Alex clenched his teeth as he heard his sister's taunting voice.
"Look at Alex! Look at him! He's scared to go up!" With a swift move, Alex wiped the sweat from his forehead, pushing his auburn hair out of his eyes. He had waited all summer to come here to the outdoor rock-climbing center in Alberta, and now he was afraid to start climbing! Stalling, he adjusted the red helmet that protected his head and looked over at his sister Cory angrily. She had their mother's red hair and green eyes that were always full of reckless fun and determination. "I'm not scared, Cory" he said quietly "I'll race you up!"
Cory looked surprised but nodded curtly and gripped the first rock. Alex copied her.
Their mum, looking doubtful, pushed back a strand of her loose hair. "Are you sure this is a good idea? Alex has never climbed before . . ."
"Relax, Mum," replied her daughter impatiently. "We're both on harnesses, it's not as if we'll break our necks or anything. Could you say 'go'?"
"Oh, all right. Ready . . . set. . . go!"
Alex shot upwards. His small, lithe body twisted and turned as he reached for each new rock nailed in the artificial surface. His feet found tiny footholds to brace his body.
His belayer, holding on to the rope so that Alex would not plummet to the ground, looked at him in surprise. "The kid's good! How old is he? I've never seen someone go that fast in my life! Did you say he's never climbed before?"
Alex's parents watched their eleven-year-old son as he reached the top of the course; fifteen-year-old Cory arrived quite a few seconds after him. Alex had a small smile on his quiet face as he was let down to the ground by the amazed belayer. Cory then floated down on her harness, looking angry.
"Where did you learn to climb like that, Alex? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I- I didn't know I could," said Alex softly, a little scared of this unknown talent. "I didn't know"
Cory's face softened. "Well, what are you waiting for? Try a harder one!"
Cory and I are so different, reflected Alex. She's a daredevil, always pushing her luck. She doesn't care about danger, and it's got her broken bones more than a few times. I like challenges, sure, and I always push myself further, but I'd prefer to read instead. As an afterthought, he added, I wish I were more like her.
* * *
During the next two weeks at the Outdoor Climbing Center, Alex's talent flourished. By the last day, he was climbing the hardest courses as if they were horizontal and flat. He almost cried when his parents reminded him that they were leaving the next day. "It's not fair!" he yelled, losing his temper for one of the first times in his life. "I want to stay here forever!"
"Nevertheless, you have school in a month, and you know that we can't stay here forever, Alex," said his father.
Cory looked at her father. "Come on, Dad. Can't we stay another day?"
"No. We have to . . ."
Her father was cut off by his wife, who wanted her family to stop arguing. She addressed her husband sternly. "I have a compromise. Right now, as you all know, we are going to Greece because I want to see the Parthenon and the Greek islands—and the mountains. The mountains, I have been told, are wonderful, and we can let Alex do some real climbing there." She watched her son's face brighten considerably; he had almost forgotten about the trip to Greece. Alex knew every piece of information there was about the ancient Greek gods and goddesses, and he was eager to see Athens and the Parthenon ruins.
Her husband smiled and said, "I knew you would think of a solution, my dear."
"Honestly," she said to her family. "What would you do without me?"
Cory rolled her eyes. "Well," she said, sighing. "I suppose we have to see the Parthenon?" Knowing that the answer was yes, she continued. "Alex, we can climb some real mountains now!" Even though she wasn't as exceptionally good at this sport as Alex, she still excelled at it, as she did most sports. Climbing was the one in which Alex claimed victory over her.
* * *
Late that night, the sixth night that the family spent in Greece, they arrived at a small inn near the coast of Greece. They had hired a horse and cart for the trip, because Alex's mother claimed that she would not travel in cars any more than she had to. Alex grinned. His mother sometimes got carsick on ten-minute drives—a four-hour ride over the rocky roads of Greece's countryside would be torture for her. The past six days had been spent touring the sights of Greece; Alex had been in heaven, but now he was even more excited—the next day would bring mountains! The air was warm and laden with the sweet scent of flowers, and everyone, especially the children, was drowsy.
"The Hestia Inn," murmured Cory sleepily as she saw the small wooden sign hanging on a post. "And down that lane is Artemis Inlet. What is it with these people and the old Olympian gods?" The moment she said it, she regretted it; closing her eyes, she winced slightly as her brother opened his mouth indignantly.
Alex started to talk a mile a minute about Artemis and Hestia. He explained that of course an inn would be named after Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. The owners might want their fire to be always bright and warm, and as Hestia had tended the fire of Mount Olympus, it stood to reason that she would be the one the ancient Greeks called on when they named inns with fires where travellers could be warmed. Perhaps these people were just carrying on the tradition? He told Cory how Artemis had asked her father, Zeus, never to have to marry and for other things: a bow and quiver and a band of nymphs to be her maidens. He loved the myths behind the Greek goddesses—he said they were more interesting, and their beginnings stranger, than the gods. The Greek gods, goddesses, muses, titans and nymphs were the one thing he liked to talk about with other people; other than that he kept to himself.
