Realizing fairly quickly that it was Liz he had hold of and not someone else Einar let her go, easing away from her and staring through the darkness and the white clouds made by their breath, trying to figure out why she would have awakened him in such a manner. Saw nothing, heard nothing but the soft sigh of the wind of the trees and an even softer whisper as snowflakes were blown against the parachute which served as windbreak for the night, and he reached out, found her, keeping his voice very low.
“What is it? You hear something?’
“I heard you turning to ice. The crackling keeps waking me up.”
“Sorry, I’ll go over under another tree so you can…”
“No! That’s not what I meant, at all--and I wasn’t serious about the crackling. I just want you to be warm. Come here close so we can share some heat, and maybe we can both get better sleep.”
Einar shrugged, moved closer and allowed her to get her an arm around him. “I guess if it’ll help you sleep…”
Early in the morning, daylight just beginning to creep out from beneath the low, grey cloud deck, Einar left the shelter, moving carefully so as not to disturb his sleeping family, and succeeding. Stalking through the silent snow of the timber he crouched beside the duffel, worked, hands a good bit warmer and more flexible than they’d been the evening before, to free the straps of their icy snow and get the thing open. Managed at last to do it, retrieving the folder in it’s zippered dry-bag. Hadn’t got very far in his reading the previous day, wanted to examine the complete document, took a big breath and began.
It wasn’t as though Einar needed written details to remember some of the things detailed in that document like they happened yesterday; his dreams did that for him in vivid, stark detail many nights, feel of that bamboo floor against his ribs, stench rising from below to smother him as he took the tiny, strained breaths which were all his position allowed, white-hot hurt radiating outward from all his joints to tip him precariously towards unconsciousness, and he would have gladly given in to it just to be rid of the pain for a while, had he not feared he might well cease breathing altogether should he give up the monumental effort required to go on taking those shallow, barely-adequate breaths… He shivered, scrubbed a sleeve across his face, attempted to dry sweat-slick hands on his parka. No, that wasn’t it. The dream images were, in fact, often far more vivid than even the first-person details that sick, starved, fever-brained kid had been able to provide in his debriefing all those years ago to be put into writing and now resurrected by Bud Kilgore, so he didn’t see why finding them there in black and white should bother him so. But it did. And he hadn’t even yet got to the part where his memory was a good deal more fuzzy, the latter days of his captivity and the circumstances of his escape. Thinking about what he might find there, he could barely breathe. Had to get a grip on things. On himself.
Einar stood, glancing back at camp to make sure Liz was still sleeping, which she appeared to be, and he stepped behind a sheltering line of half-grown firs, hidden. Carefully returning the papers to their waterproof bag for a time so they wouldn’t attempt to blow away he removed his clothes, parka, snow pants, all the way down to the base layer which had helped keep him alive if not quite warm through the night, rolled everything up into a neat bundle and sat on it, once more taking up the folder. The cold bit into him as he sorted through the pages, wind tearing at his unprotected form and nearly taking his breath as it seemed to slide between his ribs like a knife, quickly chilling him to the bone but he welcomed it, the stilling, scouring, steadying reality of the cold as he began to read once more.
Read in the hopes of getting some clue as to why the text was troubling him so greatly, of taming, perhaps, his involuntary response to the thing and bringing himself back under some reasonable control but that second reading seemed to have the opposite effect, left him trembling and terrified, curled in a little ball on his bundle of clothes as he struggled to get enough air. Couldn’t. Not the way they had him tied and though he knew for a fleeting moment that it wasn’t real, was all some cruel construct of mind and memory, that knowledge quickly faded and he was fully immersed in the thing, breaths coming with labored irregularity and the joints in his upper body and legs feeling as though they were about to be torn from their sockets with the strain of his position. Couldn’t stand it, not for a moment longer but he did, one breath after another, his entire world reduced to a sharp, shimmering point of intensity and agony and a strange, bitter sort of almost-joy and when after what seemed an eternity of this his tormentor approached to begin interrogating him once again, he found it not at all difficult to summon up the courage to spit in the little man’s face. No. Not talking. Wasn’t afraid anymore. Which did little to impress his captor, the man striking him hard in the shoulder with the butt of his rifle and again in the ribs, the resulting wave of crackling, electric agony rippling throughout his body and finally ending, for the time, his torment, blackness welling up in an inexorable cloud to envelop him as he fell to the snow, unconscious.
When Einar woke he was cold, awfully, dreadfully cold, body cramping and aching with it, and Liz was sitting on his chest. Compressing his lungs. Could hardly breathe. Fortunately he knew her right away, did not struggle. His first thought was of the baby. Where was the baby? Ought to have been snug and secure on Liz’s back but the way he’d been struggling a minute ago--unless he’d dreamed that, too, which was appearing entirely possible--he certainly hoped the baby hadn’t been on her back. When he tried to sit up and check he found himself tightly secured in his parka, arms trapped at his sides and what appeared to be many feet of white parachute cord wound and tied about his middle, holding the garment in place. He turned to Liz, blinking in the morning brightness; storm wasn’t ended, but did seem to have abated some, clouds less heavy and the snow curling down more gently.
“I’m sorry. I’ll let you go now, if you’ll promise not to go taking off into the storm again without your clothes…you know how that’s likely to end.”
“Yes, you did. Twice.”
“He’s asleep, warm and safe in our little shelter. Let’s go be with him, assuming you’re done with…whatever that was.”
“It was nothing. Just a little…dream.”
“I read some of it. You left the papers scattered all over the ground where you were lying in the snow and I gathered them up for you, and I read some of it. Just a page. I hope you can forgive me for doing that. I see where the dreams come from. I…” She shook her head, tears overflowing as she helped him up, tried to hold him.
Einar nodded, turned away, body rigid in her embrace, unresponsive. Wanted to be alone. Couldn’t stand to have her touching him just then, looking at him, seeing what he was, but he managed somehow to avoid forcefully slipping her grasp and bolting out into the snowy timber; he’d already done enough, by her account. Put her to enough trouble. She deserved better. Keeping himself carefully in check, he went with her to the shelter. Fire was going again, little Will sleeping snugly in his cocoon of rabbitskin blanket and parachute material, and all, it seemed, was reasonably right with the world. The real world. The beautiful, cold snowy reality of his high country kingdom, evergreen boughs drooping gracefully beneath their burdens of white and the entire place pervaded by the hush that comes only in the depths of a good, heavy snow, silence and a peace beyond understanding, and he huddled close to Liz there beside the gently crackling fire as she retrieved the sleeping child, time for his breakfast, and then theirs, and the walk home.