cross the bridge again. This time he wouldn’t pay, even if she tried to stop him. He made his way across the wooden bridge as quietly as he could, until he was just outside the entrance to the gatehouse. Then, as quickly as he could, he sprinted through without even glancing at the woman inside.

He continued to run well past the river but slowed a bit when he started down the final leg of the climb. He knew it wouldn’t be long now before he was home. Home. Did he really want to go home? Did he need to go home? He considered a life away from home. He could use the little money he had left to start a new life somewhere. Sure, the funds would barely cover the cost of a room for a couple of nights, but it might be enough time to find a job and… What was he thinking? He needed his family now more than ever. Now that he had been to the peak perhaps people would listen to him and try to help him. He needed warm, loving family and friends to lean on.

Dak reached his home just a couple hours past sundown. He crashed through the front door and went straight to his own bed. The pack dangled off the side of the bed still hanging from his arm when he fell asleep. That first night his parents stood in his doorway full of pride in their son, now a man in their eyes. However, when he did not get out of bed all the next day they began to worry. His mother sat by his side for several long hours, feeling his forehead and fighting back tears. The following morning when he didn’t get out of bed again his father sent for the town doctor.

Somewhere lost in the fog of his own mind, Dak could make out some of the words his parents shared with the doctor.

“How long has he been like this?” the doctor began.

“Well, he came home two nights ago and has not left the bed since.” He could hear the concern in his mother’s voice.

“Has he ever spent this much time in bed before?”

“No,” his father replied. “He usually rises early and works with me or with his school mates.”

“You said he came home two nights ago. Where from?”

“He went to see one of the great Teachers,” his father said, full of pride.

“Interesting.” The doctor paused a moment. Then asked, carefully, “Has he spoken to you at all since returning?”

“No,” his mother said. He could hear her voice waver now.

“What can we do?” his father asked, desperately.

“Well, I haven’t ever seen this happen before, but my father told me of a similar case that he saw once. There was a young man, very much like your son Dak, who returned from the mountain with bandages wrapped around his fists. He came home at night, got in bed, and didn’t get out of bed for three days. My dad was at their house when the boy got out of bed and started uttering nonsense. Eventually the boy left to visit the mountain again, but the dangers there overcame him and he was never seen again.”

Dak could hear his mother gasp before she started sobbing. The fog was starting to clear. He willed himself to leave the bed, but he could not. He needed to get out of bed and prove to them that he wasn’t like that. He wouldn’t speak nonsense. He wouldn’t be taken back to the mountain to die. He tried to shift around a bit. His limbs wouldn’t respond. He felt trapped. He was in a dark place in his mind, surrounded by pure sadness and sorrow.

He managed to start opening his eyes. It was a slow and painful process. As more light flooded inside he found that he could budge his hands and arms a bit. It wasn’t much, but it made a sound. His mother and father poured into the room with the doctor at their heels. With his parents smothering him in hugs he slowly regained his strength. Eventually he could sit up in bed, but he was still too weak to speak. Their questions made his head spin. He couldn’t focus on them. He focused on his father’s face, watching his lips move but not being able to separate one voice from the next. Dak turned his head to face his mother. The look of concern in her face was full of love, but her words were no more clear to him than his father’s were.

Even the doctor was speaking, but his word were just as buried as the others. Slowly, though, a word or two came into focus. He made out, “What happened?” Then, “feeling.” He thought he heard his father asking about money. Dak dropped his gaze to the floor and saw that, at some point, his parents must have gone through his pack trying to discover the source of his apparent illness.

He gave up on trying to understand them. His thoughts were clear enough though. Rhoj had not been there, but perhaps if he were to climb the other peak… Perhaps then he could meet one of the great Teachers. Clearly nobody had even tried in, what did the liar say? Over a hundred years? Dak didn’t think the imposter was lying about the other peak going unvisited while their business operated. But to what lengths would their cooperative go in order to prevent people from climbing the eastern peak? Surely the man at the fork in the road wasn’t the only obstacle. Did they have men guarding the base of the mountain, ready to kill anyone who tried to climb it? Were they trying to hide something? Was Tahl still up there? Was that their true secret?

Dak decided he couldn’t go on in life without learning whether Tahl was at the top of the other peak. He vowed to himself that the next thing he did with himself would be to scale the second peak and look for Tahl.

What if there really were guards though? Then Dak would need to be armed. He would need some kind of weapon both for defense and to advocate his cause.

His attention wandered back to the voices in the room. He furled his brow and looked down at his bandage-bound hands. “What happened,” was the question he would try to answer. He moved his mouth, but no words came. He pushed air through his windpipe and made a sound. It was barely a grunt, but it was enough to quiet the room as his parents and the doctor listened intently.

What would he tell them? He couldn’t tell them the truth. Not only would it but completely unhelpful, it would put them all in danger. No, he had to lie to them. Hardly managing to whisper, he started, “I… I…” Their ears were turned to him. “Never…”

“You never?” his mother repeated. “You never what?”

“Made it. Never made it.”

“You never made it,” his father repeated. “What do you mean?”

“To the top. Didn’t reach the top.” He was quiet, and his speech was labored and slow.

“What happened to your hands then?” His mother put her hand gingerly on one of the bandaged fists.

He thought a moment, realizing this was an opportunity. “Beasts…” he said. “I was attacked.” Each word was followed by a short pause. “Fended them off.”

“Oh son,” his father said, putting a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “I’m so glad you made it home safely. You could have been killed. Why didn’t you go with a group, like everyone else?”

He was gaining strength, still whispering he found that he could get more than a few words to string together without pausing. “Wanted to go alone, so it would mean more.”

“Mean more to whom though?” his mother asked. “You don’t need to impress us.”

“For me,” Dak said.

“Well,” his father started, “there’s another group leaving tomorrow morning. You should go with them. You tried on your own, and you made it home alive. That’s quite an accomplishment, and nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No,” Dak said. “I go alone.”

His father’s countenance fell a little. “Oh son,” he started.

Mother interrupted though. “Well, if he wants to go alone I think he should go alone. We should help him prepare so that he won’t have to turn back next time.”

Dak looked lovingly at his mother. “Thank you,” he said.

Dak noticed that the doctor had quietly slipped from the room at some point. He wasn’t sure what the man had heard, but he was sure he couldn’t trust anyone. Would the doctor report to the business that he is claiming to have never reached the top? Would there be a penalty or punishment for that lie? Hadn’t the criminal at the peak asked him to lie? So what if Dak changed the lie a bit.

His father broke the silence. “Well, what do you need, then, son?”

“Rest,” he said. Accordingly, his parents brushed their hands over his head lovingly and bid him to rest well. Dak knew that even if they would come after him for the lie he had a couple days. There was no way to get information up or down that mountain very quickly, not that he knew of anyhow. He knew that he needed to rest up, to eat well and exercise a bit to make sure he was fit, and he would need a weapon. He figured he would wait until later that day to get out of bed and go for a jog.

Sure enough, later that afternoon he felt rested enough to get out of bed and eat. His mother let him eat as much as he felt he needed. He would need his strength, she said, when father protested. Then as the sun was setting, Dak went for a jog through town for an hour or so. He was glad to see that he was still strong and healthy. Once back at home his father must have had a change of heart, because he was sitting on the floor cradling a sword in his lap.

“Come sit with me,” he said. Dak sat with his legs crossed, facing his father, who lifted the sword and regarded it. “This was my father’s sword, and now I’m giving it to you. It served him well, but hasn’t done much for me. I feel that it will be of great assistance to you in your quest.”

Dak looked the sword over from the hilt to the tip of the blade. It wasn’t particularly ornate, but it had been well cared for. The hilt was wrapped in worn but sturdy leather. The blade and hilt metal were clean and shiny. The sword’s edge appeared to be sharp and had clean lines all along the length of the blade. It was a simple tool, a cutting tool. His father extended his arms to pass the blade to his son.

Dak hesitated. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” father replied. “I want you to have it. Take it with you to fend off the beasts. When my father ascended one of the peaks he took it with him and told countless tales of how it saved his life from many a deadly obstacle. You and I must take different paths, but it seems your path is in the steps of my father. Take the blade and return with honor.”

They spent the rest of the evening replenishing Dak’s pack with supplies. They fitted the sword’s scabbard to the pack and made sure he had everything he’d need. When they finished it was clear to Dak that he should set out that very night. He said goodnight to his parents, and without a sound he slipped out the front door into the night instead of returning to his bed.

His gut wrenched a little as he approached the fork in the road, seeing a light flickering at the booth. He decided to leave the road and take a wide arc around the booth to the right, hopefully avoiding talking to whoever was manning it tonight. Despite the cover of darkness, the stars and the moon provided enough light for him to see a man get up from the booth and start walking out to meet him. Dak widened his arc a little and picked up his pace. The shadowy figure picked up pace as well, still heading directly for him. Dak didn’t want to have to draw his sword, but he had a bad feeling that the meeting wouldn’t be as cordial as the last time.

As the two grew closer he could see clearly that it was the same wiry old man as before. The man called out, “Dak? Is that you? Where are you going so late?”

Dak slowed his pace to avoid looking more suspicious than he already did. “I never reached the top on my first go. That path was too difficult for me, so I’m going to take the path to the right here.”