Cory glared at him. "I didn't ask you, twerp," she said.
Alex grinned impishly and stuck out his tongue. "I don't need your permission to speak, Cory" He quickly ducked her swipe and whispered, "Be careful. The man driving the cart is Greek. They probably don't like to hear the old gods and goddesses made fun of."
The old man pulled the reins good-naturedly to halt his sturdy horse. "It is all right, little lady." Obviously he had sharper ears than the two siblings had guessed. "You could not know all of the old gods and goddesses, and it is true many places are named after them. Take Mount Apollo—it rises straight out of the water in the inlet named after Artemis. The moon always shines on the inlet, the sun on the highest point of Mount Apollo. They are always together or close to each other, for they are twins, and each place has the sun or moon—Artemis for the moon and her brother for the sun."
"Well," countered Cory, "that's all very well, but you can't say one of us knows nothing of the old gods. Alex is practically Canada's leading expert on Greek mythology."
The man bowed politely. "True, ma'am. He is a very clever boy." Then, turning to Alex's father, he said, "The Hestia Inn, sir. It is where you are staying. Did you pay at the airport, sir? Yes? Good." He tipped his hat to Alex's mum.
An unexpected yawn came upon Alex as the weary family climbed down from the man's cart and took their luggage from the back. Alex and Cory stopped to stroke the pony's smooth coat. Then they turned and trudged up to the door of the low white-stone building. The interior was cool, calm and welcoming—a gladly accepted change from the hot air outside the door.
* * *
The next day they were up early. Alex begged his mum to let him go climbing in the mountains of Greece; in the end it was decided everyone would go. Alex's dad sighed and ran a long hand through his dark hair. "My dear," he said, addressing his wife, "I think we have bred a mountain goat."
Alex knew that his dad didn't really mind, though. He was a kind man who loved his family more than anything else and would do anything for his children or his wife.
They met up with their guide at nine in the morning outside the inn. His name was Alen Vardalos and he brought his daughter Marisa with him. Marisa is a nice name, thought Alex. It definitely isn't as common as Alex—lucky Marisa!
Mr. Vardalos, who said he was to be called just Alen, was tall and thin—he was obviously a hard worker. He had a dark complexion and, though he smiled rarely, his grin was broad and his teeth were as white as all the other Greeks'. Marisa was ten, just a month younger than Alex. She was small and slim, with long dark hair tied back in a plait and wide brown eyes that flashed with mischief. Unlike her father, she often grinned—she seemed to have unquenchable cheerfulness.
"Well, you say that you like to climb. There are mountains and cliffs down by the coast—perhaps that is where you would like to go first?" Men spoke quietly, and after some discussion the group of six walked down to the coast, a short half-hour walk.
At first, Alen and his daughter seemed unsure of whether Alex was strong enough to climb the low cliffs around the water line, but when he shot up the hardest path without relying on his harness, all traces of doubt were removed from their minds. They spent the whole day climbing, and Marisa proved almost as adept as Alex in reaching the top of the cliffs quickly. Alex noticed that Marisa was constantly singing one song, very softly, and that she had a very good voice. The song was "Losing Grip," and Marisa evidently had it stuck in her head.
"Girls! Alex! Time to come down! It's getting windy and we have to go back to the inn!" called Alex's mother. Sighing, Alex took one last look around him at the far-reaching view from the top of the cliff, revelling in the feel of the wind whipping at his cheeks, and climbed down to the solid ground.
* * *
Over the next wonderful seven days, the trio formed of Marisa, Alex and Cory climbed every mountain within a hundred miles of the cozy Hestia Inn. Alex and Marisa formed a lasting friendship—they discovered that they shared some of the same interests, like Greek mythology Artemis in particular fascinated Marisa—she had learned at an early age to use a bow and arrow, and so thought of Artemis as the goddess most like herself. It was not an uncommon sight to see the two walking around the inn, arguing good-naturedly about or sharing different versions of myths.
The last day came—the day before Alex and his family packed their bags and headed once more to the airport. The two families decided to climb the steep island of sheer rock that rose out of the Artemis Inlet.
When they arrived, they rowed over to the island in a small boat. The adults sat on the small beach on one side of the island and Alex looked at the climb. It was steeper and smoother than he had thought and he considered putting on his safety harness. He decided against it and climbed up, securing a harness rope at the top for Marisa. He was about to put on one for Cory as he yelled, "Cory! Marisa! Put on your harnesses—it's really steep!"
"All right!" called Marisa, dropping down to earth from a metre above the ground and putting on the harness. "Cory! Come down!"
"Nah! I don't need a harness. I can get to the top fine, and the other side is easy enough to walk down when I'm done. So there." Cory continued climbing, regardless of the danger she faced.
Marisa shook her head and quickly climbed up. She was able to wedge her body into a small crack that Cory couldn't manage, and reached the top first. They were at least a hundred feet up, she realized. Then she thought, Cory better not fall! The thought was a joke—of course athletic, smart, indefatigable Cory wouldn't fall—but then she heard a grinding noise. The section of rock that held Cory was slipping—falling . . . "Cory! Grab hold of something!" she screamed, whipping around to look down. The picture of the rock sliding from underneath Cory's hands flashed again and again in front of her horrified eyes.
