Liz was excited. Had suspected as soon as she’d heard the approaching snowmobile that it very likely would be Bud and Susan come to check on them, to bring supplies or even to get them out of there, offer them transport, once again, to Bud’s house in Arizona or some other relatively safe location far from the center of the search, but she had known what Einar would surely think of such an idea. Now here he was returning to her and, rather than insisting that they flee immediately to the darker recesses of the mine, never to return to Bud and Susan’s or the area in general, he wanted her to come have a look at the bag. The one presumably left by Bud and Susan, though she knew they must still be careful. Trying not to let her excitement show too much, she followed Einar, crouching with him in the mine entry and squinting at the bag.
“Yes, that’s one of Susan’s napkins sticking out of the top. And I recognize the pack as hers, too. It’s one of those hunting packs that’s made of soft, fleecy material so it won’t scrape and make noise as you move through the brush. She uses it when she goes bow hunting. Look where she put it, too! Where we can go get it without venturing into the deep snow and leaving our own tracks…”
“She didn’t put it, Bud did.”
“He did? How do you know?”
“Those’re his tracks. For sure.”
She stood, the relief and almost-joy on her face having more to do with Einar’s recognition of the pack as a friendly gesture than her own realization that it wasn’t the feds who had paid them a visit. “Well then, let’s go and…”
Einar was on his feet, suddenly looking eight feet tall as he stood to block her way, hands pressed against either side of the tunnel. To prevent himself falling, as much as to stop her dash for the bag, but it didn’t appear that way to Liz, and she took a quick step back, Will pressed close against her. “No. Don’t go out there. Let me do it. You take Will back around the corner, and I’ll give you the all clear when you can come out again. Just like before, if you don’t hear anything from me for half an hour or so, just head deeper into the mine and don’t look back.”
“But I thought you said they were Bud’s tracks?”
“They were.” He sank to the ground, all knees and elbows and sharp angles trembling in the cold, chin on his knees, no longer looking particularly imposing. “But that doesn’t mean we can go dashing out there. There’s a lot we don’t know. Best let me take a look at that thing. If it looks good, I’ll bring it in and you can have a look.”
With a quick squeeze of Einar’s shoulder Liz turned and took Will in around the corner so his father would know he was safe and get on with inspecting the pack.
Everything checked out, Einar taking his time approaching, moving and opening the pack, carefully lifting and inspecting each item before setting it aside, and though he knew there could be things he was missing, tiny hidden transmitters in items of clothing, invisible poison sprinkled on the food…he had the definite sense that the bag had been packed by Bud and Susan, and the two of them alone. Prayed he was right as he stood, Muninn scolding him for not sharing more than the few morsels of food he’d tossed the bird as he sorted, and headed back into the mine.
Back at their little shelter—not much going to transmit through all this rock, if there’s anything transmitting at all, Einar had reasoned—and basking in the comparatively brilliant light of one of the candles Susan had included near the top of the pack, the first thing Liz pulled out was a sizeable stuff sack filled with food. Just below this sat the warm wool sweater Einar had left behind when he’d freed himself from Bud’s restraints just before their escape, and though he seemed uninterested in putting it on, Liz draped it around his shoulders before delving into the food bag. For the moment, she got no farther than the two large turkey, avocado, clover sprout and cream cheese sandwiches that Susan had carefully wrapped and stowed at the top of the bag. Time for their first good meal in nearly two days…
Einar soon found himself driven nearly mad by the smell of the stuff; his body had just begun growing used to taking in a bit more nutrition every day during his stay at Bud and Susan’s, but had not been at it long enough to even make a start at rebuilding from its extended periods of near starvation, let alone start putting away any sort of reserve, and he had been keenly affected by feelings of hunger since arriving in the damp chill of the mine. Yet he would not so much as touch the food except to examine it again for hidden transmitters (which he did not find, but that proved nothing,) eyeing it suspiciously and staring with an odd mixture of apprehension and envy, shaking, arms crossed almost protectively on his stomach against the twisting, gnawing pain as Liz unwrapped one of the sandwiches, gave thanks and began devouring the meal. Even Will was eating, delightedly gobbling the bits of avocado which Liz mashed up between her fingers and offered to him
Seeing that Einar’s half of the sandwich sat untouched where she had left it Liz stopped, handed it to him and insisted that he eat. Could see that he desperately wanted the food, was trembling and holding it at arm’s length as if to avoid having to smell it, lead me not into temptation, and she was not about to let him miss the opportunity and end up freezing in the night for lack of energy.