“But you’re not on the path,” the old man remarked, cautiously.

“I didn’t want to disturb you this late at night, and I was ashamed to have to tell you that I’ve chosen the easier path.”

“I can help you with the more difficult path. Perhaps you did not meet my friend Jur who has a goat cart. He can help you reach the top.”

“I wish to reach the top on my own. Very kind though.”

“Speaking of which,” the old man started, “why are you traveling at night? That is quite dangerous.”

“After my experience on the western peak I decided it might be better to travel at night on the first day.” Dak really had no good explanation, and he knew that one wouldn’t hold water. “But really, I must be on my way. Good night.” He politely begged his pardon and began to walk around the old man.

“Dak, I can’t in good conscience let you go that way at night. It’s not safe.” He took some steps back, keeping in front of Dak.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine. It’s the easier path, and I’m over-prepared.” Dak kept walking.

The old man shuffled quickly to get back in front of Dak. “Your father will never forgive me if I let you go now and something happens to you. Really, I must insist that you turn back now.”

“Thank you for your concern. I have my father’s blessing to go though, so don’t trouble yourself.”

The old man reached out and grabbed Dak by the arm. His grip was firm. It hurt a little. Dak looked down at the old man’s bony knuckles and back up at the man’s face. Their gaze met and they both stopped. Dak’s face wore a look of surprise, but the old man’s face was stern and cold. “You cannot go that way.”

Dak struggled a bit against the grip, but it was like a vice. He realized that he had no choice but to meet the physical restraint with physical resistance. In one motion he yanked his arm free, kicked the man back with his foot, and reached back and drew his sword from the side of his pack. He watched the old man stumble backward with a look of shock on his face, then Dak took off sprinting down the path.

“You’re making a horrible mistake!” the man howled after him. “You won’t survive the night!”

Dak ignored him and kept running. Eventually he met back up with the deep groove of dirt that ran through the grass. However, that path eventually disappeared altogether. It was immediately apparent that the worn path was maintained to look worn, but there was no actual path up the mountain on the east. If there had ever been a path it was long gone. Still jogging along, he glanced over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. He couldn’t see any pursuer.

Dak slowed and came to a stop, sheathing the sword and gazing at the mountain. He could hear owls and other night creatures active ahead of him. He wondered how many of them would be dangerous. He started to reach for his sword again, but stopped and chuckled to himself. Out loud he told himself, “Dak, don’t be foolish.” But what was foolish? Beginning his ascent at night, doing it without his sword drawn? What did it matter at this point? He knew that the ascent would be too dangerous if he went straight up the side of the mountain, so he roughly estimated a path around the base that led gently upwards, marking several visual landmarks along what he could see of his makeshift path.

He took a deep breath and started toward the first landmark, a break in the trees far off in the distance. As he walked he listened to the sounds of the creatures around him. Howls, hoots, rustling grass, snapping twigs. In the plains he felt he was safe enough. The grass offered little cover for anything large enough to threaten him. But he knew he’d be among trees soon, and there he was sure he’d fear for his life.

The moon was still high in the sky when he met his first landmark. Thankfully he guessed he had happened upon the remains of an old path. There was a clearing in the trees that stretched out far into the distance, gently curving around to the left and up the mountain. He looked around to see if there were any dangers that he could make out before entering the dense forest, but he saw nothing.

In he went, looking over his shoulder at the grasslands behind him. As he walked along the old trail he noticed how overgrown the path had become. There was a thick growth of plants and bushes that he had to navigate, and in some places trees were beginning to grow into the hard, beaten ground. Most of the trees along the path were still relatively young, telling him that either the path had fallen into disuse more recently than the liar had suggested, or the ground had only recently become suitable for the roots to take hold.

As he pondered the growth and what it might tell him about the path, he began to hear a distant rushing water. The sound grew louder as he approached the same roaring river that cut across the path on the other mountain. At this elevation the two peaks were still joined at the hip, and the river cut across the southward face of both mountains.

Where the path met the river Dak could tell there was once a bridge, but it had long since collapsed and been carried away by the rapids. He looked up and down the river for anything that might help. Perhaps a tree had fallen or there was another bridge. But he had no such luck.

Stopping to think, he sat at the edge of the water on the bank and filled his water pouches. Again, the water was crystal clear and sweet to the taste. It was cool, probably runoff from a glacier somewhere. He idly opened his pack and rummaged around inside, looking for anything that might help him cross. The rope seemed a hopeful prospect. He took it out and peered back inside, but nothing else of use stood out to him.

He had about a hundred feet of rope, a length that took up more than half of the volume of his pack, but he knew could come in handy. It was a sturdy and heavy rope. He guessed that the river at the path was only about thirty feet across, so his rope should provide plenty of length.

He looked around again, wishing he had an axe. Bringing one tall tree down over the river would provide a useful bridge. He sighed. Nearby he found a heavy stick that wasn’t much larger than his arm. He tied one end of the rope to it and tied the other end to a tree right on the bank of the river. He threw the stick as hard as he could, but it fell short of the opposite bank. He pulled it back in to himself and tried again, bouncing it off the muddy ground on the other side. After a few minutes he managed to get the stick to fly over the branch of a tree on the far side of the river, but he couldn’t get it to secure itself to the branch. When he pulled on the rope the stick came back over the edge of the branch and fell onto the ground.

He reeled the stick back to himself again, frustrated. Again and again he threw the stick over the branch and tried different things to get it to attach itself sufficiently. He just needed to be able to pull on it and have it hold fast so he could cling to it as he forded the river.

After another fifteen or twenty minutes he got the stick to wrap the rope around the branch on the far side several times. He pulled gently at first, tightening the rope to the branch. The stick had twisted the rope a few times as well, creating a fairly strong hold. Tentatively Dak tested the hold. He pulled harder and harder until he was leaning his full weight on the rope, his feet slipping in the grass. He tugged and yanked on it, and his heart gained courage. Finally, he tied his end of the rope to his waist, securing his pack and water pouches to his body as well. Taking up the slack of the rope in his hands, he started pulling himself across the cold river.

Immediately his knees went stiff in the cold water. The water wasn’t deep near the edge of the bank, but as he waded farther out he started to wonder if he would be able to swim with all of the weight of his pack on him. He kept pulling in the slack on the rope and pulling himself forward. His muscles were aching and sore. His hands could barely grip the rope.

Some of the larger rocks in the bottom of the river provided him with platforms to hop between in order to avoid the need to swim. Carefully he aimed and leaped, taking care to account for the flow of the water. The first hop went well enough, but he slipped and nearly lost his balance. He took up the slack on the rope quickly and steadied himself. The next rock was a little farther, but he was sure he could make it. Again, he stumbled, but stayed above water. The third hope did not go so well. He slipped and plunged under the water, losing his grip on the rope and sucking in a bunch of water. The river quickly swept him away, turning and wheeling him about.

Dak felt a sharp pain, a blow to his head. Choking on water and stiff in the cold water, he grasped all around him, trying to get ahold of the rope, but even when his hand brushed against it he couldn’t grip it. With a crack, his head smashed against another rock on the bottom of the river and he felt himself fade to sleep.

When he finally opened his eyes again he was looking up at the moon. Not much time had passed, but he had no way of knowing how long he had been out. The rope had held, thankfully, and swung him around to rest on the shore of the opposite bank, nearly a hundred feet downriver. He coughed up water. His breathing was painful and labored. His chest was sore. His head burned and ached. Once he had scrambled away from the river a bit he reached up to feel around his head and his hand came back covered in blood. He took out a length of bandage from his pack and wrapped his head. He untied the rope from his waist and tried to stand up. The cold had made his whole body numb. The parts of him that he could feel were hurting. He used a nearby tree to stand himself upright. He felt uneasy on his feet, but knew he needed to keep himself moving for a while to warm up. His muscles refused to cooperate. He nearly fell back to the ground.

He wished he had stayed home. There would have been no shame in living the same stupid lie as everyone else. He was going to get himself killed out here and then he would never experience happiness anyway.

Dak vigorously rubbed his sick, white hands on his chest and sides. He leaned against the tree and lifted a leg, trying to shake it and move it. Eventually it moved a little. He tried the other. After several long minutes he took his first steps away from the support of the tree.

It took a few more minutes of pacing around in circles before he could bend over and pick up the rope. He began slowly taking it up in his arms and wrapping it back up as he traveled up the river toward his starting place at the path. The ninety feet or so that he had to cover took far longer than it should have. After only fifty feet he had given up wrapping the rope nicely and began stuffing it in his bag as he walked. At the base of the tree whose branch held the other end of the rope he set his bag down with the rest of the rope inside and peered up at the stick, wondering how he might get the whole length of rope back.

He didn’t want to cut the rope down. Ever last inch of the rope could come in handy later. He pondered climbing the tree, but in his current state he thought it unwise. After several moments of brainstorming he decided to set up camp. A fire would help warm him back up. He could eat. He could rest a bit until day break, which only looked to be a couple hours away, then he could try climbing the tree in the morning.

Of course he wasn’t doing it all just for the last fifteen feet of rope, it was an excuse to build a fire and eat and rest. Had the rope been easier to retrieve he might have keep walking until morning, but he knew it would be better to warm up and rest a little.

