Joseph breathed in the misty morning air as he rowed his boat to the shore. Curiosity spurred his trip to the haze-laden mountain trail. A thick fog always blanketed the top, peaking the interest of hikers like himself to climb the mountain, to make it to the highest cliff. Rumors of hikers deaths had held him back this long but one look at the mountainous oblivion and he made his choice.
He cut the motor, letting the boat sputter and die before hopping out and pushing it to shore and tying it off. He changed his river shoes for hiking boots in the sand, tossing the soaked pair in the boat. He retrieved his pack and pulled a cover over the boat. He turned to the base and located the start of the trail.
Joseph trekked the first miles with little trouble, marveling at the sights and taking an occasional picture. He crunched on gravel and fallen branches, keeping his mind set on the peaks of the mountain. Haze hung about him as he trudged up the trail, thickening as he traveled. Birds chirped a busy song at him, giving rhythm to his journey.
After a few hours, he took a break, sitting down in the middle of the path and snacking on dried fruit and water. He breathed the wooded air, taking in the scents of cedar and pine.
Minutes passed and he stood, pocketing the handful of fruit left and pushed forward. He found his eyes lost in the sight of the hidden peak so often he missed the sound of squawking birds. The fog thickened and surrounded him short after, making it more difficult to see. Only a few feet laid out in front of him as he traveled uphill. The birds’ songs became warnings as they flew the opposite direction. He ignored them and pressed on until the fog blanketed everything so he couldn’t see any more than his own body.
Fatigue forced him to rest in a coat of haze. He’d lost track of the time that’d passed, and silence chilled him. Joseph debated turning back, he’d made it far enough. Though at this point, he wasn’t sure where back was. He trekked onward, listening for any sign of life other than his own. He heard none.
The silent haze and fatigue took over, yet he pushed forward. He took breaks often, eating through his supply of food faster than he anticipated. Joseph stumbled along, sometimes resorting to feeling his way around. He tripped over an unearthed root and sliced his leg. The pain shot through up to his thigh and worsened when he tried to stand. He couldn’t see well enough to know how bad the wound was nor dress it, so he resorted to crawling.
Soon, the constant shifting weight of his pack and the burning in his leg became too much to bear, so he abandoned the pack after feeling through it and pocketing the remains of food he had left.
He rested once more and breathed in the thick fog. His leg throbbed, but he tried to bear his weight only to collapse in a heap. Joseph all but clawed his way upward in hopes that he find a way to thinner haze, if nothing else just to see something more than himself. His hands grew raw from the bite of the ground. The fatigue weighed him down, and his leg worsened. He finished off his food and forced himself on.
The fog and all the pain clouded his mind, numbing him. He didn’t notice even his own body anymore and he’d lost feeling in his injured leg some time ago. He stopped when fatigue pulled at him. Breathing had become difficult in the thick fog and he couldn’t think. He closed his eyes and let numbness take him.
Joseph saw nothing, nothing but the oblivion of haze. A voice boomed at him.
“You have traveled long my son, rest beyond the gate.” The voice was aged, husky, but strong and clear.
Joseph shook his head and blinked, finding his voice, “I wanted to reach the peak.”
“My son, what you call the peak doesn’t exist, only the gate.” The statement was definitive.
“The gate to what?”
“Heaven, my son. The gate to my kingdom.”
Joseph lost his words, leaving a stutter of shock in its place. He took a deep breath to right himself and spoke, “That would mean I’m dead, right? I died on the way up?”
“No, my son, you reached what you would consider the peak. In reality, Heaven has no peak, but you reached what you thought to be the end of your journey. Now you have two options.”
“You can either enter my kingdom and leave your mortal life behind, never to see the people you love or you can turn back and be condemned to a damned eternity, knowing the secret and your family’s fate to come into my kingdom without you.”
“So what you’re telling me is a can leave my family behind and come to Heaven or be damned to Hell, knowing they’ll all make it here?” Joseph’s head swam.
Joseph sank to his knees while the voice echoed the choices in his head. He looked around him, seeing nothing more than the oblivion he’d been stuck in. He could go to Heaven, see his grandparents, his father, his mother, his sister, everyone. He’d live in an eternal paradise without pain or suffering. What of his family? He’d never see them again; that meant they wouldn’t make it to Heaven. They’d either be left to suffer in the fiery depths of Hell or left to wander in the fog of oblivion forever.
He’d never see his daughter grow up. Never hold her hand as she walked down the aisle. Never meet his grandchildren. He’d never see the light in her eyes that so resembled her mother’s. He’d be left without the sound of her laughter, without the warmth of her embraces.
And his wife, never to see her again. He’d have to spend eternity without the soft touch of her lips. Her blue eyes would never sparkle at him, her smile never to light his days. Her voice never to grace his nights. He wouldn’t be able to grow old with her.
“I’ve made my choice.”
“What have you chosen, my son?”
“I couldn’t bear to give up my life, not even for eternity in Heaven. I couldn’t bear knowing I’d damned them because of a choice I’d made. So I’m going back.”
“Very well.” The voice affected a neutral tone, still ringing with the same clarity and strength.
Joseph felt the ground disappear from underneath him. He couldn’t scream as he plunged, so taken aback by the sudden realization that the fog had no longer surrounded him. Rather, he felt a flash of pain as he hit the surface of the ocean, then darkness. His leg no longer burned, no longer throbbed. He kicked with ferocity and clawed his way to the surface. He gasped for breath when he breached and whipped his head around to take in his surroundings.
He swam toward the shape of his covered boat and dragged himself onto the shore, soaked to the marrow. When he regained his breath, he pulled his leg up to his chest to discover there was no sign of the gash. No blood, no bruises, nothing. He stood, testing his weight on it and it held. He walked the few steps to his boat and ripped the cover off. He pushed the boat part way back into the water, lifted one leg in, pushed off the shore, and threw himself in. He reached to start the motor, but something in the sand caught his eye. He leaned forward, straining to read a message before the waves wiped it clean.
‘You’ve no cause to fear, my son. You are the first.’