Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"In Search of Shangri La"

I wrote the first 500 words of this piece about three years ago, but couldn't ever finish it. I found the right inspiration today.

"Don't do this."

Richard Friedman paused in his packing. "What would you have me do instead, Mark? Return to the U.S.? Undergo more useless treatment?" He shook his head and shoved another packet of thousand dollar bills into his knapsack.

Mark gripped his shoulder. "Yes! For Pete's sake, yes!"

"For what purpose? So I can waste away in my apartment while the world continues its mad dance, oblivious to my suffering?"

"To buy more time, Richard. To give the doctors a chance to find a cure."

Richard wrenched his shoulder free of Mark's iron grip. "Find a cure? There is no cure. Not in Chicago. Not anywhere. Except maybe here." He grabbed another stack of bills and jammed them in with the rest.

"Think about what you're doing. You're throwing your life away."

Richard couldn't take it any more. He wheeled on his friend, his voice rising in a shout. "I have no more life! Can't you see that? My life ended the day the doctors made their 'pronouncement.' Three to six months to live, they said. Julie saw it, even if you can't. It took her all of two weeks to pack her things and move out. My clients shared their heartfelt condolences and then quietly made overtures among the other partners for representation that would still be around when their cases went to trial. The drugs they filled me with were worse than the cancer. When I wasn't doubled over in pain I was so sick I thought my guts had burst.

"I'm not living, Mark, I'm already dead. My body just doesn't know it yet."

Mark sighed. "I know this hasn't been easy for you."

"You know nothing."

"How can you say that? Because I'm not going through it myself? No, I don't have cancer. No, I don't know what it feels like to have my supposed cure leave me clinched and dehydrated on the floor. No, my wife hasn't left me, and my job is still secure. But I've been there for you, man. I've watched you suffer. I was the one who took you to your treatments. I was the one who picked you up off the bathroom floor when you couldn't move. I was the one who cleaned you up and put you in bed, and then sat there through the night watching you suffer through dry heaves, knowing there wasn't a damned thing I could do. Don't tell me I don't know what it was like!"

Richard stared at his friend, at the heat and hurt warring in his eyes. "You're right. That was out of line. I'm sorry."

"You should be. I've been your friend since the 5th grade. When have I ever not been there for you?"

Richard forced a smile. "You've always been there. That's why I don't understand your attitude right now."

"Because you're not being rational. Think for a moment about what you're doing."

Richard could feel his frustration mounting again. "The cancer is in my bones, not my brain. I've thought this through. This is my only choice."

Mark threw his hands up in the air. "How can you say that? You're about to take every penny you own and hike up a mountain in search of a legend. How does this help anything?"

"Look, you were the one who suggested flying to Nepal in the first place."

"I suggested doing a little traveling. You chose Nepal all on your own."

Richard sighed. They had been through all of this before. "Mark, you aren't going to talk me out of this. My mind is made up. Unless you plan on forcibly restraining me I'm going through with it."

Mark closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Richard could see the resignation.

"Fine," Mark said. "Take your money and hike up into the mountains. Have your fool's search for Shangri La. I won't stop you. But don't expect me to help you, either. I love you too much to watch this any more."

"Will you at least wish me good fortune?"

Mark looked at the knapsack. "No good fortune will come of this. Goodbye, old friend. I will miss you."

Then he was gone.

One floor down, Mark knocked on the door to room 212. There was a pause as someone looked through the peep hole, then the door opened. Mark looked both ways down the hall to ensure he wasn't seen and went inside.

The man in the room wasn't a local, but he could pass as one. Mark had met him through some business contacts some time back and flown him out to Kathmandu when Richard had decided on this plan. Mark didn't like the man much, but he had been useful. His name was Niraj.

"He's going to do it?" Niraj asked.

"Yeah, he's going to do it. I think this last fight clinched it. No one is going to talk him out of it now."

Niraj sat down at the room's small table. He picked up the short knife on the table top and resumed peeling persimmons. He popped one in his mouth.