As he got the fire going, a task that he found remarkably difficult with numb fingers, he remembered learning in school that it was dangerous to close your eyes and sleep after a hard hit to the head. He heard stories of people taking blows to the head, going to sleep, and never waking back up. The thought worried him. He ate some food and felt the feeling coming back to his limbs. His fingers and toes were still numb, but the rest of his flesh felt as though it was being ripped from his bones. It tingled and burned with a sharp intensity that he had never experienced before.

He wanted to go home, but crossing the river again was not an option. It was far too late for that. He was going up the mountain or he would die trying.

Ultimately he decided that he could rest his eyes if he were sitting up, so he leaned against a tree in a way that he hoped would cause him to fall over and wake up if he started to drift off to sleep. However, the warmth of the fire, his full belly, and the lateness of the hour all combined their forces and overpowered him. He fell asleep sitting up.

It was nearly noonday when he awoke. A wave of relief washed over him. He was relieved that he had woken up at all. He was relieved that nothing had eaten him while he slept. He was relieved that he had survived his fall in the river. He was relieved that he hadn’t turned back and gone home, as his dreams had suggested.

Still stiff and sore, but otherwise feeling good, he packed up camp and looked back up at the rope. He would climb up and retrieve it, he decided.

It didn’t take him long to get the rope, and he only nearly fell once. He watched in satisfaction as the stick dropped to the ground. He made his way back down, ignoring the scrapes and bruises from his climb.

Packed up and ready to go, Dak put his sights forward along the path again. The rise seemed gentler than that of the other mountain’s path. All the rest of the day he walked, without stopping again until nightfall. As the sun began to set he could hear the night wildlife stirring. He could hear far more beasts now. He looked down the hill and turned to face up the mountain. He guessed he was no more than a quarter of the way up. He became somewhat frustrated as his apparent lack of progress, but he did not wish to risk traveling at night now. There were far too many dangers this high up. He was far from civilization. Whatever organization was running the scam on the other mountain had obviously scared off or killed off any wildlife that had once inhabited the other mountain, but this peak was teeming with life.

Before the sun finished setting he found a tiny clearing where he could set up his tent. He used the rope and sticks to form a fence around the clearing, attaching the rope to the trees when possible. He hoped it would be enough to ward off dangerous animals. He also build a fire, hoping it would act as a deterrent as well.

That evening Dak ate in silence, listening to the sounds of hordes of wild animals hunting and prowling around him. When he looked off into the blackness around his clearing he swore he could see eyes peering back at him from all around. He broke a branch off one of the live trees at his perimeter and fashioned it into a torch, taking advantage of the sap seeping out. At the edge of his fence he leaned the torch out into the darkness to see what he might see. Sure enough, some kind of large predatory cat was poised to attack. When it saw the flames it backed off a little, then lunged out, hissing. Dak whirled around and scrambled back to his pack to draw the sword, just as the big cat leaped over the fence and began bounding toward him.

He spun around with the sword outstretched in defense. He slashed at the sprinting cat, who was leaping at him. Dak fell to the ground as the cat hurled over him, howling in pain. It rolled on the ground behind him as he struggled back to his feet. The cat, more cautious now, slashed out at him. Dak swung the blade defensively and the cat backed away from it, but didn’t turn to retreat yet.

Dak yelled as ferociously as he could, swinging the sword and still brandishing the torch. Though the torch didn’t burn strong, it flared up when he swung it at his attacker.

The big cat gave one last growling hiss before giving up and turning to leap out of the enclosure. The predator left a trail of dripping blood. Dak hoped the amount of blood indicated a light wound the cat could recover from on its own. He didn’t want to be a murderer.

He nearly collapsed to the ground out of relief, wiping the sweat from his forehead. A good deal of sweat was dripping from beneath the bandages he still wore on his head. The sweat stung his wounds.

Dak spent the next hour making more torches from sappy branches and attaching them around the perimeter of his fence. “Maybe that cat will go warn his friends about the dangerous fire-wielding monster,” he mused to himself out loud.

Twin Peaks Part One

It was a beautiful spring morning. Birds were chirping, children were chasing each other around gleefully, men and women of the village were wandering the streets singing while they went to work, the sun was bleeding in through the window bathing Dak in warmth, and life was good. Except that Dak wasn’t happy. In fact, life was miserable for Dak. Everyone around him wore the same stupid, broad smile and told him that one day he too could be happy, but nobody offered anything to soothe his wounds now.

“I don’t want to be happy someday,” Dak exclaimed. “I want to be happy today.”

“Sorry, son,” they said. “One day you will travel up one of the mountain peaks to see one of the great Teachers, and he will tell you what he told me, and my father before me. You will see. You will be happy.” They usually said it bending the knees a bit and rising up again abruptly while making a swooping motion with a hand, signifying the climb to the top.

But this wasn’t good enough for Dak. Everyone said the same thing: that the Teacher atop one of the peaks would show him how to be happy. He knew he would get to go, if he wished, on his fifteenth birthday. That was actually only in a few days. But he had been feeling this way for months now. Why couldn’t any of the people who loved him so much give him even a small token of consolation while he waited? What would be so bad about sharing their wisdom and helping him, even a little bit, now?

Nobody had good answers for him. In fact, it made Dak uneasy the way people got so uncomfortable when he posed those questions. Their smile would fade. Their eyes would shift. Beads of sweat would appear on their foreheads. They tried to change the subject. They fidgeted. And eventually they would jerk as though snapping back awake after a brief nap, put their broad smile back on their face, and repeat what they had already told him: “The Teacher will reveal all to you once you are of age.” Then they would pat him on the head, or on his back, or anywhere else they could think of that would remind him that he was just a child, and they would leave him.

Finally, the day before his journey into the mountains he resigned himself to accept that his fate would be the same as everyone else’s—that he would learn the key to happiness from one of the great Teachers atop one of the mountain peaks. It was a tradition that went back several long generations in his village. The story claimed that nearly a hundred years ago there were two brothers: Rhoj and Tahl. One day they set out from their home far away to discover the secrets of life. They journeyed for many years together, traveling throughout all the land. They spend time in every city and every village, learning all they could from man. Then they devoted themselves to the earth, living with the animals and the water and the dirt, in order to uncover the secrets of nature. Then, after another several years of silent meditation they were able to piece it all together. Their vast wisdom granted them greater health and a longer life. It was said that, now nearly two hundred years old, they only appeared to be in their mid-thirties. However, with that great wisdom they realized that they had a treasure that evil men would commit atrocities to obtain. In order to protect their wisdom they found two mountains separated from the rest and parted ways. One would live atop each of the two peaks, awaiting the arrival of any seeker of truth in order to enlighten and guide him.

Dak’s village was nestled at the base of the two mountains, just to the south. The two peaks were named after the Teachers, Rhoj and Tahl. Rhoj was the westerly peak, and Tahl was just a short distance to the east. A single road led north out of the village and split near the base. At first people would simply trek up to one of the two peaks whenever they learned of the Teachers there, but over time the village that sprang up at the base of the mountains developed its own rituals and rules concerning visiting the Teachers. One of the mountain paths was said to be more treacherous, and over the years several men failed to return from their journey to see the teacher there. Traditionally this was said to be the path to Rhoj. He was the elder of the two brothers, and according to the legend his wisdom was easier to understand as he was better at explaining things. Though more people tried to reach him, his path was ultimately more dangerous and thus less traveled. Tahl, therefore, was more popular for a time, with many hundreds of people successfully completing the journey and growing wiser and happier as a result.

Dak knew all of this, for it was taught in history class in school. But nobody would talk about which of the two brothers they had gone to see. The rumor at school was that fewer people were willing to look lazy or weak, so they took the tougher road to see Rhoj. One thing was certainly undeniable to Dak: people would often come from afar just to see what was known as the happiest village in all the land. While nobody in town would share their secrets of happiness, the village people stood as a testament that there truly was some secret to happiness, and it could be obtained atop one of the two peaks to the north of their village.

And so it was that Dak eventually, the day before his fifteenth birthday, convinced himself that he was looking forward to making the journey. He began to prepare himself. He had heard that it was useful to bring a sizable sum of cash on the journey, just in case (one of only a few tips previous visitors to the Teachers would give), so he gathered together his life’s savings and put it in his traveling sack. It wasn’t enough to make him rich, but it was a sum that even an adult would covet. He had worked hard for many years to earn that money. He was originally saving it to build a fantastically lavish hut of his own design, but now it seemed better suited to making this journey. What good would a fancy home be to him if he was miserable? He also packed a simple tent and dry food enough for a week, since some people were gone about five days. Having heard rumors of the dangers of the road, he also packed a knife his father had given him and his fire-making tools. The night before he stood looking over the supplies he had prepared, checking and double checking that everything was ready. While most people made the trip in groups for safety’s sake, he didn’t want to cheapen the experience. He would leave at the break of dawn, before most of the others who were planning on going would even begin to stir. He wanted to arrive first and have his time all alone with the great Teacher. He would see Rhoj. He was not afraid of a difficult path, and he wanted the clearest teachings he could get. Plus, in his heart he knew that the harder he worked for it, the more it would mean to him.

