No one felt much like talking that night as they huddled cold and weary around Kilgore’s little fire, jostling and occasionally shoving for position as each sought a place nearer the flames. No one seemed interested in venturing out into the still-howling storm to gather more sticks when the pile began growing short, so the task was left to Bud, with the eventual help of Shirley, who he all but dragged out of the shelter with him and set to work snapping off the mostly dry, snow-free dead branches that tended to linger beneath the narrow canopies of each stunted little subalpine fir. Bud knew it would be a long night of such trips, trying to keep a fire going with such small stuff, but the terrain presented no other options, so far as he could see. No large fallen trees from which they could hack or saw pieces, even had they possessed the tools. Which they did not, having left everything of the sort back at a base camp rendered entirely unreachable just then by the fury of the storm.
Bad planning, to be sure, and the sort of situation in which Bud would have liked to leave a group of students—had they been his students—entirely on their own for a few hours to fade the consequences and learn their lesson about the seriousness of travel in the winter backcountry, only in this case, said students had appeared unlikely to make it through the night had he abandoned them to the natural results of their poor choices. A situation not wholly objectionable to him under the circumstances, except that he was known to be along, and as the only survivor of such a night, would face far too much scrutiny back in town. Didn’t need that just then, not considering the sort of houseguests he and his wife were currently hosting.
If he was to come back alone—which you’d doggone well be considering, seeing the sort of evidence them fellas were managing to collect, and the sort of suspicion you saw in that snake Shirley’s eyes as he inspected those “mystery tracks”—he would need a plausible explanation. Breaking another handful of sticks he tucked them under his arm, shuffled back towards the crowded little shelter, grumbling under his breath, stopping, a slow grin spreading through several days’ worth of salt-and-pepper stubble that he wished was a bit further advanced so it might offer him more protection against the cold. Had an idea…
* * *
Liz felt trapped, frustrated, at a loss. Seemed she’s been here before, right here in the very same place with Einar, and more than once. Every time it appeared something might be changing just a bit, that he’d had some small revelation or resolved that things must, for one reason or another, change, they ended up right in this very spot together before the change had been given time to have much of an impact. To do anything beyond giving him the energy his battered body needed to somehow hang on for a few more days. Which was something, but it wasn’t enough, and could not go on forever, despite what he might think, despite the fact that already it had been doing so for months on end. Even his agreeing to let her lead him, to trust, follow and not question for a while—she could see him struggling to stick to it, working hard to carry out the motions, but even that, she feared, was temporary. He’d be back to his standard mode of existence just as soon as she stopped insisting, demanding. Which made the entire thing somewhat of an exercise in futility. Except that it was keeping her son’s father alive for the moment, which meant that it was not entirely futile.
He was staring at her—or through her—waiting, she supposed, for her to say something. Or maybe he was simply in a daze, too weary to do anything else. Or listening intently for sounds coming from outside. Anymore, it was difficult for her to tell the difference. He startled when she put a hand on his arm, sat up straighter.
“This argument you’re having with yourself…I can see that it would be really difficult to come to a conclusion, the way you keep going back and forth on it. And I know it’s got to be absolutely exhausting, having to go through this repeated debate in your mind before doing even a little thing like finishing a glass of banana milkshake. Or even starting it. What would seem to us like a little thing, but it isn’t to you. I know that. But you need to try and put all that aside for now, and just eat. Things probably aren’t going to make complete sense to you until you really take some time and give your brain and body adequate fuel for a while. The argument may never reach a conclusion, and you’ll just stay stuck here, going round and round in circles until it ends. Can you do that? Set it all aside, focus on eating, just let the rest of it come later?”
Susan was nodding, not leaving him time to object. “You know she’s right. It’s what you need to do. A person’s brain can’t work right without a certain amount of nutrition, energy…things really would be so much easier for you if you could just do like Liz is saying and focus on getting plenty to eat every day for a week or two. Things would start looking clearer, and think what you could do with all that extra energy!”
Exasperated but trying not to let it show, Einar crossed his arms—cold, and he started shivering, pressed hard against his middle with his crossed arms in an attempt to get it to stop—head bowed, staring at the mug in front of him, white with an intricate little pattern of blue flowers and leafy tree limbs, feeling rather nauseous at the thought of consuming its contents. Things were getting too complicated, and all he wanted was to flee to the timber, push himself up a good fifteen hundred feet of treacherous, snowy slope, find a good dense thicket of firs and hunker down in the snow. Where no one would be able to find him. Instead—coward. What are you really afraid of? Not the enemy, apparently, because they’d find you pretty quick, leaving that sort of trail… You’re afraid of a houseful of women, then? Is that it? One of them your wife and the other her friend, a fine lady and really not a threat of any sort. Is this what it’s come to?—he grabbed the mug, drained it in three big gulps, nearly choking as a result. “Doing it.”
While encouraged at Einar’s apparent willingness, the glance exchanged by Susan and Liz said that both knew this was not the end of it, not a real solution. That, it seemed, would have to wait until he was really ready. Whenever—if ever—such time might come.