"You know," he said, gesturing with the knife, "this would be much easier if you simply let me take care of him. There would be no need for the elaborate subterfuge. We could be done and out of here in the next ten minutes."

"I told you, we aren't going to hurt him. If he goes traipsing around the mountains in his condition and succumbs to the weather, that's his fault, not mine."

"This whole thing was your idea. What difference does it make whether he dies in the mountains or in his hotel room. Dead is dead."

It was true. This had been Mark's idea. When Richard had decided to change his will, leaving his sizable fortune to a worthless leukemia foundation rather than his best friend, Mark had to act. He was the one who had stood by Richard through thick and thin. He was the one who had sacrificed to make sure Richard had never been alone. He was the one who had spent his life living in Richard's shadow. That money was supposed to be his. He had earned it. So yes, it had been his idea, but that didn't mean he had to get his hands dirty.

Mark thrust his finger at Niraj. "It matters to me! I'm paying the bill, I make the decisions. You understand me?"

Niraj raised his hands, palms forward. "No problem, boss. We do it your way. I was just saying."

"Well keep your thoughts to yourself." Mark took a seat on the bed. "You have everything ready to go?"

"The gear is already in the car."

"Then there's nothing left to do but wait."

Richard shouldered his knapsack as he left the hotel. He had hoped that Mark would see him off, but there had been no response at his room. He hadn't wanted to leave without seeing Mark one last time to smooth things over. It seemed it was too late for that.

He hailed a cab and gave the driver his destination. The cabbie gave him a look, then shrugged and they were off. Richard settled back for the ride. It would take an hour to get to the trail.

He tried to nap on the way. He would need all the strength he could muster to make the arduous climb, but sleep eluded him. His thoughts were a mixture of doubt, fear, and excitement.

What was he doing? What kind of fool would think the legendary city of Shangri La actually existed? And further, that it could be accessed from a hole in the side of a mountain near Kathmandu, Nepal. A desperate fool. That's what he had become: a desperate fool. He didn't want to die. But that's what was happening. The cancer continued to eat away at him and there was nothing he or the veritable army of doctors he had hired could do about it. But if the legends were true, if Shangri La actually existed...perhaps that would be his salvation.

Mark wouldn't admit it, but it had been his suggestion to visit Nepal. Perhaps the eastern mystics could do something that modern medicine couldn't. He had jumped at the idea. What other option was there? He could sit at home and waste away, or see if something outside the previous boundaries of his experience might save him.

They had spent four days in Kathmandu asking questions before they found Niraj. Niraj claimed that Shangri La did exist. He had seen it in a vision - had seen Richard in a vision - and could guide him to the place he needed to go. Richard had been skeptical at first, but Niraj told him things about himself that no one could have known, specifics of his life that could only have been discerned via supernatural means. Hope sprung up within him. He had begged Niraj to tell him what to do.

"You will not like what the gods require of you, Richard Friedman of Chicago. To enter the holy valley of Shangri La, to drink from the waters of life, you must be willing to give up everything. All of your possessions, all of your physical and emotional ties. All of it you must give as an offering to the gods."

Richard hadn't cared. He was beyond that. Wasn't he giving those things up in death, anyway?

"The offering must be real, Richard Friedman. The gods do not accept wishes and desires. You must show them you are sincere by your actions."
There was only one way he could think to do that. It took him seven days to liquidate every last one of his assets and have the money physically sent to Kathmandu. Mark had been stunned.

"You wanted that money for leukemia research! And now you're just going to throw it away?"

Mark hadn't understood. He hadn't left the money to the foundation because of the research. How could future research help him now? He had left it to the foundation because in doing so he would leave a legacy. His name would be forever remembered. He would live on.

But that's not what he really wanted. He didn't want to live on in memory - he wanted to live. And if that meant carting the sum total of his worldly possessions up the side of a Himalayan mountain to offer to foreign gods he would do it.