Water! He realized he nearly forgot to bring a water bladder. He ran and grabbed two and placed them by his pack, hoping he’d remember to fill them at the stream that he knew crossed both paths to the peaks. Satisfied that everything was in order, he allowed himself to retire to his bed, but he knew sleep would not come easily. He was finally allowing himself to feel some excitement. Would this be it? Would he really learn the key to happiness and never have to worry about feeling unhappy ever again? Finally, only a few hours before the sun would crest again, he drifted off to sleep.

Sure enough, he was out of bed, pack slung over his shoulder, exploding out the door of his family’s hut just as the first rays of the morning began to crawl across the sky. He ran noisily down the central road through town that led north, straight toward the pass between the mountain peaks. But unlike most road that headed toward a perfectly good pass, this road did not pass through. This road forked before sending one path straight up the mountain on the left, and another path up the mountain on the right. Dak had never been this far north on the path. It was generally considered improper for children to stray too close to the mountains, so out of respect he had never really left the northern gate of the village. So, it came as something of a surprise to Dak that there was a booth at the fork in the road where an elderly but tall and slender man sat on a stool waiting for him.

“Good morning,” he called out as Dak approached, now at a brisk walk.

A little confused, Dak replied to be polite. “Good morning.”

“Dak? Is that you?” It was odd to hear the man say his name, for he was sure they had never met in his life. Seeing Dak’s confusion, the man went on. “I know your father well. I saw him come this way some twenty years ago, making the journey that you are making now. I still seem him from time to time in the village, though I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced.”

“No, I don’t believe we have.” Dak wondered why the man was here. Why would there need to be a booth here? “And what do you do here, may I ask?”

“I act as a guide for the young people who plan on making the trek to see one of the great Teachers. I can answer questions you may have, help alleviate any concerns, and even help you decide which peak will be the best choice for you personally. Not everyone gets the same benefit from one Teacher as they may from another.”

Dak considered this for a moment. “And which peak do you feel that I should take?” Dak asked tentatively.

“Well, what wisdom is it that you seek?”

“I wish to know the secrets of life and happiness.”

“Ah, a noble quest. And do you wish to have a clear and certain explanation, or would you prefer a more challenging answer that may take years to understand?”

Dak considered the question carefully this time. He knew that there was some value in lessons that are not fully understood at once, and he did not wish to seem impatient. “I am not concerned with how quickly I understand the lesson so much as I wish to have the deepest and greatest wisdom shared with me.”

The old man smiled knowingly. “Dak, you are deviously thirsty for wisdom, just like your father was. Do you believe that your father saw the Teacher that was best for him?”

“I do not know,” Dak said. “I have never been able to get him to talk much about it.”

“Sure, he may not talk about it, but what do you think? Does he seem happy and wise enough?”

After pondering his father’s happiness a brief moment, Dak said, “I am not my father. He does seem happy, but everyone in town seems happy. I am not sure how many people I know that are truly happy, besides the children.”

“Ah, a very insightful answer. Final question, Dak. Which peak do you think will benefit you the most?”

“I had initially thought to visit Tahl to the east. His easier path appealed to me. But as I have grown I have learned that the things that I value most I have had to work the hardest for. I decided recently that I would see Rhoj to the west.”

“That is a wise decision,” the man said. “I agree that you should go see Rhoj to the west,” he gestured to his right at the rocky path. Dak glanced once more off to his own right. The path there looked well-worn. It had a deeply grooved path where many people had trod. Green grass grew long and tall at the edges of the dirt road. It looked easy and comfortable. Dak knew it would be a mistake to take the easy way.

“Thank you,” Dak said, as he took his first steps off to his left.

“A quick word of caution,” the man said. “Just last week I sent off a group of sixteen and got only ten back. The going is rough, the trail is full of danger, and you will be tempted to turn back. You must not give up. Rhoj has much wisdom to impart, and if you can convince yourself to take another step, to make it just a little further until you find yourself at the summit, I can promise you that it will be worth it.” He gave a warm smile.

Dak nodded in thanks and continued toward Rhoj Peak. The large, rough rocks beneath his feet made the going instantly frustrating. For every three steps he took he felt as though he had only taken a single step. Soon a thick growth of thorny bushes closed in on the path he was taking, if you could call it a path. The road shifted steeply up toward the mountain and he soon found himself panting, wondering where the steam was so he could fill his water bladders.

After a half hour of climbing the path leveled off and he saw the stream ahead. He jogged a bit, eager to get some water. He could hear the rushing of the water flowing down from the mountain as he approached. I knew it could be difficult and dangerous to cross a rushing mountain river, and as he neared he began to worry that his journey could come to an abrupt end if he were careless in the crossing.

His heart took courage, however, when he got closer and could see a little ways up the river that there was a bridge and some other structure attached to it. Perhaps it was some kind of home where someone had settled and built a bridge to help those who would take the more challenging path. Surely this was a kindhearted soul who derived happiness from helping those who needed a little assistance.

He reached the river and filled his water bladders with what appeared to be the clearest and purest water he had ever seen. He took a long swig from the first bladder before filling the second. It was cold and tasted like clear, sweet crystals. He took a few more drinks before filling the bladders all the way and slinging them over his shoulder. After catching his breath he turned to his right toward the bridge. He also looked down river a ways to see if there was another safe place to cross. It was just too wide and the water was moving too quickly. He got to his feet and started making his way up river.

About ten minutes later he arrived at the bridge and found that the structure attached to it was a toll booth. His heart sank a little. Perhaps it was still out of the goodness of the builder’s heart. Inside sat a plump and very grumpy-looking woman, and Dak’s heart sank again. When she saw him she grunted a little and held out one hand while pointing to the price hanging on the wall behind her with the other.

“What?” Dak exclaimed. “That’s outrageous!”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Do you see another way to cross, kid? You can pay the toll and use the bridge, or you can cross on your own at your own risk.” She was still rolling her eyes as she leaned on the counter in front of her and leaned hear head on her hand.

It was expensive, but compared to the sum he had with him it really wasn’t all that much. It was too early in the trek to risk his life to cross a river. He decided he would pay. He rummaged through his pack and pulled out some money. When he reached in the pack the woman sat up and strained her neck to try to get a peek at how much he had inside. When he eyed her disapprovingly she glanced at him and slumped back down into her stool, holding her hand out to accept the payment.

“Wise choice, kid,” she grunted again as she motioned for him to pass through onto the bridge.

He glared at her as he passed. “You’re an extortionist. You’re taking advantage of people.” He kept walking.

She stood up abruptly and something banged against her counter as the stool fell over. “You wanna swim across, kid?”

He ignored her and hurried his pace a little. Soon he was on the other side and he tried to calm himself down. He knew there were people like that in the world, but he rarely interacted with them. He was used to the people in his village who were always so happy and helpful. Sure, people had bad days. Sometimes someone would let something a little rude slip, but for the most part people in the village were respectful and kind. Or were they? It did seem to Dak that some of the people were less genuine than others. Almost as if being so happy were some kind of great burden that had been demanded of them.

Dak looked up and saw that it wasn’t quite noon, but he had skipped breakfast and was getting hungry. He decided to stop for lunch. Looking around him he saw realized it had been mostly quiet. He hadn’t heard too many birds or heard the rustlings of many other animals in the brush. He had seen the occasional bird or squirrel, but none of the dangerous beasts his classmates had talked about when they told each other horror stories about how horrible the journey was supposed to be.

He was disappointed to see that he had spent a little longer eating lunch than he should have. It was well past noon when he finally packed up and set out on his way again. As he walked along he tried to keep himself as close to the apparent path as possible. It wasn’t always clearly marked though, and sometimes he worried he had lost it altogether. He could tell the intended path wound in a spiral up the mountain though. The mountain always rose to his right and to his left he was looking down the slope at the tops of trees. By the time the sun was beginning to set he could look down the slope and see the toll bridge from the late morning. It seemed so far away, but his ears burned when he remembered his encounter there. Surely that woman had never ascended the mountain to speak with the Teacher.

As the sky grew darker, but while it was still a light purple, he saw lights flickering through the thick trees and brush growth in the distance. He had been on the lookout for a good place to set down camp for the night, but for the last hour he had been unable to find even a small clearing for his tiny tent. He hoped the lights belonged to another camp that would offer him some space, or if they had found a clearing perhaps he could too.

Eventually Dak reached the source of the lights, and could hardly believe his eyes. It appeared to be a small inn, or at least that’s what the sign above the door indicated. He knocked on the door and a young woman answered. In the entry way he could see a sign with the price for a night. Again, he was appalled, but he was tired and unable to find a place to set up his tent. At this point he was convinced that he’d be unable to set up camp or a tent or even eat anything he was so exhausted from climbing the mountain.

Reluctantly, he paid the price for the room. His family had stayed at an inn once several years ago when they went to a nearby town for business. For the price he paid for this one night on the mountain he knew he could get two weeks at the other inn. The price did include a meal though.

The young woman showed him to his room. He couldn’t tell if it was because he was so exhausted or if it was his teenage hormones, but he thought she was quite beautiful. He dropped his pack on the floor by the bed and watched as the girl left. Five minutes later she came back with a bowl of soup and some bread. For what he paid he thought a much larger meal would be in order, but he was too tired to protest. Plus, she had smiled at him when she gave him the food, so he didn’t dare argue. The room was small, with barely room for a bed and a small table. He set the empty bowl on the table and settled in bed. He fell asleep quickly and dreamt of the girl.

