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“Face your fears, Jim,” my dad used to say. But he was a brave bastard, nurtured on porridge and discipline. Cancer got him in the end though, unconquerable with bravado alone. I was eleven when he died, but even back then I knew he was something special, and over the years, I would feel the pressure from everyone that knew him to be the ‘idea’ of his son.
After guiding my foot into the next crease, I pull myself up using the tenuous grip on the rock above and, finally, I’m on level ground—about four hundred feet above the car park. To me, this will always be his mountain—the one Mum said he used to go when the dark cloud came. Today, I am borrowing it. Shrugging off the backpack, I breathe in a huge gulp of air, before sinking to the ground to rest my calves. I know the hardest is to come.
Already, I feel a sense of achievement, but the ominous storm cloud that floats towards the mountain is making me anxious. And, as I crane my head towards the peak, nausea and rapid heart rate returns. Nervously, I run my fingers over the medal in my pocket, the one he got for bravery, and the one I carry with me whenever I am scared. The thumping in my ear eases a little, but not the swirling out of control sensation that has been with me since I caught sight of the mountain in my windscreen.
My father, according to his friends, wasn’t scared of anything. In contrast, I was a nervous child, with an unhealthy fear of most things, and my life so far has played out to an anthem of comparison and disappointment. “Tommy wouldn’t have cried.”; “Hard as nails e’ was”; “Davenports don’t shy away from a brawl!”; “You’ll never fill his shoes!”
In their eyes, Tommy was God. And in mine, too.
I wrote the list shortly after he died. The face your fear list was the most appropriate way I could think to honour the man. And soon at eighteen years of age, I will be able to strike the fear of heights from the list. Only one thing would remain.
As I get to my feet and brush myself down, two routes present themselves—the notoriously difficult side for seasoned professionals, and the easy side for beginners like me. My father, of course, only ever took the difficult route, and this will be my path today. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as he used to say. So, after placing my backpack against the side of the mountain, I give the medal one last rub and set off towards the peak.
It was only later, when Mum spoke of his battles with depression and anxiety, that I saw him as more human—fallible—and thus began to feel closer to him on a more emotional level. And that’s a strange thing to say about a dead man. But as I stretch towards the first foothold, I know today is as much about me as it is him.
It’s going well. I am getting into a rhythm, nimbly manoeuvring up the rocks and planning at least four moves ahead. It’s coming so easy. But all the time, in the corner of my eye, I can see the dark cloud closing in, and its internal flashes warn of things to come. I can smell it too, the pre-storm smell—the one that still brings memories of hiding under the bed with my hands over my ears.
I make the rookie mistake of looking down then, nerves getting the better of me, and I see the mountain’s sharp grey teeth ready to tear through my skin. An immediate wave of dizziness washes over me, and my breathing begins to feel less automatic as I swallow short and sharp gulps of air. For a moment, I feel as though I might pass out, and I close my eyes and grip the rock even more tightly.
A memory comes into mind. I’m a child again, standing on a bridge, watching as the white water of the river takes my stick. I recall the fear as I leaned over to watch, but also the surprising and almost overwhelming compulsion to let myself go over—the same hypnotic sensation that is sweeping across me right now. I dig my fingers deeper into the crevice and pray for it to pass. My heart rate is pounding—all cockiness has gone. It’s just me—the one with the list—and the mountain. I open my eyes and try and regain control, but the scenery below is just a vortex of greys and greens, and it feels like it’s trying to suck me in.
As I cling desperately to the rock, I see the black cloud getting closer. Number three on my list is storms—crossed out some time ago now—but watching lightning strike from the balcony of your home isn’t the same as experiencing Mother Nature’s fireworks on the side of an exposed mountain.
There are too many things to process, and my mind wants to shut it all out. I am not sure if my fingers are slipping or if I am losing the feeling in them. And that pull towards the ground feels so strong. As though it is meant to be.
I’m going to die.
And then I look back up the peak and see his face peering over the edge—no smile—just his stern “You’ve got this” frown.
But I dare not release my grip on the rock. The nausea is the worst—manifesting as a tight knot in my stomach, and it hurts to breathe. Darkness is quickly falling around me as the sun is being masked by the approaching black mass, and it all feels so much more difficult. For a moment, I imagine my aching fingers losing grip and my body tumbling down the mountain, sounds of snapping and tearing until a final dull thud at the bottom.
I'm going to die—this is it!
But then my father’s words echo in my head, “Face your fears,” and a subsequent spike of adrenaline surges through my body. And I finally move my fingers, albeit an inch. My coordination has gone, as has my confidence. I am tentative and slow, but I force myself to keep going, and foothold after foothold, my legs start to feel sturdier and powerful again, and I work my way back into a rhythm. Finally, I make it to a break in the rock and rest.
