Count on the Mountains


Fiction by Stacey Bartlett

Noah knew Momma wouldn’t wake up even if he shot his BB gun off right over her head. She was out cold. He pushed her shoulder one more time, even as hope flopped around and died in his chest, a lot like the tiny trout he and Jeremiah caught after school.

Jeremiah was his best friend and had been ever since Noah and his momma moved into the trailer park right after Christmas. Noah was gonna miss him bad, but he knew they’d be moving on soon. Momma’s boyfriend moved out, and the rent would be due. Noah’s stomach growled at the thought of food. He dragged a lawn chair from the kitchen table over to the counter and climbed on it to get a better look at his dinner choices. Cereal, or cereal. He grabbed a box of Cheerios and poured some in a bowl, then looked in the refrigerator without much hope. The milk had already tasted a little funny last night.

Noah curled up on the couch by Momma’s feet and tried to decide what to do next. He was so sleepy though, it was hard to think. When the school bus came for him in the mornings, it was still dark as night outside. The bus would pull up with a squeal and a hiss and lights flashing across the sleeping trailers like a UFO had just landed by the mailboxes.

Maybe he would close his eyes, just for a minute.

The music started pumping from next door and Noah drug his eyes open. He knew it must be getting late. He feared if he left Momma alone on the couch and went to bed, she might be sick in the night, and he wouldn’t be there to take care of her.

“Momma, wake up!” He yanked on her leg.

When she didn’t move, he knew something was wrong. He tried to pull her up, but her head only hung backwards, her long hair as black as a crow’s wing fanned out across the grubby pillow.

Noah was still so tired, but he tried to think again. Should he cover Momma with a blanket and go to bed, or should he call Grandma?

Something inside of him said to call Grandma.

Noah knocked the ashtray onto the floor as he grabbed the phone next to it. He looked for Grandma’s face and tapped on it like Momma had shown him. When Grandma answered, he shouted, “Come quick, Momma’s taken bad!” Then he started to cry.

~

“It’s okay, baby, she’ll be alright,” Grandma said, taking another drag off of her cigarette. She coughed and rolled the car window down so she could spit.

Noah stared at the flashing red light in front of them and wanted to believe what Grandma said was true. He knew the men were taking care of Momma in the back of the ambulance, but she hadn’t even moved when they rolled her up in it.

Noah wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Hurry, Grandma!”

She reached over and squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry, they can go faster than us, but I know where they’re taking her.”

They took Momma to a big building Grandma said was the hospital. They parked, and Grandma grabbed her big purse and Noah’s hand. For someone so tiny, she could move fast. Noah trotted along beside her and didn’t even look both ways when they crossed the road and ran behind the parked ambulance and right past the big glass door. As a wave of freezing air hit him, he started to shiver. Grandma talked to the lady behind the desk while the boy tried hard to stand still and keep his teeth from chattering.

“Let’s go, baby,” Grandma finally said.

“What’d that lady want?” Noah asked.

“She wanted your momma’s insurance card, but she can keep on wanting it,” Grandma said and scowled. “Sit right there.”

The cold blue chair only made Noah feel colder. Grandma sat down beside him, and he cuddled as close to her as he could. She put her long, smoky-smelling sweater over him, and he glanced around the room. It was a terrifying place.

Moans and coughs filled the sanitizer scented air. The old man across from Noah held a bloody rag over his nose, a woman three chairs down threw up in a bag again and again. Noah squeezed his eyes shut to block it all out and he drifted into an uneasy sleep.

“Wake up, baby.” Grandma’s voice seemed to come from far away. Noah felt her fake nails pinching his shoulder as she shook him.

He opened his eyes and sat straight up, wiped the drool off his chin and looked up at Grandma.

“Listen, baby.” She held his hand. “It’s morning visiting hours in the ICU, and they don’t let kids in there. I’m gonna need you to be brave and sit right here while I go visit with your momma and figure out what’s going on.”

And before Noah could even ask what an ICU was, she was gone. He gulped and looked around the room. A woman with frizzy hair and missing teeth smiled at him, and he shrank back into his icy blue chair.