Einar shook his head, pushed the food back in her direction.
“Why not? It was Bud and Susan who left this. You know it was! You know better than this. Don’t let yourself start thinking that way again. The food is not poisoned. It’s perfectly good.”
“I know. Trying to remind myself of that, but…there are things I don’t remember, Liz. From Bud and Susan’s this last time. I do remember waking up strapped to a board in the kitchen, feds on the way and a lot of chaos in the house… What’s a lot less clear is what came before that. I did see the things sitting on the counter, the tube and all that, know what the plan must have been.”
“Do we have to talk about this right now? It didn’t happen. Nothing happened. I’m still hungry. Let’s finish eating first.”
“It almost happened. Would have, wouldn’t it?”
“I was opposed to it from the start.”
He looked at her, measuring, trying to discern the truth of her words and seeing in her no deception. “Bud’s idea?”
“Yes. And I told him ‘no.’ But…”
“But maybe it wasn’t a terrible idea. I wouldn’t have done it. But might have wanted to.”
“Shouldn’t be another person’s choice, that kind of thing. Ever. Under any circumstances.”
“I know you believe that, and that’s why I wouldn’t have done it. But I was questioning it, for sure. Questioning whether your choice really was your choice, just then. Whether you were really yourself.”
“Of course I was.”
“You’d said you wanted to live though, to be here for Will. I could see that you meant it. Yet some of your actions… Well, they were completely contrary to what you’d been consistently saying and intending. And I’m not even sure you realized it. You weren’t thinking clearly, didn’t seem to have the ability to start doing so again until you did the very thing you weren’t thinking clearly about—that is, eating and drinking again—and the situation was about to kill you. Imminently. Which is why it was hard to know what was the right thing, at the time.”
Einar shrugged. “Not particularly relevant, any of that. Doesn’t give another person the right to strap me to a board, stick a tube down my nose and impose their will. Or even their version of what they think my will would have been, if I’d been thinking more clearly. That’s just not for anyone else to say. Forcibly taking away a person’s dignity, his freedom and nearly everything it means to him to be a human being, in order to sustain the physical functions of life—that’s just never a right thing to do. Never justifiable. And I find it outrageous that some people seem to think it may be. Bud might very well have been justified in shooting me and burying me under the basement to prevent the feds from finding out I’d been there, if they were on their way up the driveway and there was no other option—might qualify as a form as self-defense—but he had absolutely no right to tie me to that board.”
Liz sighed. “I know. I think I may agree with you, in principle. Just said I was struggling with it, at the time. Wishing that all the justifiable options didn’t lead to you being dead. Try to put yourself in my position, and maybe you can’t blame me too much for that.”
He smiled. “Oh, I’m not mad at you. Can’t blame you for anything at all. Real sorry to have put you in a position where things like that even come up. But from my way of looking at things, maybe you can see why I’m finding it a little rough right now to trust this food Bud and Susan have left us. After what they almost did.”
“Sure I can. Of course. But it’s all we’ve got, and you’ll die without it. Tonight, probably.”
“I can tell you do, and I’m so glad. Now, eat.”
He ate, slow tastes and then, pausing to have a bit of melted snow, a bit faster, felt a lot better once he’d got a few bites of the stuff into him and let it sit there for a while, body relaxing just a bit as the cold ever so slightly eased its grip. After a few minutes his mind eased a bit, too, entire situation seeming somehow less threatening than it had done at first. Which he could very easily have taken as a sign that the food had, indeed, been contaminated with some nefarious mind-dulling poison designed to short-circuit his mental processes and leave him less able to resist the advancing plots of the enemy…but he didn’t. Had another piece of sandwich, instead.