by Dustin Heron

Morris wasn’t having it. The heat, the flies, the weighted sacks. He kept looking over his shoulder at the blue river; up at the trees, the shade beneath them; then at the steep, jagged, sun-beaten trail leading to the mountaintop. No, his swishing tail said: no, I’d rather not.

But there was a mountain to climb and Darnold intended to be first to the top. ‘Up, donkey!’ Darnold yelled in a false twang. He was wearing a straw hat he’d bought at a thrift store and which was meant for a little old lady. He flicked his belt buckle: a chipped and dented butterfly. ‘Come on, ye scooped back layabout!’ said Darnold with a fatalistic sigh.

Darnold knew Morris’ name; Morris slept in a plywood lean-to built against Darnold’s trailer. Darnold sat out there on warm, clear nights in a lawn-chair, the donkey curled at his feet. But standing in the late April sun at the bottom of the Feather River canyon, Morris was supposed to lose his individuality and become just a donkey, the nameless donkey of history, burdened with the fifty-pound gold nugget that, once it had been carried from the river to town, would make Paradise, briefly, famous. And Darnold was the miner, or a miner, or, anyway, playing the part of one, for this, the Donkey Derby, was a recreation of that event and an essential component of the yearly Gold Nugget Days Parade.

‘Donkey!’ said Darnold, standing on a tall rock and raising his arms. But Morris swished his tail and clicked his teeth. ‘Donkey!’ said Darnold, stomping his foot. Morris sat on his haunches. ‘God damnit, Morris,’ said Darnold, jumping off the rock. ‘Look, you want some ice cream? When this is all over—’

And, of course, right on time: here comes Otto Bellman, reigning champ, riding his muscular, black-coated donkey and carrying the fifty-pound pound faux-nugget in the crook of his hairy biceps as if it were a football. Otto roared with laughter.

‘Problem with your beast?’ said Otto, in his unusually high-pitched voice.

‘Yeah,’ said Darnold. ‘He’s too eager. I’m telling him to cool it. Cool it, Morris.’ Morris lay down in a cloud of dust. ‘Uh,’ said Darnold. ‘Good boy.’

Otto laughed. ‘The first year I took Lonestar up the mountain, I had to hoist him on my shoulders for the first mile. Ha, ha! So, you know. It might take some time.’

‘Well, he’s not much to look at but Morris is a real monster. Just a hikin’, load-carryin’ monster. You’ll see.’

Otto nodded sagely and looked at the thin clouds slowly separating overhead. ‘A man, his beast, and nature. ’Tis truly the essence of the world, don’t you think?’

‘Sure,’ said Darnold, looking up. ‘Hey,’ he said after a moment, ‘check out the plane.’

A red fire-fighting plane dangling a bucket passed overhead, the distant roar of its engines muted.

‘What’s a plane, Goodman? The plane I use to make furniture? The Great Plain my family dared cross to start our new lives, here in the bountiful west?’

‘Shut up Otto, you’re a CPA.’

Otto laughed. ‘Come on, Darnold, have some fun. This is fun. Are you having fun?’

Darnold looked down at Morris, whose red eyes fluttered closed. ‘No,’ he said.

‘Then what’s the point?’

‘Victory.’

‘Victory? Jesus man, its a dumb competition. You drag a donkey and a fifty-pound weight up a hill. It’s supposed to be fun.’

‘How is that supposed to be fun?’

Otto shrugged. ‘I don’t know, but it is. Speaking of which, you’re bumming me out, okay?’ He dismounted, stuffed the nugget in the donkey’s bag, and grabbed Lonestar’s harness. ‘See you at the top, Darnold.’

‘Sure,’ said Darnold. He watched Otto lead his donkey up the rocky trailhead.

Why was he here? What was he even doing? Well, too late to think about that. Here he was. He grabbed Morris behind the forelegs and lifted him up, dragged him forward a few feet until the donkey started walking on his own, took the lead, and started dragging the beast up the hill.

First of all, it was hot. Second of all, the Ridge Fire had filled with air with smoke and you could taste it in the air, feel it in your lungs. It was hot and smoky in a way it usually wasn’t until late in the summer. What little breeze crept up the mountain was useless. The going? Rough. The trail was essentially the same one that had been used for decades, but a particularly wet winter had brought mudslides which left the trail either washed out and indecipherable, or completely blocked off by fallen branches and cracked-in-half trees. At the start of mile two, Darnold was crying silently, the salt of his tears and his sweat irresistible to his increasingly chapped lips.

Just past the marker for mile three, as Morris reluctantly clattered over a fallen tree, Darnold thought about calling Alice. Just out here, winning the Donkey Derby, he’d say. She’d tell him about her day, how she was getting along with Rhonda, she’d ask again when he was coming to visit, she’d cheer him on. Yes, she’d cheer him on. Alice, the believer. He took out his phone but had no signal. He looked up and saw Morris had scooped out a little den in the roots of a tree and was curled up, lightly dozing. ‘God damnit, Morris. Sleeping on the job? I can see Jim Oakes catching up to us. Let’s get going,’

Morris slowly lifted his head and looked at Darnold with irritation. But he stood and shook himself and they moved on.

Even in the shade, it was hot. The switchbacks climbed at impossible angles. They trudged along through rock and dust. Darnold’s breath was ragged and his shirt stuck to his skin. Morris shook his head at flies and sighed. Between treetops, a glimpse of the sky, a brown cloud of smoke separating itself against the sun’s glare. Darnold sobbed loudly and Morris said, ‘It’s okay, buddy.’

‘Thanks, Morris,’ Darnold sniffled. They walked on a bit. ‘Morris?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Am I a good person?’

Morris made a clicking sound. ‘You’re the best, Darnold.’

‘You mean it?’

‘Best friend I ever had.’