He awoke to find that the sun had risen at least a couple hours ago. His heart jumped and he raced out the door with his pack in tow, hardly thinking to look for the girl again. He crashed through the brush, letting the thorns snag and tug at him. Branches smacked him in the face as he pressed forward running to try to gain back some of the lost time. After about a minute he asked himself what the rush was. Did he think the Teacher wouldn’t be there when he arrived? That would be silly. He slowed his pace and worked on catching his breath. An hour later he saw a clearing with a small house and an odd cart out front. Next to the house there were some stables where it looked like someone was keeping mountain goats. A man brushing one of the goats waved to him and Dak waved back without stopping his forward march.

Ten minutes later he understood what the man was keeping goats for. The path led right to a cliff face where it looked like you’d need a mountain goat to scale. An odd setup of ropes and pulleys was arranged in such a way as to lift the cart. Dak turned around and walked back to talk to the man with the cart and goats.

“G’ morning,” the man called out when he saw Dak again.

“I suppose,” said Dak. “Say, is there another path ahead that I can’t see?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” said the man. “Though don’t worry, it’s not the end of the trail.”

“I guess you can take me further,” said Dak.

“You’d be correct.”

“And I suppose your services are available for a price?”

“My goats and I do have to eat,” the man said cordially. At least he was nicer than the woman at the toll booth, Dak decided.

The man pointed to a sign hanging in the stalls. Dak had to lean to the side to see the sign on the other side of the man. His eyes got wide. “That’s robbery!” he cried out. “You wouldn’t be able to charge that much if there were another path I could take.” He scowled.

“You’re right about the second part, but it’s not robbery. It’s just business. Trust me, if I could take you for free I would. But this is how I make my living. Surely you can understand.”

Dak wondered how much the extortionists on the other mountain were charging as he reluctantly pushed the cash into the man’s hands.

Once the man had two of the goats hitched to the wagon they both climbed on board. At the very least Dak was grateful to be able to toss his heavy pack into the back of the wagon for a while. Plus, the price he paid would get him a ride to within an hour of the top of the peak, according to the driver. He sat back and tried to enjoy the ride, without thinking too much about how it had taken him three months to earn the money that paid for this luxury.

When they reached the cliff his goats immediately took to the wall, sticking there like some kind of wall-hanging. The driver got down and tied the elaborate rope system to various points on the cart. Then he got inside, grabbed a rope that was hanging overhead and began to pull. The goats climbed the face of the cliff along with the cart and within a few minutes they reached the top. The pulleys dragged the cart up onto the next segment of road. The driver untied the ropes from the cart and the goats began trotting along once more.

Dak watched back as the road fed out from beneath them into the distance. He could see that the wheels of the cart rode in deep ruts. The road seemed pretty well traveled to Dak. He wondered what the path to the top of the other mountain looked like. If this one was so well worn, the other must be even more worn. He turned around and sat back in the bench with his hands behind his head. The cool breeze tousled his hair a bit, but he found it to be a pleasant sensation. Up until now he had been stressed about this trek. At every step of the way he had felt a great burden of some kind. He was on his own. He felt as though nothing would be provided for him. He’d have to fend for his own meals, his own bed, his own travel. And yet here he was, nearly dozing off with a cool, gentle breeze and he suddenly felt as if he were some kind of royalty with servants and not a worry in the world.

He felt clever, like he had somehow cheated without getting caught. This was supposed to be a treacherous journey, and it would have been. That river might have drowned him or carried off his supplies on the first day had he not wisely decided to pay the toll. Had he been more stubborn about finding a camp site he might have found himself tumbling down the side of the mountain, taking a bad step in the dark. Or perhaps a night predator might have killed him. Instead he had taken the opportunity to stay at an inn that he was lucky enough to find. It was in such a thick growth of trees and bushes that he might have walked right past it in the day time. Finally, he could have attempted to scale that cliff alone. He did have rope in his pack. But at what cost? One slip and he could plummet to his death. He was right to turn back for help. Had he not come prepared? He had money. He had food. He had water. Surely those who didn’t make it home from this trek were less clever and less prepared than he was.

The sun was low in the west when they reach the point where he would dismount. He thanked the driver, mostly because he was not as rude as the woman at the toll bridge, and the cart disappeared around the bend into the twilight. He turned to face the road ahead, and saw that there were several clearings around that were marked for campsites. Perfect. He went to one and began setting up camp. Just as he was spreading his tent out someone behind him cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, what are you doing?” Dak turned and found himself face to face with a very short, stocky man with a large beard.

“Well,” Dak began, “I’m set…”

The man, who looked like a dwarf, cut him off. “Yes, yes. I’m sorry. I do know what you’re doing, I don’t know why you didn’t read the sign.” He pointed at the sign labeling the campsite.

That’s when Dak first noticed, not at all to his surprise, that there were prices attached. One price for the use of the site, another price for renting a tent. At least he had brought the tent. The tent rental cost five times as much as leasing the space for it. And even that was about three week’s wages. “Ridiculous,” Dak muttered to himself as he counted out the money.

The dwarf man waddle away happily counting his earnings and Dak continued setting up his camp. He got a small fire going, trying to avoid calling the attention of the man in case there was a charge for lighting a fire. He warmed his meal over the fire and let the embers burn down as he fell asleep.

This time he didn’t miss the break of dawn. Dak packed up his tent and cleaned up the campsite quickly and set out on his way. Just as the driver had promised, within an hour of setting out he saw the mountain peak level out. Ahead, near the edge of the opposite side of the summit, he saw a lavish hut with a beautifully crafted door and white smoke bellowing out of a fine stone chimney.

His stomach fluttered as he climbed the three or so steps to the door and knocked. A moment passed. When he felt he had given enough time for someone to answer, he knocked again. The hut wasn’t large, surely it was a single room inside. He had always heard that wise men lived in simple, single-room dwellings. He was a bit surprised to see the ornate carvings and gold inlays that adorned the hut, but its size was still within his expectation for a man of immense wisdom. Convinced that it wouldn’t be rude to knock again, with sufficient time having passed, he knocked again. Looking around, he wondered if the Teacher had gone out early to meditate. He couldn’t see anyone around.

Dak jumped as the door opened abruptly. The inside of the hut was dark, and the man who opened the door was rubbing his eyes. He was dressed in a white, smooth silk robe with fine gold and silver embroidery. He was balding, but not yet bald. His face was shrouded in a mess of beard and moustache that was nearly white with grey hairs. He wore nothing on his clean feet, but just inside the door Dak could see sandals off to the side. The man moaned and yawned. His hands went into the air to stretch, and Dak could finally see the man’s face. There were numerous groves and ridges in his brow. His ears and nose were large, as though they had swollen with the years. He was not fat, but not as skinny as Dak had imagined him either. The man grabbed the door frame to steady himself. “Good morning,” he started. “And you are?”

“Dak,” he said. “Are you Rhoj?” He was excited. His heart was pounding in anticipation. His eyes were full of hope and desire.

The old man must have seen the look in his eyes. He looked him over, from head to toe and back again. After a brief but mildly concerning hesitation, he replied, “Yes, yes I am.”

Dak hardly noticed the delay. Nearly giddy with impatience and excitement, he blurted out, “I’ve come one this long and terrible journey to the peak of the mountain to seek wisdom from you, oh great Teacher Rhoj.”

Rhoj regarded Dak with another quick glance up and down. “Of course,” he said. “One moment while I prepare.” He disappeared into the darkness a moment. Dak heard rustling, bumping, and a couple of cracks from inside. Eventually Rhoj emerged, now draped in a deep orange robe with a golden sash and carrying a paper and pen. He slipped his feet into the sandals and stepped out into the sun, squinting his eyes. Dak couldn’t be sure how old he was, but he didn’t appear to be in his thirties as the rumors suggested. Of course, he also didn’t seem over two hundred years old, as the legends stated. Rhoj let out a long and heavy sigh as he began to make his way over to a small patch of grass a short distance from his home. “Times have changed,” he began. “At one time this was a lot simpler. People traveled from afar to seek wisdom, I imparted what I could, and they left happy. There were no issues, no problems, and everything just worked. There were more plants and animals up here, believe it or not, and I was able to eat. Eventually the local food ran thin and my visitors provided me with a meal or two here and there. Now, though, I don’t get enough visitors throughout the year.” He sat in the grass and crossed his legs. He motioned for Dak to sit with him. “What was your name? Dak, right?” Dak nodded. “Right. So, Dak, I’m sure you understand that I have to eat. That’s why I was forced to turn this into a business of sorts. Considering the value of my wisdom, I only charge a negligible and extremely reasonable fee that everyone pays happily. I wish I didn’t have to charge, but as I said: times have changed. In addition, I can’t have people going around giving away for free what I have worked so hard to gain. So there is a contract. I don’t like it. I wish things weren’t so, Dak. I really do. But I’m sure you understand.” He smiled sheepishly and extended the paper for Dak to look over.

