“We hit the major number today.”
“Does it mean…?”
They continued up the mountain, distant valleys peaking between breaks in the trees.
They stopped at a signpost indicating the elevation. “Fourteen thousand feet. Finally!”
She wiped her brow. “Sorry, that’s me sweat I wiped on ye, ain’t it?”
She looked at her satellite phone, the signal strong enough to make a call.
“Yes, it is 13674.”
The voice of a creaky old man standing beside her answered before she could. “Aye.”
She closed the connection on the phone.
“You always interrupt me, don’t ye?”
She stared at the felt hand puppet, its face gray and gnarled, its body hidden in folds of brown fabric like an elderly monk.
She thought to herself. “They say I talk to myself out loud but I know better. I hear the spirits of others and repeat them like a squawking parrot, that’s all.”
“You’re just as alive as the rest of us, aren’t ye?”
“Aye.” The puppet didn’t blink an eye, never changing its expression, half scowl, half smile, as if the punchline of an untold joke was on the tip of its tongue.
She sat down on a rock, removed the puppet and placed it in a special sleeve of her backpack.
“Mister ‘Aye,’ it’s time I replace you with a new friend — the ‘Guru on the Mountaintop above the Clouds.'”
“Good afternoon, little lady, how are you this lovely cold day?”
She nodded back to the puppet. “Just fine. I have a few questions for you.”
“And I might have a few questions in response. What do you want to know?”
“Why is 13674 significant?”
“The real question, little lass, is, ‘Why is 13674 not significant?'”
She stood up from the rock, brushing pieces of lichen from her faded blue jeans.
Sighing, she continued hiking up the trail. “A few more thousand feet to go!”
A muffled voice spoke behind her. “Aye.”