There must be only sixty feet left, but as I look towards the peak to plan the final part of my ascent, I feel the first spot of rain and the oppressive change in the air as the black cloud digests the remaining light. The last part of the climb is steeper, and I know it is going to test me.
A bolt of lightning strikes somewhere close by, followed by a menacing roll of thunder. On cue, the rain quickly escalates from a drizzle to a downpour, and a blustery wind brings intense diagonal rain that forces me to squint. Immediately my clothes feel heavier and begin to stick to my skin, making every move more laborious.
Is this good enough, Dad?
The slippery stone provides little traction as my fingers curl around the tiny segments of protruding rock that the mountain offers. Another flash of lightning and the thunder is almost instant, cracking around me like cannon fire, and I feel so exposed as I slowly work my way up the mountain’s spire-like peak. Momentum is with me though, and rhythmically I hoist myself steadily upwards. But I see it then a few feet above—what looks to be an almost sheer piece of rock with no obvious creases or footholds whatsoever.
The woozy feeling hits me again, and I’m free falling into the void.
Suddenly, a deafening growl explodes from beneath me and brings me back. My heart begins to pump faster until it pounds relentlessly in my ears. My muscles tighten, and every hair on my body prickles with terror. I have heard that noise before.
But it can’t be.
I look down but regret it instantly as I see the four legs of the black shape effortlessly dancing across the rocks towards me. For a moment I think I am going insane, a combination of my mind playing tricks and the shadows of the rocks. But lightning flashes around me once again, and I see the creature in high definition—matted black fur, sinewy body, and elongated snout. Immediately, I recognise it as the shape that used to live under my bed—the one on the top of my list. And the one, even to this day, that still occasionally drags me from sleep, sweating and breathless.
The subsequent thunderclap explodes around me with such force it feels as though the mountain trembles, and I lose my footing. I’m hanging by my fingers, and I can feel them slowly sliding down the wet rock. Blindly, I scramble against the wall with my feet until I find the original footholds, and with every ounce of remaining energy, I manage to get myself back into position.
Still no visible way forward, though. I am trapped.
Drenched through, I am physically exhausted—heavy and clumsy. Mentally I’m done.
I look down again and see the black beast watching me from only forty feet below. Even from here, I can see its chest heaving and muscles twitching. And then as a blanket of white light crashes around us, I see its eyes for the first time—blood red, other-worldly and with the promise of evil. It’s snout it closed, but I know there are layers of razor-sharp teeth in there ready to tear my flesh apart. I feel about eight years old again, paralysed with terror.
We study each other, fully aware of who is the predator and who is prey—and slowly it sways from side to side as if waiting for me to make the first move. For what seems like minutes, we remain locked in this absurd stand-off. Until finally, still facing the beast, I sweep my right palm across the smoothness of the rock, and back again, looking for anything I can use. There it is, a crack in the rock, less than two inches in size. I lock my fingers inside and pray that my feet will find some traction. And make my move.
Momentum swings me into the rock, and my left cheek smashes against its coldness, but I am still here. Still alive. Flailing at the rock with my left hand, I find another crease that allows me to wrap my fingers around it.
And then another roar. I can even hear it panting now, and it is far too close. I drag myself up, but can’t get any footing—it’s too slippery, and covered in lush green moss that has no business being here.
Finally, the side of my shoe finds an imperfection in the rock, and I dig in and push myself up. Looking down, I see the beast only ten feet away. It’s so close that I can see the saliva dripping from the side of its mouth, and the first sign of its jagged teeth.
Shit! Shit! Shit!
I throw my right hand out again, but nothing. I can see the top—it is only six feet away now, but the rock is too smooth, and it’s not giving me anything.
A violent streak of white crackles menacingly across the oppressive black sky and blankets the mountain in light. To the right and a few feet above, I see the initials—TD. Tommy Davenport. And a six-inch slit in the rock.
The beast lets out a sudden roar then, and I swear I can feel its warm breath. I look down and expect the creature to be reaching out towards my feet. And it is.
Lightning flickers around us once more and basks the creature in a cold white radiance that frames and accentuates its malevolent red eyes. Mouth overspilling with drool and breathing excitedly, it continues to sway from side to side, and I see every muscle on its back rippling through the matted fur. Suddenly, it cranes its head back and opens its mouth—exposing those saw-like teeth— but its roar is superseded with the explosive sound of thunder that once again vibrates through the rock as I cling to it desperately.
