Nearly half the town, it seemed, packed the firehouse that evening to bid farewell to Juniper Melton, who while not native to the area, had made quite an impression over the course of the few short years she’d spent in and around Culver Falls. Bud Kilgore, who hadn’t really wanted to speak but had known at the same time that he’d be unwise to refuse when asked by the head of Mountain Rescue to do so, remembered her to the crowd as one of his brightest and most able students, a young woman who loved the wild country and had devoted a great deal of time and energy to becoming familiar with its ways, just as she had done with her chosen field of journalism.
When later in the evening her parents began questioning him as to what he might know of the details of her final moments, he used the firm, steady manner and attendant quiet persuasion that had got him into—and out of—so many places over the years to assure them that yes, it had been quick, that slide and its aftermath, and no, she hadn’t misjudged when deciding to go out across the slope; even the most experienced can make mistakes, and sometimes, the mountains are simply unpredictable. Just like life.
Einar did not particularly want to answer Susan’s question, found it intrusive, prying, perhaps even a trap of one sort or another, but something in her mannerism and the way she asked—patient and knowing, if not necessarily understanding—left him a good deal less inclined than he might otherwise have been to turn away and keep silent. Susan wasn’t leaving, repeated her question, rephrased it.
“Surely you know you’re not being too realistic in thinking that by continuing to avoid getting food, water, rest, that you’re doing the best thing you can to help yourself get stronger. Those things may have their place, I know they do, and maybe more for you than for some people, but right now, they’re just slowing you down and easing you closer to the edge. You see that, don’t you? How close you are to not being here anymore, and how most of the things you’re doing right now are only making it worse…”
He shrugged, figuring he had little to lose in attempting an answer. “Sure. Sometimes I see it. Saw it in the mirror yesterday, and whenever I try to move quickly, and find that things aren’t responding the way they should. But always seem to convince myself I was mistaken, that the real problem is my allowing myself to get weak—mind, not body—and give in… And then I’m back to it again, with more resolve than ever.”
“That’s how it looks to me, too. That’s why I asked if it was really about thinking the deprivation will make your mind and body strong, at all. At this point. Because I don’t think it is. You can’t really believe that the things you’re doing make any sense at all for a man who’s trying to regain his health and strength so he can look after his family. Looks to me like that supposed weakness you mentioned, that ‘giving in,’ that’s what’s really behind a lot of your decisions right now. Wanting to avoid that. And you’ve come to see eating, resting, doing the very things you know you’ve got to do in order to have any chance of staying alive, as a compromise. As giving in. Haven’t you?”
Quiet, then. Not liking how close she’d come, wanting to be angry but finding, when he looked, nothing but sincerity in her eyes. No deception, no evil intent.
“Yes, seems I have.”
“And that prospect—of giving in—is worse to you than the thought of death, even. Must be, because you have to know that’s where your current course will lead, sooner or later…”
A long silence. “Maybe.”
“Maybe, to both.”
“Yes. Do you think that’s reasonable? This fear of ‘giving in?’ And the power you allow it to have in your life?”
“I’m not afraid. And yes, it is entirely reasonable.”
A silent snarl, Einar glancing away so Susan would know it wasn’t entirely directed at her, but he needn’t have worried, for she already knew. Not talking about why. None of her business why, but it wasn’t any good, for apparently she already knew that, too, and wasn’t going to let him get off so easy. Wasn’t done.
“It’s because of the path you’ve walked through this life, isn’t it? Life teaches us things, and yours has taught you that one of the most important things is to resist, to not “give in,” as you put it. That you’ll be lost if you do that. Am I anywhere close to right?”
“I know, not something you really want to talk about. But your little boy needs you to do it. He needs his father to teach him all about these mountains, about life, all sorts of things. And unless you can somehow untangle things in your head pretty quick here, he’s not going to have that, because what you’ve got going right now just isn’t compatible with life, in the long run. You’re going to have to pick one or the other pretty quickly, or you may not end up being the one who gets to do the picking. And no, I’m not talking about Bud and his darts, there… I know you’ve heard all of this before, but maybe now you can take the time to really stop and think about it, since you’re here and will be staying for a little while. Will you give that a try?”
Einar shrugged, shook his head, agreed in principle, but did not know how to do what she was asking.