Dak was in a bit of shock. He had learned to expect the extortion along the road, but this was a completely surprise. He did understand, of course. But how could it be? Did the Teacher on the other mountain have to charge as well? Or perhaps he had more frequent visitors bringing him food. And if his wisdom really was harder to understand he probably wouldn’t have to worry so much about people sharing it. No, Rhoj wouldn’t charge if he didn’t have to. He was wise. Dak was sure this was necessary. He read over the contract. It said just what Rhoj had said about not talking about the experience, but when Dak read the “nominal fee” portion he found that his mouth was agape. It would cost nearly all of his remaining savings. He looked up at the Teacher in disbelief.

“I see you’ve read the price. Let me ask you this: How long would that money last you in your village? A year? Two years? Maybe a little more. But now consider this: How long will the wisdom to be happy last you? Therein, Dak, lies the value.”

Dak looked back down at the contract. He was suddenly unsure. He doubted all of it. He hadn’t wanted to turn back at the river crossing. He hadn’t wanted to turn back at the prospect of not finding a place to sleep. Even the dangerous cliff face couldn’t make him turn back. The irritating campsite experience had, by that point, been barely an inconvenience. But now, sitting across from the great Teacher himself, Dak was tempted to turn back and give up.

“Dak, my son, it is not worldly wealth that brings happiness. There will always be more money, but you only have one life in which to be happy. Do not place the value of money above your own happiness.” If the man was a fraud, he was a darned good one. Rhoj extended the pen and Dak took it. He hesitated again, glancing up at the Teacher before signing and handing it all back. “You have chosen wisely,” he said, tucking the papers into his robe.

Rhoj took a deep breath. It was a slow and steady breath. It was a wise breath. He sucked in until he was twice the man he had been, then he held it. His eyes closed. He seemed to be entering a state of meditation. Finally he exhaled. It was slow and controlled. It went out through his nostrils carrying away any doubt, any ignorance, and any foolishness that may have been inside. “Dak.” He said it as though it were wise to say. Dak heard his name and knew that everything would change soon. “The secret to happiness,” he began, and Dak perked up. He would take every word in. He would never forget the lesson. “The secret to happiness,” he repeated, “is already inside you.”

Silence. Dak could feel tears welling up inside of him. Tears of joy, perhaps, because he was about to learn the greatest secret he would ever learn in his entire life. Or maybe they weren’t tears of joy. He waited. And waited. “Yes?” he questioned. “And what is that secret?”

“That is the secret, Dak. People do not realize that the secret to happiness is already inside of them. If they work at it and act happy they will eventually be happy. That is it.”

The tears began flooding his vision. “No,” he whispered. “That can’t be it.”

“That’s it, my son.”

He fought the urge to get angry. “Then why am I so unhappy, great Teacher?”

“It takes time and hard work, Dak. Only you can uncover the secret.”

Dak stood up quickly. The tears were flowing now, and he was beginning to cry, but he didn’t want to cry. “I worked hard, Teacher. I spent time, Teacher.” He wiped at his eyes, but it was futile. “I spent my life savings for you to tell me the answer to a question, but you have only given me another question.”

“No, Dak. I have given you the answer.”

“That’s an answer any old man can give. That doesn’t help me now. That won’t ever help me.” His anger was building. “You’re a fraud. Give me my money back.”

The old man was shaking his head and he pulled the contract out. “I’m sorry, Dak. You signed the contract. Inside it says…”

“You’re a fraud! Give me my money back!” He was screaming now.

The Teacher stood. He raised his voice to be stern, but he was clearly not as angry as Dak. “Dak, I may be a fraud, but every word I told you about happiness is true and you know it. Sure, it’s not the quick and easy answer, and it’s not the great secret you were looking for, but it’s all anyone can ever give you.” He turned to leave.

“Give me my money back, liar!” Dak yelled.

The Teacher whirled around. “You want to talk about lies? Yes. I lied to you. I’m not really Rhoj. He may have never even existed. He’s a legend. Who knows. And nobody’s been to the other peak in over a hundred years. We’re running a business here. And you signed a contract that says you can’t tell anything I tell you to anyone else ever, as long as you live. You know all those stories about people who come to see me but never make it back alive? Most of them had issues with the contract. So if you value your life you’ll be reasonable and think this through. Those people in the village lie every day. They lie about being happy. But you know what? Some of them actually achieve happiness. I don’t know how they do it, nobody does. Heck, even they don’t know how they do it. But we all know that nobody else does it for them. The fact that you had to spend all that money and trek all the way up here for me to tell you that isn’t my problem. If you’re smart you’ll slap that same, fake smile on your face and go down to the base of the mountain and pretend that I gave you the secret to happiness that you came up here for. In a few years or a few decades perhaps you’ll start to believe it yourself. Until then you’ll be living the same lie as everyone else around you.” With that, the old man waltzed into his hut and slammed the door behind him.

Dak ran over and started pounding on the door, tears streaming down his face. He shouted, he cursed, he kicked. Noon came and went and still he protested loudly. By nightfall he had lost most of his strength and was left leaning against the door crying softly to himself and angrily muttering his disapproval.

Goals

There is a lot of talk these days (well, for a while now) about SMART goals. Goals should be S.M.A.R.T., or that is what people say. I get that it’s a good acronym (though I suspect it’s more of a backronym than an actual acronym). But I have issues with the whole thing.

First of all, the only consistent bits are the “specific” and “measurable” parts, but I feel like those are nearly redundant. Of course with an explanation you can see the difference, but how hard would it have been to combine those ideas into something that embodies both ideas? But then it wouldn’t fit into the neat little acronym, right?

And even if you don’t feel like those ideas can be joined together, do we really need to make sure every goal meets five criteria? And don’t forget that some authors add additional letters to the end (SMARTER, for example). I want to write goals, not go through checklists to make sure my goals meet five or seven or more criteria.

For various reasons I have been asked to write a lot of goals lately. And I’ve also been trying to help others come up with and meet goals that will help them improve. And that’s the thing: I feel like most goals should lead to some kind of improvement. Isn’t that the focus, anyway?

So I feel like the first criteria should be that goals focus on improvement and responsibility. Of course, we don’t need to include “improvement” in some kind of “how to write goals” piece, because that’s the purpose of a goal, not part of the design. But it is worth mentioning, in case someone is setting goals that might lead to some kind of degradation. Plus, when we take responsibility for our own shortcomings we set goals. We aren’t blaming circumstances, or our parents, or our spouse, or our coworkers, or our boss, we are saying, “I have something I need to improve because I am responsible for this.” And with that in mind, goals that you set for someone else will rarely be reached, unless they are heavily invested in all aspects of the goal. They must feel that the goal is necessary and be invested in generating the goal to the maximum allowable extent.

#1 Goals should be focused. You should be pretty specific about what category you want to set a goal in, how you plan to execute it, what you plan to do, and why you are doing it. Focus on something, find ways to remind yourself about the goal and the focus. This is something you’ll need to carry with you in the forefront of your mind through to reaching the goal. Focus is key.

#2 The next thing that I think a goal should be is reasonable. I don’t just mean this in the normal sense of the word (that the goal not be absurd or unreasonable). You should be able to reason about your goal, you should have reasons for your goal, and you should reason your way to the goal. Goals should be accompanied by reason from inception through to completion. Of course goals should also be reasonable in the sense of “not unreasonable or absurd.”

#3 The final thing I feel is an important part of goals is that they be restrictive. I know that one is a little odd (especially since it’s such a negative word most of the time), but hear me out. We grow though self-imposed restrictions and through work. We increase in self control by exercising restraint, which leads to work. We deny ourselves instant gratification in order to gain discipline. Nearly all good things in life come through some form of personal restriction and hard work. By restricting our options we gain freedom. There are a lot of potential actions I could take right now, but by removing most of them I am free to chose the best options. For example, I could commit any number of crimes right now, but by restricting myself to the list of possible actions in the “completely legal” list I am avoiding issues with the law (which could lead to even worse imposed restrictions) and I have a much shorter list of potential activities to choose from, which avoids overload. The brain is actually pretty good (most of the time) at removing options in order to more easily and quickly make decisions. And similarly, by occasionally imposing restrictions on ourselves with purpose we can grow more readily and easily. A favorite exercise among writers and one I enjoyed in college was to pick a common word and write a paper or story without using it. You might try writing a short story without including the word “the” or “and” or “then.” By doing so you grow, because you are forcing your brain to work harder than usual to complete a mundane task. Restrictions lead to growth, so long as they are reasonable (see #2). Reasonable here means your restrictions shouldn’t be too loose or too tight. Seek moderation.

Again, like with the mention of “improvement” above, I don’t feel that my mnemonic device need include the final bit of advice. Moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance. These are fantastic criteria for anything, whether it be a goal or an interaction with your neighbor. I seek moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance in all things, and I encourage others to do the same.

So while FRR isn’t a great acronym (Focused, Reasonable, Restrictive), I do feel that it is a better set of criteria for goals. Before finalizing any goal, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the focus?
  2. What are the reasons for needing goals here? Why am I focusing on this? Why do I need the goal? What do I hope to accomplish? How can I reason my way to that accomplishment? (Don’t stop here, there should be lots of questions in the “reasonable” stage, all the way through to reaching the goal.)
  3. In what ways will I restrict myself in order to reach this goal?

