The smoke is thick, clouds my vision; the heat inches up my arms and legs.
Leving appears through the haze, doesn’t seem to see the smoke or feel the flames. He smiles and holds out a hand. “Come with me.” I take his fingers, the old knuckles balled, the skin stretched tight and shiny.
The ground slopes upward and he takes the hill in easy, smooth strides, smelling the air like it's cologne, not toxic plumes. I stop, press my palms against my knees and cough. My eyes sting. “I just need a minute,” I say.
Leving waits, puts his hands loosely behind his back, stares up the mountain. “How are things?” he asks.
“Hard.” The word closes my throat, settles heavy in my marrow.
He nods, his whole face soft and warm. “We should keep going then.”
I'm too tired to move, but I do, one foot forward and then the other. The way is steep now. Rocks jut from weeds. My chest hurts with the elevation. I scramble on knees and hands, half crawling, half climbing. My nails break. Leving moves as if the rise is merely flat land.
We reach the summit. It’s even here. Grass is vibrant and deep, knitted so close not a speck of dirt is visible between blades. Crickets hum, make the earth purr like a kitten. A willow tree is centered, the thin limbs riding on the zephyrs, as gentle as hairs blowing across a cheek. The sun is open. The sky is blue – only blue.
I don’t need to catch my breath. The air is clean. I sit in the grass. Now the sun’s warmth inches up my arms and legs. My vision is clear.
Leving sits next to me, peers into the horizon. “What do you see?” he asks me.
I look down at the valley. My torn fingers throb, my chest is heavy again. “Smoke. War. Despair. Flames.”
His face does not move. “What else do you see?"
I look up. The sun spreads across my forehead and down my nose. I smile. “Sky. Peace. Joy. Warmth.”
Now he looks at me. “Which is real?”
“They’re both real,” I answer.
“Now,” Leving stands to go. “You must choose – live in smoke or rise above.”