The sound of hooves on rocks behind them, and Darnold turned to see Jim Oakes steadfastly rounding the switchback. A toned, bronzed and eagle-faced old man with sweeping grey hair and behind him his donkey Clementine, just as lean and driven. Jim breathed evenly and took measured steps, like a machine. Long ago, he won the Derby and set a record, but ever since then he’d come in second—except last year, when, to his great shame, he came in third.

‘Wasting breath. Talking to yourself,’ he said as he passed.

‘I wasn’t talking to myself,’ Darnold said, ‘I was talking to Morris.’

‘Still. Wasted,’ he said in time to his own breath.

Darnold looked at his donkey, who looked dumbly back.

‘I was encouraging him.’

‘Encourage. Yourself,’ said Jim Oakes, as he disappeared up the hill.

Hands on his hips, Darnold said, ‘What are you making me do, Morris? You’re making me crazy, man.’

Morris trudged ahead. ‘Look what you’re making me do!’

That was fair, so Darnold continued on. Soon they came to a wide, flat spot that overlooked the canyon and they sat and ate lunch. A breeze picked up and carried cool air from the river. Here came Alice, little Alice, all alone, trudging up the hill, pulling not a donkey but that little unicorn she carried to visits. Rhonda told him Alice never played with that unicorn except at visitation, and he still didn’t understand what that meant. Emboldened by his aching muscles and a supportive nod from Morris, Darnold said, ‘Alice – why do you only play with that unicorn when you see me?’

Alice sat down with a harrumph, pushed her golden hair from her face, said, ‘Can I have some cheese?’

‘I’ve got tons of cheese,’ said Darnold.

‘Your brother loves his cheese,’ said Morris.

They ate the cheese in silence and then Alice said, ‘I want you to think I’m happy.’

Darnold’s heart sank. ‘It’s okay if you’re not happy. I’m not happy.’

‘But that’s not enough – is it?’

‘No,’ he said.

‘I’m not unhappy, I guess,’ said Alice. ‘I miss Mom and Dad. I want to live with you. That would make me happy. Until then I’m just kind of, I don’t know, existing.’

‘Me too,’ said Darnold.

‘Then why don’t you get a job, or a different place to live, or stop living with a donkey?’

‘I told you last time, those things are kind of off the table. At least right now.’

‘But why?’

‘The world is a lot more complicated than you think. You’ll learn. Anyway, what do you think I’m doing right now?’

Alice took in the scene. ‘Making a fool of yourself.’

‘God damnit, Alice!’

‘You’re just fucking around.’

‘I’m being someone else!’

‘You’re a loser.’

‘I’m going to win this fucking thing!’ he shouted and jumped to his feet. When he did Alice was gone. He kicked the remains of their lunch through the dirt and into the canyon, grabbed Morris’ harness, and went double-time up the trail.

It didn’t last long. Still in sight of their scattered lunch, Darnold leaned over and threw up in the middle of the trail. Morris said nothing, and dutifully looked away. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’ Darnold said.

‘Damnit, Darnold,’ said Morris, jumping forward so they were eye-to-eye. ‘Have you ever known what you were doing?’

‘No,’ Darnold cried.

‘Has that ever stopped you from doing it?’

Darnold stood up a little straighter. ‘Hell no.’

‘Are you going to let it stop you now?’

‘Hell FUCKING no!’ he yelled and once again went running up the hill – with the same result. Wiping the fresh bile from his face, he saw, between the trees, Carl Tooby and Sweatpea gaining on them. Darnold felt an alien coldness in his chest that he identified as certainty.

‘We can’t be last, Morris. We can’t win but we can’t be last.’

Morris nodded. ‘I got you, man,’ he said.

Darnold climbed onto the donkey, who went sprightly up the hill, around a bend, between boulders and over trees. The wind whistled. Soon the ridge could be seen. Soon they could hear the murmuring of voices, the laughter, the music of the parade. Morris lowered his head and charged forward. Darnold gritted his teeth and held on. They came bounding over the top of the mountain, off the trail and onto the road, zig zagging down the final stretch, lined by cheering, drunken revelers waving American flags and cans of Coors in encouragement. The wind raced over them. Darnold felt clear-headed and buoyant as they skidded across the finish line and he raised a fist in victory but his shout was caught in his throat as Morris tripped and stumbled and spilled Darnold off his back and onto the hot street.

A gasp from the crowd as Darnold rolled, bloody and scraped, to a stop. ‘Morris!’ he shouted, leaping to his feet. The donkey lay on his side, breathing heavily, flies on his face.

Darnold held the donkey’s head in his hands. ‘Morris, are you okay?’

‘I think I overdid it,’ Morris said.

‘You’re a hero.’

‘I’m just a donkey.’

‘You’re my hero.’

‘Aww, thanks man,’ said Morris, blood on his teeth.

‘Morris?’ Darnold said. His voice was shaking. He was trying not to cry in front of the entire town, though they’d all seen it before.

‘Yeah, man?’

‘Are you going to die?’

‘Nah,’ said Morris. ‘This isn’t that kind of story.’

Darnold sobbed. ‘What kind of story is this?’

‘I’m not sure, but I think it’s over.’

Darnold looked up and saw the gathering crowd, their cans of beer held in solemn respect, their American flags at waist level – half-mast. The sun was beating down on them all. The air was smoky. Otto Bellman had won the derby, Jim Oakes took second, and Darnold came in 9th – second-to-last. He’d finished, though. He’d finished something. He waited to feel a difference and when he didn’t he knew Morris was right.

Dustin Heron is a social worker who writes short stories in his spare time. His work has appeared most recently in Fictive Dream, Occulum, Ghost Parachute, Porridge, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. His first book, Paradise Stories, was published by Small Desk Press. You can find more of his work at dustinheron.com.