The final bit of advice I have for goals is to keep records. Record your progress. Record your thoughts. Record your failures. Reason your way through the records from time to time and take assessment. Do you need to adjust course? Is the goal wrong? Is your methodology flawed? Are there any potential improvements you’re missing?

So while the three steps (FRR) are the most important bit when forming goals, the entire process looks like this:

  • Take responsibility and use goals for improvement.
  • Create goals that are Focused, Reasonable, and Restrictive.
  • Seek moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance.
  • Keep records throughout the process.

If you do all of those things you will have success, which is the primary objective of any goal. If you do not taste the sweetness of success you will struggle with goals for the rest of your life. Start small (and simple), taste the success, and take small steps from there, setting goals along the way.

MSgt Dremel: Thank you for saving a life.

Dear Master Sergeant Dremel,

Honestly, I just did a little stalking and found out that you retired from the military some time ago, but I will always remember you as Master Sergeant Dremel (“like the tool” you would always say, yet I had never heard of Dremel tools). And, in fact, I will always remember you.

I was literally raking sand while waiting for a new job.

I was literally raking sand waiting for a new job.

I won’t blame you if you don’t remember me. I was one of a few young airmen that passed through your office at the advanced Russian school at DLI. Sometime in 2008 I failed the Arabic DLPT and began the long process of reclassifying to another job. My friend (who had failed out of Arabic with me but also spoke Russian) had been sent to work in your office as an aide. He put in a good word for me (because I was tired of sweeping sidewalks and raking sand, literally) and you requested a second aide to help clean up and organize a few things around your office.

I was feeling pretty down at the time, but this isn’t a story about how I was thinking of suicide and you talked me out of it (as the title might suggest). I had signed up with the Air Force to get the $12,000 signing bonus and I felt that the new Arabic test was broken and I had been cheated out of my bonus. I knew that I had the option of getting out of the Air Force at that point, and I was seriously considering pursuing that option.

I will always remember how kind and sincerely caring a person you are. I still remember the story you told about how, at another location, you and a few other guys were concerned about a dangerous section of road that the administration was not taking proper care of–the road required some safety markings (a crosswalk, if I recall correctly) and after months of fighting for the markings to be painted no action had been taken. You and your cohorts obtained the necessary supplies and painted the markings yourselves to prevent further injury at that location.

Similarly, you saw that I was in need of a mentor and you stepped up. I will always remember the day you asked me about my plans for the future and I told you I was planning on getting out. You listened and then, in a few more words, asked me to reconsider and give the Air Force another shot. You talked about the many benefits, to include education and health care, that I would be throwing away, and you appealed expertly to my logic and sense of responsibility.

In my mind, the military represented something I didn’t want to do. I felt wronged by the system, had a deep disdain for all of the running and physical exercise required, and didn’t feel comfortable with the military culture. However, your words convinced me to give it another chance.

Within a year your actions brought me tears of gratitude, and I am sorry that it took me this long to reach out to you and let you know what kind of impact you had in my life. Let me tell you the full story.

I had been doing very well in the Arabic program. I was, in fact, near the top of my class. I was selected to study for a month in Egypt. While I was away at Egypt, on 7 February 2008, my wife gave birth to a beautiful little girl we called Sophie.

The light of my life.

The light of my life.

Sophie was the light in my life. We had another son, but he was my step-son and as much as I treated him like my own, this was my own spawn. She was beautiful. She was happy. She made everyone around her happy.

By the time I wound up in your office she was barely half a year hold. Late December of that year, less than two months after you convinced me not to pursue an early exit from my contract, I got a call from my unit superintendent who informed me that a slot had opened up for “some computer job” and, if I wanted it, I would need to report to the new training by the first week of January.

Bundle of Joy

Bundle of Joy

I took the job and after the training, in May of 2009, we trekked across the country from Monterey, CA to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington DC.

Everything was going pretty well. I still didn’t enjoy most aspects of military life, but it was nice having everything taken care of. In addition to your encouragement to give the Air Force another chance, I had the attitude that a job is a job and having a good one was better than not having one.

Happy

She made me happy.

By October that year the first signs that something was wrong began showing. We didn’t notice at the time, but in hind sight it’s pretty clear.

Notice the head tilt.

Notice the head tilt.

She had started walking, running a little, and growing more and more confident in her movements. Then, out of nowhere, she reversed progress. She wanted to hold hands more. She used furniture and walls to steady herself. Her head was almost always cocked to one side.

It took us another month and a half before we were concerned enough to get an appointment with her pediatrician. The appointment was set for Wednesday, 16 December 2009.

Her doctor, Dr. Barnes, wasn’t too concerned on the surface. She thought it could be a nutrient deficiency or something else that could be resolved with medicine or therapy, but just to rule out anything serious, she got us an appointment to get a CAT scan the next day at Walter Reed, the larger Army Medical Center for the National Capitol Region.

So, on Thursday, 17 December, we took Sophie to the hospital to get a scan. After the scan, instead of being sent home and told that they’d get the results to us in the next couple weeks (as is usually the procedure), we waited and waited for what seemed like hours (but may have only been a half hour or so, I don’t know). Eventually we were pulled into a closet of a room with a computer and two doctors. They pulled up her scan and showed us a big black area about the width of a baseball and told us that they weren’t sure what it was, but they were sure she would need an MRI and they were not equipped to do it there. They were referring us to the Children’s National Medical Center down the road. Sitting in that room I looked at my wife and knew that everything had changed and could never go back to being the way it was before. They sent us to the ER where an ambulance would pick us up and take us in for the MRI.

The ambulance took forever to arrive. We were scared and confused. It got late. Sophie had been fasting for the scan, and since she would be going in for another she had to continue her fast. She was hungry, tired, and righteously upset. She was the only one that cried though.

This is the first MRI result.

This was the first MRI result.

They couldn’t get her in for the MRI until the next morning. Immediately afterward they urgently recommended surgery. It all happened so fast. Wednesday: ordinary pediatrician’s visit. Thursday: precautionary CAT scan. Friday morning: brain surgery?!? There wasn’t time to think about it then though.

While in the waiting room we were sitting stoically by a nervous mother. “What is your child in for?” she asked. We instead asked what her child was there for. “He’s getting his tonsils removed,” she replied. We never told her what we were there for.

It was about that time that we got up and decided to walk the hallways for a bit. That was the first time we cried. Still though, our thoughts were focused on our family and our daughter. In that moment I was enjoying a gift you had given me–a gift that I became poignantly aware of less than a week later (we’ll get to that in a minute).

After the six hour surgery, I stayed the night in the hospital with Sophie that night and my wife drove home as it began to snow. The next morning we found that we were snowed in. You may have heard of that snow storm in the news as it was the beginning of the terrible 2009/2010 snow storm that hit the East coast.

The snow gave me a chance to finally update my family on what had happened.

She recovered quickly, and by Monday there was a break in the snow, a few roads had opened, and the doctor told us that we were free to go. Less than a week later, the day before Christmas, we got a letter in the mail from TriCare informing us that all of the bills for the hospital had been paid.

A wave of relief rushed over me. It wasn’t until that point that I remembered that in the civilian world people pay a lot of money for things like brain surgery. I wish I had kept that letter with its 6-digit total. That was the gift you gave me. Four years and almost a dozen expensive MRIs later, she is in perfect health, and we don’t owe a dime for any of it. We received some of the top care in the world, from one of the most qualified and expert pediatric neurosurgeons in the nation, under the guidance of one of the most respected and loved pediatric neuro-oncologists in the world, and it was all for the cost of one decision that you ultimately helped me make.

So, Master Sergeant Dremel, how did you save a life? Surely, even if I had left the military, Sophie would have received the care she needed. We would certainly not have been living near the Children’s National Medical Center in DC, so she wouldn’t have seen the same experts she saw. But, you know what? This isn’t about her life. She might have had a worse time with another hospital, or even had a very similar experience. But it would have cost me a fortune under any medical plan I would have been able to afford (remember, this was less than a year after we parted ways).

There are things worse than death. Not being able to support my family and provide for their needs is one of those things for me. That is my life. And you saved it for me.

Thank you.

Healthy, Happy, & Smart

Healthy, Happy, & Smart (with her Teacher)

For some photos and information about Sophie’s adventure, see:

No Promises

So, I’ve had my head buried in a fun project over the last couple weeks. I want to share it with you.

The basic concept was that I wanted to make a game with transparency in the sprite sheet, but without using a tool that lets me set pixels to transparent (no fancy tools, just basic ones). So I used Microsoft Paint, mixed two types of background colors that I could easily single out later for transparency (I think they are [254, 0, 254] and [0, 254, 0] — notice the “full” values are one value lower than the full 255). Then I drew a grid with those colors (more of a checkerboard) for 16 by 16 sprites, and started making a game. I pasted in a few NES and GameBoy sprites that were the right size just for testing purposes (I will probably replace them later, but they are still there for now). In the JavaScript, I use the HTML5 Canvas ability to pull pixel data, manipulate it, write it back in, and save it as an image object for use later. Because of a security feature with the canvas element (“tainted” canvas or something) this feature doesn’t work offline. So I had to make two rendering modes for testing purposes, but it auto-detects when it’s being served from the web, and uses the appropriate rendering mode.

This is the blank tilesheet I created.