The beast is eyeing me again, but it has stopped swaying and is poised to strike. The excited breathing has slowed. It knows it has me. Letting go of the rock with my right hand, I dig into my pocket and wrap my fingers around the ribbon.
Face your fears.
The beast makes its move towards me, and I immediately feel small and puny—just another meal. In desperation, I swing the medal towards it with as much momentum as I can muster, and it feels heavy and more weapon-like. It strikes the creature square on the chin, and the head of the beast launches back. But its claws do not give, and when it turns to me again, it growls and slashes at my leg. The pain is instant, and I feel the warmth begin to spill down my skin. I swing the medal again, but this time it just ricochets off the top of its head. Another growl then it effortlessly scrambles up the rocks. Now it's on me, pinning me to the wet stone.
My fingers are starting to slip. I am beaten. Again, that feeling of letting go swoops over me.
No! I will fight for every second. Dad would.
I am face to face with the beast that used to live under my bed. The air around is a cocktail of petrichor and rotting meat, the skin from its last meal still visible between the sharp fangs. It’s hot tongue sweeps across my face, and then it slowly inhales me—savouring the delights that my flesh promises. And then just as the beast recoils its head back and opens its mouth impossibly wide, I thrust my arm as far down its throat as I can go. Immediately, its teeth clamp down, and searing pain screams up my arm and echoes through the rest of my body. But I see it—the realisation in its eyes as its jaws fall open, and as the beast reaches desperately for its throat. I pull my bloody arm out and watch as the beast begins to choke, releasing ugly rasps and gurgles as the foam develops around its mouth. There is fear in its eyes, and I take my chance, thrusting my leg into its chest with as much force as I can muster.
“I’m Jimmy Davenport!” I scream, as I watch the monster fall, still clutching at its neck—eyes fixed on mine with disbelief.
My arm and leg throb with excruciating pain, raw and pulsating, and I can feel myself already growing weaker as the blood continues to leak. I am badly injured, but time is not on my side—I need to finish this. I look towards the slit in the mountain below my father’s graffiti, and ready myself. And launch. But as soon as my fingers leave the rock, I know I am not going to make it.
Instinctively, I throw my hands out, hoping they will connect with something, and for what seems like seconds, they slide aimlessly down the steep slope of the mountainside. Finally, they latch on to a crease in the rock, and relief and pain wash over me simultaneously. Every nerve ending is telling me to stop moving, but I know I am fading and need to get to the top. Looking down, I scan for anything that could be used as a foothold, but when I catch sight of the endless grey below, I am hit by another wave of dizziness. I feel so very weak now.
“Jim!” the voice floats down.
My vision is too blurry to focus, but I know he is up there, looking down at me. Squirming against the wet rock, I plant my fingers into any cavities that present themselves, and slowly and painfully, I make it to the crevice where my father’s initials are etched. As I run my fingers over the letters, I begin to cry. For the days he has missed. And for the days he will never see.
Digging into my left pocket, I find a coin and scratch my faint initials beneath his—an accidental metaphor. And then with one final effort, that every nerve ending screams at me for making, I grab onto the ledge and pull myself up.
As I lay on my back holding my new lucky coin and watching the remainder of black cloud roll by, the first glimmer of light breaks through and illuminates the rock next to me.
“Love you, Dad.”
Even with a lacerated leg and punctured arm, nobody will believe me about the beast from under my bed that paid an impromptu visit today. I guess it smelled the fear and wanted in. The black nemesis was the only thing left on the list. But I can cross that out now, too.
I no longer have my father's medal as a keepsake. But I do have today. He has no doubt been here with me, giving me the strength to get through this ordeal. I know that. But I also know deep down that it was me that scaled this rock, that it was me that thrust my father’s medal into the throat of the beast, that it was me that faced my fears.
I am not just Tommy Davenport’s son. I am Jimmy Davenport.
After a 30-year hiatus, Mark recently gave up a lucrative career in sales to pursue his dream of being a writer. His passion and belief have resulted in pieces in many prestigious magazines, including Flash Fiction Magazine, Raconteur, Breaking Rules Publishing, Books N' Pieces, Artpost, Colp, The Horror Zine, Antipodean SF, Page & Spine, Twenty-Two Twenty-Eight, and Montreal Writes. His work has also appeared twice on The No Sleep Podcast and is set to feature shortly on The Grey Rooms and Centropic Oracle. Seven anthologies to date include his work, two of which are on the 2019 Horror Writers Association recommended list, and a further eight anthologies set for imminent release also contain his work. His first collection, ‘Face the Music’ will shortly be released by All Things That Matter Press. Mark resides in Melbourne, Australia with his wife and two children.
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