In the end he must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew they were at the trail head. He paid the taxi driver with a thousand dollar bill and told him to keep the change. What did it matter? He was giving it all away in a matter of hours anyway.

As the cab drove off, Richard surveyed the trail. It was steep and snow covered. He zipped his parka tight and pulled on his gloves. It was going to be a tough climb, and he was so tired. Courage, he thought. One way or another it will be over soon.

He took a deep breath and set off up the slope.

"Can you see him?"

Niraj peered through the binoculars. "He is nearing the spot. With the way he is limping I am surprised he is still moving."

Mark was surprised, too. They had been following him for three hours now. It had been snowing for the better part of two. The way had been difficult, even for two healthy men. It must have been hell on Richard.

Mark felt a pang of guilt, but he quickly shoved it to the back of his mind. He had made his decision. He would live with it. Of course, recovering the nearly four million dollars in cash from Richard's body would help with that.

"He stumbled!" There was an undeniable excitement in Niraj's voice. Mark almost hated himself for feeling it, too.

"Let me see," he said. He took the binoculars. It took a moment to find Richard in the blowing snow. He had indeed fallen, but he wasn't giving up. Mark watched his friend struggle back to his feet. Mark felt a small sense of pride in that. Irritated by his weakness, he shoved that feeling to the back of his mind with the other.

He handed the binoculars back to Niraj. "He's back up. We better keep moving or we'll lose him completely."

Richard stumbled forward again. He couldn't go on. His legs felt like jelly. And he was so cold. His face burned from exposure to the frigid wind. He tried to brush the ice from his eyelashes but he wasn't sure if he succeeded. He had lost most of the feeling in his fingers several minutes ago. He had tried, but the mountain had gotten the best of him. If Shangri La did exist, he would never see it.

The wind broke and for a brief moment he could see where he was. To his surprise, up ahead on the left, he could make out a dark area in the snow that looked like the entrance to a cave.

The cave! He was so close. He could find the strength to make it to the cave. It was just a few yards.

Richard dug his fingers into the snow and began to pull.

"He's entered the cave," Niraj reported. "But just barely. Took him a good ten minutes to pull himself in."

"How much shelter will it give him from the wind," Mark asked.

"Not much. It's pretty shallow as caves go – maybe four feet deep. He's finished."

They waited another hour just to be sure. By that time the cold was starting to get to them, as well. Richard never left the cave.

"You better go now," Niraj said, slipping a new hand warmer into his glove. "If we stay out here much longer the mountain will claim us as well."

Mark agreed. He slowly made his way the last three hundred feet up the snow covered path to the mouth of the cave. Richard had crawled the distances on hands and knees. How he made it Mark didn't know.

Mark arrived at the cave and peered in. The swirling snow made it difficult to see inside. Mark pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and turned it on. Steeling himself for the sight of his friend lying dead on the ground, he shined the light into the cave.

It was as he expected. There on the ground, in a snow covered lump was Richard. His heart jumped into his throat. Dear God, what had he done. In a rush of emotion he reached down to dust off the body.

He found an empty coat.

Wait, that couldn't be. Mark grabbed the coat and pulled. No body. A quick search of the cave showed Richards coat, boots, gloves, hat and snow pants – all of his cold weather clothing – but not Richard. The knapsack, where was the knapsack?

He found it, at the very back of the cave buried under a snow drift.

It was empty.

Mark called to Niraj who arrived moments later. Together they searched the cave, then the entire area on the outside. Nothing. They reviewed their trip up the slope. They had watched Richard the entire time. He had never removed the knapsack, never even opened it.

Where could he have gone? What had happened to the money?

It was a mystery they had no answer for. Perhaps Richard had found what he was looking for. They would never know.

Only one thing was certain. No one ever saw Richard Friedman again


Christina said...

It was a difficult story to read - the evil motivations that drove Mark are disturbing. But I love the ending!!

Todd said...

Tina said this one was her favorite because it dealt with things she is familiar with, as opposed to much of the fantasy stuff I show her. Thanks for keeping with the reading!