This is the blank tilesheet I created.

Because the transparency is calculated manually, I thought it would be good to only load in the sprites that were needed for each map. This turned out to be a stupid way to do things, so I might be having it just do the process once at the beginning later instead of doing it every time I load a map or the help screen.

Then I wanted to make random dungeons. That turned out to be quite the challenge. I think I mostly succeeded though — I really like some of the designs it comes up with. I’m 100% positive my algorithm is the least efficient way of doing it, but it gets the job done. The maps it generates are really fun and interesting to explore (for me, at least). I hope you like this feature. I’m thinking about implementing a new “rendering mode” that uses these maps for a text based adventure game. All of the creatures, items, and rooms would be the same, it would just present the area to you in text form rather than visually. It could be a fun experiment.

Then I started sprinkling random things in for a while before realizing that I had room for over 1000 sprites, and only had a little over 100. The separate item sprite (for the HTML inventory display) sheet is also over sized. So I’m kind of thinking of filling those spaces with even more sprites. Some things are fairly easy to add in dynamically (like walls, floors, and furniture), and other (more interactive) things are only a little more involved to add in (like trolls who block doors, items, and other characters). If you want to submit some new sprites with descriptions of what they would be or do, let me know (email address on the right).

I also wanted to add a particle system, but I wanted it to fit in with the pixelated environment (unlike the particle system I designed for my space experiment game). The particle system turned out really nice, and I was even able to use it for a visual “+1” that pops up when you pick up or get an item. Particle emitters can behave like explosions (I even used the pixel data to create correctly colored particles in the same locations as the pixels of the exploding block before scattering them), or spray emitters that can be turned on or off, or any number of other things I haven’t tried.

The next thing I wanted was for it to be multi-player. Since I don’t do any server-side code still I decided to go with multiple players on one keyboard. Eventually I added a third player who uses the mouse. The controls for the keyboard players took a bit of work to get right. Players expect a certain behavior (rocking between directions as though using an NES controller D-pad). They want to be going one way, “rock” into another direction by hitting an additional key while still holding the first one to make a turn, and resume the previous direction of travel when they release the additional key. It’s harder to say than to do–you probably do it already naturally. And you expect it to work. Unfortunately it turned out to be a lot more complicated to code. But I succeeded. Again, it’s not the best code, but it does what it needs to do.

I also wanted to add in a leader board. Again, since I don’t do server side code yet the leader board is local only (hearkening back to the days of early arcade machines where the high scores were stored locally and you competed with others who used the same machine as you). I had to add in a way to put your name in (on the character select screen in the very beginning). If you forget, a default name is assigned.

One thing I’m very unhappy with is my persistence in using HTML to supplement what happens in the rendered game screen. Someday I’d like to make a game that has all of its interface inside the HTML canvas. Technically I did do this once, but the game has horrible flickering issues and is so poorly coded that fixing the flicker is nearly impossible. I’d need to rewrite the whole thing from scratch in order to fix it. I did reuse a couple sprites from that game though (since it also used 16 by 16 pixel sprites).

I can’t possibly think of all the other little problems I had to solve along the way (that’s what makes it fun for me). For example, this is my first project to use sound (I based the idea off this tutorial). I definitely need to redo some of the sounds, add more (including background music), and make sure the volume is consistent between them all. I recorded the current sounds (with one copyright-infringing exception that I hope falls under fair use) at 3am while everyone else was sleeping in the house, so it’s all my voice (sometimes sped up or slowed down). Audacity is a great little program for getting that sort of thing done.

99% made in Microsoft Paint

99% made in Microsoft Paint

In fact, nearly everything for this game was created with Microsoft Notepad, Microsoft Paint, and Audacity. One image, a fully transparent gif for the HTML formatting, was pulled from another project and couldn’t have been created with my chosen toolset.

Anyway, here’s the finished project. I call it “No Promises” because the game doesn’t check to see if a level is solvable (I can’t promise you’ll be able to beat every level). I added in the ability to abort a game (pause with Escape and click the screen) in case you get irreversibly stuck. An aborted game that includes at least one solved level will still be eligible for the leader board. Before aborting though, as long as some of the map is still hidden you can wait by the spawn point for random items to spawn. These items are designed to help you if you get stuck. Also, walls can have hidden doors in them (look for a wall tile that is just a little different from the rest).

Father’s Day Story: Borrowing the Jack

My memory has never been my strongest asset, but I distinctly recall having a moment very similar to what I am about to describe. The following is in honor of Father’s Day. It took place many years ago, and thus includes quite a bit of speculation and embellishment, though the basic spirit of the lesson and event remain in tact.

“You’re borrowing the jack,” my father said.

I don’t remember what we were talking about exactly, but I feel like we were sitting on the floor. “What are you talking about?” I asked. Whatever he was talking about, I would receive it with contempt because my father often used stories, parables, and analogies that I thought were stupid, cheesy, or irrelevant.

“You’ve decided that you know how it’s going to turn out without even trying. You’re borrowing the jack. Don’t do that.”

I knew he was going to tell me a story to explain his phrase “borrowing the jack,” but I didn’t want to ask for the story. Not that this was a common standoff between us, but the way I remember it, this particular instance involved me not wanting to ask for the story that I knew was coming. I didn’t realize it then, but it would be one of the best teaching moments I would remember with my father for the rest of my life. It certainly wasn’t the most important lesson he taught me, or even the most powerful, but the story and the moment in which he taught it to me will be with me forever.

Although he told me the story one way, I remember it as I envisioned it in my head as he spoke. Now, with a little detail added in, I will tell you what I saw in my mind.

There was a man, Phil, and his wife, Susan. Phil was an unemployed auto mechanic who was having a very bad day. While out looking for work the day before, he had picked up a nail in his tire, and he discovered the flat tire on the way to do more job hunting in the morning. Angry and frustrated he went back inside, threw his jacket down on the couch, and collapsed in a huff.

“What’s the matter, hon?” his wife asked.

“Oh Susan, it’s the car. We’ve got a flat. I need to change the tire, but we sold our only jack to buy groceries just last week.”

“Well,” offered Susan, “I was out walking yesterday while you were looking for a job, and I saw one of our neighbors at the top of the hill changing his oil. His car was definitely jacked up. I’ll bet you could borrow his jack.”

Phil thought for a moment. “I don’t know him. I don’t think he’d loan his jack to just any stranger.”

“You won’t know until you ask,” his wife reminded him. And with a smile she handed him his jacket and hurried him out the door. “We need you to go find a job. No time to waste. I love you.”

Phil stood outside his house looking up the hill at his neighbor’s house. The house sat at the end of a long driveway that climbed several hundred feet up. He thought about going back inside, but when he imagined his wife’s disappointment he forced himself to begin the climb to his neighbor’s front door.

As he went he thought about how it would go when he knocked on the door. “What if I had a jack still, and a stranger knocked on my door asking to borrow it?” he asked himself. Being that he needed nothing more than he needed that jack right now, except, perhaps, a job, he couldn’t see himself being very willing to part with it. What if the stranger damaged or lost the jack? Some jacks are very expensive, and if the neighbor were as poor as he was he surely wouldn’t want to worry about trying to replace something as essential as a jack.

He was about a quarter of the way up the hill now, and he stopped. “I should just go back home. If he’s as poor as I am he won’t want to worry about replacing the jack. I shouldn’t bother.” But again he was reminded of his wife’s encouragement and decided to keep going.

A minute later he was thinking again about how it might go when he asked. “Perhaps he will see me as some kind of freeloader. I didn’t even bring anything to offer him in return for such a favor.” He imagined his neighbor forever avoiding him and thinking less of him for being so straightforward as to borrow a jack without offering anything in return. “Of course, I have nothing to offer him. There is no use in asking for a favor without having anything to offer in return.” And so he stopped and turned around. But before taking a step toward his house he imagined his wife’s righteous anger at him for failing to even ask. So, he turned back to face up the hill and took another step toward his neighbor’s home.

He managed to make it all the way to the doorstep. He raised his hand to the door, and just before knocking he asked himself, “What if I’m rudely interrupting him?” The neighbor might be very intolerant of interruptions. It is never a good idea to ask someone for something when you’ve angered them. “I haven’t got anything to offer him in return, he probably values his jack as much as I would and would never lend it to a total stranger, and he’s probably busy anyway.” He pulled his hand back and looked over at his shoulder at his own home. Sure, his wife might be disappointed, but she’d be disappointed anyway if the neighbor refused to loan him the jack. And so, without knocking he turned and went back home.

“Not only did the man make several potentially false assumptions about his neighbor, he never even gave the neighbor the chance to say yes or no. This man’s way of borrowing the jack was such that he could never succeed since he didn’t even try,” concluded my father. And the lesson, though lost on me at the time, stuck forever.

In preparation for writing this I did a little poking around and found two other similar stories. Apparently this is either the basis for a joke, or based on a joke that can be read here. Additionally, it also appears as a similar yet distinct lesson here.

I owe my father a lifetime worth of thanks for all that he has taught me. Though I cannot promise that I haven’t borrowed the jack once or twice, I have made a habit of reminding myself as often as possible that you can never succeed if you don’t try. I love you, Dad, and all the wisdom you shared and continue to share with me.


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