Kilgore just shook his head, offered Einar the last sip of water from his bottle.
“Andy’s gone, Asmundson. He was gone before you found your way back to us. There was nothing you could do, nothing beyond what you did do. You did what you could, what you had to do to try and get him help, and now you got to let it go. Let him go.”
“They said…you say…but why should I believe you? Why are you here? Really? You’re still in, aren’t you?” Einar was on his feet now, swaying, stumbling, legs had gone to sleep, but standing.
“You know what. Yep, youknowwhat. You’re still in, and they sent you to…to make me crazy with all this stuff so I’ll be easier to catch, tear away at me until my mind’s gone and I’m an easy target, easy to find and to catch but they don’t want you to bring me in because they want to do it themselves because it’s a game to them but they need your help because they sure haven’t had any success doing it on their own, game’s no fun when you’re losing half the players on your side every time you go in for another round, and that’s why they sent you, why you’re doing all this, that’s why you’re here…”
“Make you crazy? Hate to be the one to tell you this, but man, have you looked at yourself lately? Heard yourself? No ‘making you crazy’ about it. You’re already there, and then some. I’m kinda trying to do the opposite, actually, if you’d just let me…”
Einar shook his head, confused, time still distorted, half in one world, half in another. “Locked me up…you locked me up in that doggone hospital when I should have been out there leading them to him, making sure they got there in time…I could walk, I could move, could have guided them…was my duty to see that he got out, but they wouldn’t let me go back…”
“He was already dead by the time they put you in there. Gone. By the time you found your way back, he was gone, and from what I hear you probably would have been, too, if they hadn’t done something for you pretty quick. You were a real mess. But that’s beside the point. There’s nothing more you could have done, even if they’d have let you.”
“I didn’t know that! Still don’t know it for sure…that’s what they told me, you know, but the lies…so much of what we got from the top was lies, and for all I know he may still be alive over there somewhere, and them denying it all along because they want everything all tied up neat and tidy, over, done, no loose ends…”
“Oh, that happened a number of times and I have no doubt, but not in his case. They found his body, man! He came home in a box on a plane--I was there when they loaded him on for that flight--and his family buried him before you ever got back to the States. Couple months before.”
Einar opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, sat down on the low end of the angled log, all the angry energy seeming to drain out of him at once, leaving him empty, exhausted, voice the rustle of dry leaves in the wind. “You were there?”
“I was there. Wish you’d been there too. Might have saved you some years of hurt and wondering, if you’d just been there to see. Might not have, too. No way to say. But yep, I was there. Andy went home, body as well as soul. Think it’s about time you did the same. For your lady’s sake, if not your own. And for the kid. You passed the test just now. You stood. Didn’t back down. I could see in your eyes that you were gonna keep on doing so, keep right on to the end. I know what you’re made of, and you got to realize it, too. Stop the testing. Some of it, anyway. You’re gonna kill yourself if you don’t stop it, and soon. You passed the test, Asmundson. Passed it then, whether you’re willing to recognize that or not, did it again just now and I have no doubt that you’ll be able to do it in the future, if circumstances call for it. Let it go, man. Get out there and live.”
To which he did have an answer, an angry, half rational composition whose words tripped over one another in his brain in their rush to get out, and they would have, except that the speed with which he jumped to his feet again in preparation for launching them brought the blackness sweeping back up at him again, knocked him out cold. Kilgore left him then, left knowing that he’d done just about all he could do and possibly more than he should have, left hoping perhaps in his sleep Einar would manage to sort things out just a bit, come to some understanding, come to be in a better place than he had been before. Seemed possible at least, if not terribly likely, and as Kilgore made his way down the trail to the cabin, he prayed that he might have done more good than harm, in the end. Couldn’t tell yet.
Einar, as he lay there on the ground some time later trying to recall the details of his morning, knew none of that of course, realized, as he thought about it, that he was not even entirely certain what portion of the past hours’ events had been reality, and which of them might have been dream. Hallucination. Something of that sort. Blood on his hands and the aching of his shoulders and ribs told him that parts of it, at least, must have been real. Good. That was good. Would be a bit alarming to discover that one’s dreams could be quite that vivid, though his often did come close…
He slept again then, or something close to it, and when he woke it was to the thought of Liz, and when he though of her it was with such an intense longing that it hurt, ached worse than his ribs, than the ever-present probably-broken catch and burn of his ribs as his chest expanded with each breath, and the ache sent tears trickling down his cheeks to begin washing away some of the dry-crusty blood--all the way dry now, and the flies had lost interest--from the wound above his eyebrow. He missed her. Had things he wanted to tell her, needed to tell her, things he needed to do, and though he hoped with a terrible, half-dreading anticipation that she might still be there when he found his way back home, the thought occurred to him that perhaps he really had no right at all to expect her to be. Well. Nothing he could do about that other than to go and see, and he certainly couldn’t go home looking the way he did. Was quite a mess. To the spring, then, to clean up.
Intending to do it was one thing, getting his body to cooperate quite another entirely; it was all he could do to keep from crying out on his first attempt at standing. His long nap on the ground had really allowed the stiffness to set in, and he was momentarily dismayed to discover that he could barely move his arms, legs half numb and buckling under him as he tried to rise. The dismay was short-lived. That part of it had definitely been real, and the knowledge gave him a certain satisfaction, a peace. The worst had come, some version of the worst, and he had stood. Was still standing. Would go on…hey! Had fallen after two steps, lay there in the spruce needles for a few seconds, catching his breath, laughing--laughing; seemed to him it had been a very long time since he’d laughed--and struggling to halt the laughter because it hurt his ribs. Bad. But he didn’t mind. Ok. On your feet again, and looks like you’d better find a stick of some sort if you’re gonna be doing much walking, which you need to be, because the spring’s still a little ways above you, here. With the help of an aspen branch walking stick he made much better progress--stick had some blood on the end of it, his blood, he supposed, for he did not remember striking Kilgore with one like it--and before long he was kneeling beside the spring, splashing face and hands with its good cold water, turning the little pool pink as he cleansed himself. Good. It was enough. He was ready to go see Liz. To see how things stood. If she was still there. If she hadn’t gone back down with Susan and Kilgore.