Put your fears and skeletons away. Put them down, down into the heart of Mount Pleasant, which stands at a pleasantly quaint 120 meters above sea level and which contains a long-held secret. The secret can be found in the rock wall that flanks the road that curves around the National Zoo, past lions’ roars and children’s shrieks: a crick in the stone.
To the eye of a stranger, this crick is naught but a chink in need of cement filler. But to the residents of Mount Pleasant, it’s so much more.
Behind this mere crick winds a pathway leading to a cavity beneath the mountain. Mount Perforation, Mount Privileged-Information. The people of Mount Pleasant know this to be true: you must relieve yourself of the burdens you bear in order to live a long and pleasant life. It is into this crick where the secrets, skeletons, and sins of Mount Pleasant live and fester. Mount Put-Your-Fears-Away-And-Be-At-Peace.
For Ava Mulaney, this relief happens at 4:00am on Monday mornings. It may come on Thursday mornings too. It is then she unloads her sins of petty office politics, her guilt and sadness that come over her after she eats too many cookies at holiday parties. She fears a deep selfishness may rot in her core, but does her best to accept this. Otherwise, she lives the nondescript life of a mid-level administrative worker in the field of international development with occasional forays into the wild world of Tinder.
But there is a rule: one must deliver such sins one at a time. If you walk to the crick and find someone there, you must simply keep walking as if you never intended to stop. There are protections in place. The guardians who watch over the crick are a flock of perpetually-adolescent wood thrush birds. If a passerby sees someone spending an unnatural amount of time at the crick and decides to wait around to see what all the hubbub is about, the guardians will rise all at once in a great clamor of wings and song—lee-oh-lay-lee—and said passerby will become preoccupied with these darling birds enough to forget all about the strangeness at the wall.
This rule makes for some technical difficulties at certain points of the year, a traffic jam of sorts, when a greater-than-average number of people visit the crick. These busy periods happen at times you may expect (Christmas, high summer, election seasons), and others you may not (Flag Day, the first lovely autumn morning, just after IHOP announces a new flavor of pancake). Barring these periods, the people of Mount Pleasant tend to come up with their own rituals for attendance and penance, a ritual that does not conflict with anyone else’s, at any and all hours of the night.
And so, atop an unspoken trove of evils, Mount Pleasant thrives and hums with rituals and cheer in perfect harmony. No one questions it. Why would they? Mount Pleasurable. Mount Perfect.
One pre-dawn Monday morning in late October, Ava’s ritual was disturbed. She arrived at the crick with sleep-filtered eyes, to find it already occupied by a drooping sack of an old man.
Ava knew the rules. She kept on walking around the block, and found herself back in bed. It was too close to waking hours to get any decent sleep but she tried anyways, forcing her eyes closed and mentally yelling Sleep!, then quickly finding herself rudely awakened by her alarm clock. She went through the motions of her morning routine and went to work in a stupor of deep fatigue, burdened even moreso by the weight of what she could not unload that morning.
What weighed on her was this: a “forgotten” phone call; an ill father to whom she could not bear to speak. She could hardly listen to the single voicemail she had received.
Tomorrow was the day she promised she’d call. Ten tomorrows ago. Ten.
Now, sapped of energy, she needed yet another tomorrow. She would first need to unload. She would need to visit the secret of Mount P. Mount Powerful. Mount Paramount.
That Thursday, Ava was thwarted once again. This time, the entrance to the crick was occupied by a short woman who was hard to make out in the night, as the light from a flickering street lamp dueled with the light from a full moon, throwing lines and curves of shadow over her. A car whipped past, too fast for this winding road, and the woman was thrown into the car’s beaming headlights, revealing pointed eyebrows, jagged fingernails, evil eyes. The car left, but the woman remained; the shadows fought, and Ava’s mood soured once again, making every speck of darkness look evil.
Ava betrayed no sense of anger or frustration; she simply kept walking around the corner, only to find herself waking up the next morning in bed. And again she dragged herself through the next day in a fog of pain and ennui.
What weighed on her now was this: A nasty snap at her wide-eyed colleague, fresh out of college, who now looked at her with something like fear and maybe pity. And the growing silence from her father, who probably could call her from the hospital if he really wanted to but was too stubborn.
One thing seemed clear: She would not be able to move forward until she had visited the crick. She grew frantic throughout the day, barely able to concentrate on anything except for when she would be able to go back. Monday morning. Monday morning. Monday morning. The mantra was a salve. Mount Persevere. Mount Prayer.
That Monday, she was thwarted once again—an occurrence that was beginning to feel inevitable. The occupant was a young man who looked barely old enough to have sins of his own.
This time, she decided to wait until he had finished his penance, rules be spited.