Noah had to go to the bathroom bad. Grandma had told him to sit still, but he couldn’t hold it any longer. He stood up and crept across the room to the bathroom door, eyes on his torn, red clay covered Crocs.

When he got back to his chair, Grandma was waiting with her purse on her shoulder. “Let’s get outta here.”

Noah clutched her hand and trotted back across the parking lot to the car while she told him about Momma.

“She’s gonna be alright, baby. Took too many of her back pills, so they had to pump her stomach. She has to stay here for a couple days in the psych ward while they level her out.”

Being leveled out and having your stomach pumped sounded scary to Noah, and he started to cry while he put on his seat belt. His stomach hurt bad, and he felt the sour milk from his cereal supper trying to come up the same way it had gone down.

“Hey now, it’s okay,” Grandma reassured him. “Your momma will be home in a day or two, and I’ll stay with you, don’t worry.”

Noah sniffed and stared out the window. He watched the car wash and the Dollar General roll by. “Grandma?”

She lit her cigarette and glanced over at him. “Hmmm?”

“You know those guys- the ones who helped Momma and put her in the ambulance?”

Grandma flicked her ashes out the window. “Uh huh- the paramedics?”

“Paramedics.” Noah let the cool word roll around on his tongue. “Yeah, I guess. That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”

“Good for you, baby,” Grandma said, smiling for the first time. “Good for you.”

~

Noah played with his army men and watched Momma and Grandma glare at each other. Momma slammed her beer down on the coffee table. “I told you, Mom, there’s no place that will have me!”

“Well we’re just gonna have to keep looking. You need to be in counseling, that fancy doctor up on the ward told me so.”

Momma laughed, a funny, high-pitched sound that didn’t sound like a laugh at all. “Easy for him to say- he makes more in six months than I’ve made in my whole life. We can’t afford it Mom, and you know it.”

Noah slipped out the front door and found Jeremiah just about to knock. “What them women talking about?” he wanted to know.

Noah shook his head. “I don’t know. Something  about Momma needing help, but apparently help costs too much.”

‘Apparently’ was a word his teacher used a lot, and Noah loved big words.

Momma not having enough money to get help worried Noah some when he thought about it, but mostly he was happy. Momma had been different for three whole weeks. Different good, not different bad.

Grandma didn’t come by as much, and Momma played with Noah. They hung the wash on the line together in the sunshine, and she cooked something good for supper nearly every night. His stomach stopped growling all the time, and he told Jesus thank you when he said his prayers before bed.

One Saturday afternoon when the cicadas were calling, Jeremiah walked Noah home. The trailer door opened, and Momma stood there with a big man.

“Noah…shay hi,” she said.

Then Noah knew. Momma wasn’t saying her words right, and it was all starting over again. His bony shoulders sagged.

“Noah!” Momma said, sharper this time.

“Hi,” he said quickly. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too, little man,” the new boyfriend said, smiling.

He sauntered over and ruffled the hair on the top of Noah’s head. He tried to mess with Jeremiah’s head too, but Jeremiah just took a step back and looked up at him with big, dark eyes. The new boyfriend laughed and climbed back up the rickety steps to Momma again. They went inside, and the rusty screen door slammed shut behind them.

Jeremiah put his hand on Noah’s shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Wanna go down to the creek and look for the hellbender I saw?”

Noah shook his head, afraid to talk. He was scared his tears might turn into screams and start shooting up out of his mouth like his own stomach had been pumped.

The cool breeze picked up and the tall pines rustled. Noah turned and followed Jeremiah as the two of them slipped silently down the trail, the blue mountains aglow in the sinking sun.


Stacey Bartlett

Stacey is a writer, a psychology major, and a homeschooling mom to four children living in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. Two of her novels will be published in September 2024 and February 2025 with Monarch Educational Services. Her work appears in the eleventh edition (2024) of County Lines Literary Journal. “Count on the Mountains” was a semifinalist in the 2023 Doris Betts Fiction Prize Competition.


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