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Cruel Mountain

"Just how old are you, Mrs. O'Malley?"
May gave Jason a hard look because it was the only kind she had. He was a good kid for all that he dyed his hair blonde and punched metal through his skin. Most kids that made it out to college didn't come back for summer break, let alone winter break. They didn't come back at all. May strongly suspected that Jason loved the mountain and was planning on wasting his life being the town doctor. That meant that he needed a lot of straightening out.
"First, it's Ms. O'Malley," she said, cold as the freezing winds that pummeled the sides of the restaurant with snow. "I never married. Second, it's not Ms. O'Malley, it's May. If you haven't taken a name at my age, you keep the one that got given you. And third, it's none of your damn business."
Jason bent before the tirade like a sapling in a storm and came out standing. "Sorry, May," he said, "But the restaurant's called O'Malley's and--"
"It was my father's restaurant so it has my father's name."
Jason looked around at the empty restaurant and made the mistake of trying to fill it with conversation. "So why didn't you ever get married?"
The wind howled outside, tearing at the snow and the trees and the shingles as if it wanted to tear the little town off the side of the mountain. Other, luckier old mining towns managed to turn themselves into ski resorts, but the wicked conditions here had earned the peak and its only town the name Cruel Mountain. All of this considered, it suddenly seemed warmer outside O'Malley's.
"Is this what they teach you in college?" asked May, "To ask stupid questions? I fell in love, that's why I didn't marry."
"I don't get it," said Jason, "Why didn't you just marry him?"
"Couldn't love me back," said May, looking to the snow-blasted window.
Jason followed her eyes to the storm outside and nearly asked another question, but the door suddenly opened and a man tumbled through. Jason ran to his side as he lay in the open doorway. It was all Jason could do to haul the body indoors and roll it onto its back so he could check the vitals.
The man opened ice blue eyes to stare at his young rescuer. He was old, his skin dark brown from exposure and as craggy as the landscape outside. What hair he had was wild, wispy, and white and the tatters he wore bore every shade of brown that had ever been used as a dye. He licked his cracked lips and struggled to his feet.
May watched all of this apparently without interest. "What'll it be, stranger?" she asked, "If you don't mind waiting we can fire up the grill, but if you're in a hurry we've got a pretty good corned beef soup."
The stranger stumbled to a seat at the bar and struggled against his parched throat to say the word "Soup." Jason bolted to the back counter, tore open the tureen and filled a bowl with steaming broth.
"Don't be stingy with the meat now," said May, appearing at his ear, "We offered him corned beef soup and it wouldn't be polite not to put any beef in it."
"May, that man's clearly hypothermic, he's badly dehydrated, and I'm betting he's badly malnourished," hissed Jason, "If we try to feed him anything solid, he'll just throw it up. If we get some warm broth in him--"
"You know what they say about the customer always being right?" asked May, her voice dead as stone, "They're wrong. The boss is always right. Now give him a real bowl of soup."
The student obeyed, and soon the old man was carefully slurping small spoonfuls of the O'Malley family recipe. Outside, the wind gradually subsided and the snow cleared, leaving the world solid white. The effect that the soup had on the stranger was marginal at best; when he had finished, he still looked as ancient, tired, and cold as the mountain itself. He carefully reached for his pocket, and Jason scrambled for his own.
May shoved him toward the kitchen, harder than he would have thought possible. "Can I have a word with you, kid?"
When they were safely in the back, the young man spun around to face the old woman. His face met the back of her hand coming the other way. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she asked, rubbing some life back into her fingers.
"He was going to try to pay for the soup," said Jason, surprised to find himself blinking back tears. The old woman's hand was so thin that he could see every vein, bone and tendon through the age-freckled skin, but her slap had nearly spun him back around. "I figured I'd cover it for him."
"'Cause he's got nothing, right?" said May, her voice as dark and dangerous as the depths of the mines in the mountain, "That's why he's got a right to keep what's his."
"Exactly," said Jason.
"So why do you want to take his dignity when it's about all he's got left?" said May, "He wants to pay, he pays. I don't care if he puts down a quarter or an old photo or a rock or a lump of pocket lint."
Jason looked at her in shock, and she gave him a fractional smile. He'd known May his entire life and it was the first sign of happiness he'd ever seen on her face. "I know you, Kid. You grew up in this broken valley and you think that if someone just puts in a little effort they could fix it. Maybe they could fix the whole damn world. I don't know, maybe they could do it, but first they'd have to learn that the rules are different for everybody in the game. You've got to learn each person's rules if you want to play with them, let alone help them."
With that she turned around and walked back to the front. Jason stared after her in shock and awe, then checked to see that his nose ring wasn't bleeding. A sudden rumble behind the building sent him running to the counter. Out the front window, dazzling sunlight shone off the snow; the storm had gone as suddenly as it had appeared. May had come out to stand by the door, where their old visitor was trying to leave.
"There'll be an avalanche along, shortly enough," she was saying, "I ain't going to try to keep you here, but I'd rather you weren't under it."
The old man turned and looked at her. A hesitant hand reached up and touched her cheek, making her shudder. "Under the snow," said the man, his voice broken and strange, "This is where I belong."
Outside, the snow crinkled in fresh sunlight, subtly melting and compressing, then refreezing into something hard and fragile. Each snowflake was completely unique, or so it was said, different from every other flake ever made. Trillions of them littered the mountainside, each a fraction of an ounce, but piling up into an unstoppable mass that needed no prompting to come tumbling down the mountain.
The old man stepped out onto and through the latest smattering of it, his feet crunching down into the white blanket. Far away, but drawing closer, the snow rumbled downward, ready to cleanse everything in its path. He smiled and scratched one shoulder as the white tsunami came into view.
Jason tried to charge out after him, but he ran into the iron bar of May's arm in the doorway. "It's not what you think," she said, "He wanted out of the cold for awhile, but now she's come looking for him he has to go back."
"Who's come looking for him?" asked the boy, struggling against her arm.
The old man stretched his arms back and embraced the oncoming cascade. Snow blasted over and around his frail form, but he somehow remained upright, a look of total ecstasy on his face.
"The snow," May said, smiling sadly, "They're sort of married, the mountain and the snow. They're never apart, anyway."
The avalanche changed direction, pulling back up the slope. Somewhere along the way, the man disappeared into it.
"I always thought of the mountain as a woman," said Jason.
"You would," said May, "You're in love with it, too."
Jason nodded, then looked at her sidelong. "What did he pay his bill with?" he asked.
May closed the door and walked back to the counter. Over her shoulder, she said, "You still ask too many questions."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 15th, 2010
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