But the night was cold and she had not brought a hat so she began to shiver, and the wood thrush birds began to twitter around her, too dark to see but she could hear their calls, feel their wings. She pulled her thick scarf around her ears, but the sound of the chirps seemed to come from inside her now, inside her neck and through her throat, tickling its way down to her chest, crawling; she crouched and pulled herself close as if contracting would crowd out the noise, but it was no good; she wanted to scratch herself open from the inside; the chirping crawling feeling made its way around her heart and lungs…
Ava paced the block to shake off this feeling, but when she turned the corner, her plan to turn back and return to the crick had evaporated from her mind. Unwittingly, she walked home instead, and there she was, in bed, her feet having carried her of their own volition, when she finally remembered. She cursed herself for leaving, a curse that only stayed with her for half a moment before she fell too quickly into a fitful sleep. Mount Pernicious, Mount Pain-of-Existence.
What weighed on her now was this: an accidental kick straight to her cat’s kisser; the stupid animal had failed to get out of the way in time. The feeling of hatred for the beggars near her metro stop, when she failed to avoid their gaze and instead stared them down with anger until they looked away. And a spate of texts from her mother and brother—“he’s getting worse;” “you should come home”—viewed only with the sparest of pained glances before being deleted.
It would be three days before Ava could go back to the crick, and those days were excruciating. Excruciating for everyone, it seemed to Ava. Unhappiness drifted around Mount Pleasant like a plague, and it stank with rot. Mount Powerless, Mount Pitiable. She could smell it in the air, hear it every interaction. The bagels at her local cafe smelled like fish. The cashier at the liquor store nearly threw her change at her. It was undeniable and everywhere. Mount Pervasive. Mount Perpetual.
Ava needed to let it out—“it” being everything. She needed to unburden herself somehow.
So she called her friend Kate.
Three Manhattans later, Ava said, “I’m having a thing.”
“A thing.” Kate was a good friend. She knew when to simply repeat.
“Yeah.” Ava considered her words carefully. “I haven’t been able to… unload… in weeks.”
Kate gave her a dirty look. A look that clearly said, ‘you know you shouldn’t talk about this.’
“I’m not telling you this,” Ava said. She was on the verge of tears. “But I’m just so pent up. Exhausted.”
Kate’s anger faded to thoughtfulness, then defeat, then she responded: “It’s the same for me.”
“What’s happening?” asked Ava.
“It’s that time of year.”
“It’s not, though.”
“No. It’s not.” Kate nodded, fiddling with her cherry garnish.
Ava sat back. The simple acknowledgement that something was wrong, that it wasn’t just her, gave her ease. She felt it in her chest. It made her giddy.
So giddy—recklessly so—she leaned to whisper to Kate, “Let’s just leave,” although they hadn’t received their check. So giddy she decided to go back to the crick right then.
What weighed on her was this: She could hardly remember. The only thing mattered was the release.
The street bustled with people; a fall breeze brought many to Mount Pleasant for strolls.
Ava didn’t care.
In the midst of the bustle, the old sack of a man she saw that first night was speaking into the crick, camouflaged in grey clothing that blended in to the grey rock wall. Easy to miss—if you didn’t know to look.
She pounded over.
“Excuse me.” Ava tapped the man’s shoulder. He turned around in shock.
“What are you…”
“You’ve taken my spot.” His eyes were set deep in a wrinkled face, pulled down at the edges. She would have noticed his tears if she took any care to notice him at all.
He turned back to the crick, ignoring her.
“Excuse me!” Ava tapped his shoulder again. He didn’t move. She pulled at him, pulled at his shoulder. Pulled harder. The birds took flight, wreathing around her, screeching, in her eyes, pecking her ears, but she didn’t let go.
She pulled and pulled, and suddenly he gave, allowed himself to be pulled just enough for Ava to be thrown backwards, into the street, and into the beams of an oncoming car—and the next thing she knew was the white of a hospital room, the white sheets and walls and lights drawing white lines in her eyes.
Ava shifted to get a better look, felt straps around her arms and an IV in her wrist. Her movement triggered an alarm, and soon after a nurse drifted in.
“There, there,” the nurse said to Ava, taking a seat next to her bed. “There, there. You’ve been through a lot. I’m here now.”
The nurse patted her hand. It was bliss.
Ava opened her mouth but did not know what to say. She enjoyed the touch in silence.
After a few minutes, the nurse stood. “Ring this call button if you’re in pain. Just by your left hand. Someone will be here.”
Ava nodded. She stroked the call button with her pointer finger, circling it around and around. As her finger circled, she imagined she was stroking the crick in the stone wall, sealing it up.
She wondered what would happen if the crick ever sealed, whether the land underneath would collapse with emptiness. Mount Pointless. Mount Pitiless. She imagined the sins of her neighbors holding up Mount Pleasant like a balloon. What would happen if there were no release? What would happen with no secrets? Where would the pain of existence go, with nowhere to put it? Where would it go? Where?
Denise Robbins is a writer and climate change activist based in Washington, DC. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Book Smuggler’s Den, Cleaning Up Glitter, The Finger (forthcoming), and more. She also co-authored a non-fiction book about climate change refugees, published by Indiana University Press. She has a cat named Elephant who has grown into her name.
Cagibi Issue 7