* * *
Alex saw Cory grab hold of a spar of rock and pull her body free of the sliding rock. The rock fall stopped as quickly as it had started and Cory struggled to regain her balance and her hold on the rock.
"My palms are sweaty!" she yelled. "I'm slipping!"
Alex's reflexes acted quickly as he lay down on the flat area at the top of the mountain and reached his hand out to her. "Grab hold of my hand! Don't fall!" He looked back at Marisa, who had climbed up faster than Cory and was taking a piece of rope from her pack. "Come on!" he shouted. "I've got to reach her or she'll fall!"
Marisa came over with the rope, winding it around a promontory of rock and knotting it. "Give this to Cory," she said quietly.
Alex was surprised at her calmness—it seemed she had the situation under control. He guessed that she had probably done this before, but thought that she had to be close to panicking, as he was, so he took the rope from her and dangled it as close to Cory as it would come. "Get hold of the rope!" he told her, hoping she would not panic as well.
Alex saw Cory take a deep breath. Then, with one hand, she let go of the spar of rock she was holding on to and grabbed the rope. She was now in a difficult position, if possible worse than before. Her hold on the rope wasn't steady, and only one foot was touching the small ledge of rock she was on. He groaned, but watched Cory try to twist herself around. She succeeded. I should have known she'd be fine, grinned Alex. She could probably hold on all day.
His relief came too soon, however—Cory made a swift grab for the rope and suddenly her full weight was resting on the rope. In horror, Alex saw the rope slither out of the knot.
Marisa blanched and froze. Alex threw himself down and caught the rope—he just stopped Cory from falling to the sharp rocks below. Now he had her full weight resting on him. He dug his toes into the ground and held on.
For the first time, Alex heard his mother's voice.
"Alex! Alex! Marisa! Help her! Don't let her fall . . ." Her voice trailed away into silence, and Alex heard crying.
Marisa came to help Alex with the rope. "We've got to hold on to her and pull her up to a ledge," she explained, voice strained with tension.
Alex nodded and the two started to pull Cory up to a small ridge about ten feet above her and thirty feet below the top of the mountain. It took a long time and Marisa started singing the song again.
"I'm starting to trip, I'm losing my grip, and I'm . ."
She was cut off by Alex. "Umm, Marisa, I don't think that's the best song for this particular moment . ."
Marisa grinned and ducked her head. "Oops. Sorry," she said, her dark eyes twinkling.
Cory's voice floated up from where she was hanging. "Who tied that knot?" she yelled.
Marisa looked at her feet. "I'm sorry I wasn't thinking— it was the wrong type of knot," she yelled back.
"That's OK," said Alex cheerfully "At least you can tie knots—I hardly even know how to. Just don't try to kill Cory" he said. A thoughtful look came into his eyes. "On second thought, we could just leave her here . . ."
"Definitely not!" Cory's voice made Marisa jump and she deftly tied a second, surer knot. Now Cory could climb up, aided with a rope that wouldn't break or slip from the knot. Alex watched his sister wrap the rope around her waist and start climbing, finding small hand- and foot-holds to brace herself with. When she got close to the top, he reached a hand out to her, but she shook her head, saying that she didn't want to pull him over as well. Alex took her point and stood back as she climbed over the edge. Finally, his sister was safe.
* * *
Alex, Cory and their parents were leaving. Alex was loathe to leave—he had never had a better time in his life, nor had he ever had a better friend than Marisa. She stood next to her father, who had come to the airport to see them off. She hugged Cory, telling her not to fall off any more cliffs. Then she said goodbye to Alex's mum and dad. They thanked her for helping to save their daughter and she said demurely that she had hardly done anything, although they insisted that she had.
Alex turned to Marisa. He was suddenly shy—he had never been good about saying goodbye, especially to girls. "We're going to come back next summer," he said quietly. "Will your dad be our guide again?"
Marisa nodded, her two dark braids swinging gently. "Of course he will be. I don't think he'd let anyone else take you around, now that he knows how crazy Cory is. Has she ever broken bones?"
"Are you joking? She's practically broken every one in her body already! By the time next summer comes, she'll have broken a few more."
Marisa laughed. "I'll probably see you before then—I'll be watching any rock-climbing tournaments they have on television." Then she hugged Alex tightly.
"I hope," Alex said. "Goodbye, Marisa."
"Bye," she said sadly.
Alex's mother called, "Our plane's leaving, Alex. Come on!"
Alex smiled one last smile at Marisa and turned away, running to catch up with his parents. When he boarded the plane, he turned on his headphones, blinking back tears at saying goodbye to Marisa. He looked out of the window and saw her waving wildly. He waved back, but she was lost to sight as the plane taxied away. Through his headphones he heard Avril Lavigne singing, "I'm starting to trip, I'm losing my grip, and I'm in this thing alone. .."
He began to smile.