Though Einar seemed quite ready to be done with the conversation that had begun outside, Liz did not want to let the subject drop, not now that they’d begun discussing it and he seemed, for once, not only willing to consider the possibility that some major changes needed to be made, but ready to recognize that he could not indefinitely continue on the way he’d been going. She wanted to seize the moment, make something of it. But would have to keep him awake, if she really wanted to get anywhere. Already he appeared to be nearly dozing in the warmth of the fire, arms wrapped hard around his knees and head bent, eyes half closed.
Einar, in fact, was not anywhere near dozing off, the absentness Liz had taken for near-sleep resulting instead from a fierce struggle with a sudden sense of unreality that had begun creeping in around the edges of his mind, jungle trying to pull him in, sights and smells already beginning to drown out the world around him so that he felt trapped by the cozy confines of the parachute shelter, desperate for air, space, the freedom of the wide, windswept woods beyond this little world of family and firelight. For some reason—dimly remembered promise, perhaps, to wait until the storm had passed—he made no move to leave, pressing himself instead into the fir boughs that made up the floor of the shelter, eyes closed and teeth clenched as he fought to remain at least somewhat in the present, failing, swamp-stench rising around him and the feeling of the bamboo beneath his body, hard ridges against raw-injured skin, bone, ropes on his arms cutting off all feeling as they raised him, all hope of escape, all life, pretty nearly, so that soon he was struggling for air, gasping and twisting in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure, allow his lungs to expand. Wasn’t working.
Liz was watching, crouched beside him and spoke his name, and when he looked up at her she could see the trouble, a certain vacancy in his wide, white eyes, a distance. He clearly did not know her, perhaps did not even see her, and she reached out to place a hand on his knee, but pulled it back, bad idea, best stick to words.
Her words, though spoken softly and insistently, did not seem to be having much effect, Einar glancing frantically at the walls, up at the parachute above his head and leaving her little doubt that he would do whatever necessary to secure his “escape,” should he see something that looked like a way out. Right overtop the sleeping Will, should it come to that, out into the storm where he’d surely be lost and where she might not find him again before it was too late, if things continued for him as they presently were. Without hesitation Liz grabbed the pot of half melted snow-water from beside the fire and in one smooth motion splashed its entire contents over his head where it ran in wet, slushy globules over his face and slipped icily down the back of his neck and along his spine.
Spluttering and shivering Einar was on his feet, ropes somehow mysteriously and entirely removed as he discovered that he was able to unbend his body, to rise, fir boughs beneath his feet and—strangely, no explaining—Liz there with him in the cage, reaching for him, blotting the icy water from face and neck. He reeled backwards, trying to get away, not right that she should be in here with him, not possible, but there was nowhere to go, solid mass of the back wall bringing him up short so that he stumbled, fell heavily to his knees and crouched there staring at her, at the fire and the top of little Will’s head where he lay nestled in the sleeping bag. Sight of the child finishing the job the cold water had started, and he looked away from her, knew what he had done.
Liz was beside him, leading him back to the fire and trying to help him off with his wet, icy clothes. “I’m sorry about the water. You were…somewhere else.”
“Water’s good. Thanks.”
“It may have been good, but these clothes are going to start freezing on you if we don’t get you into something dry.”
“Don’t mind if they do. Might help remind me where I am.”
“You’ll remember, now. Here, give me those and I’ll hang them to dry by the fire. They’ll be ready for morning.” Einar complied, reluctantly gave her the freezing clothes and got into the dry set which thankfully had remained in the items Bud and Susan had sent along, but refused to wear the extra layer Liz was trying to give him. It would, she insisted, help him save energy, keep him from being so very cold all the time, but he did not want to do it, insisted that such measures were only for days when it was well below zero, which—despite the ice in his bones—that day did not seem to be. She stopped insisting, but would not give up on the original conversation.
“Do you remember what we were talking about? Before the jungle got in the way, I mean…”
Einar remembered. “Yeah.”
“What do you think? Willing to give it a try? Eat more, start stepping back a little from that ledge you’re always teetering along, and see how it goes for you?”
Feeling trapped. Wished she would have saved the discussion—which he knew was inevitable—for another time, because to be quite honest, all he wanted to do right then was to head out into the snowy timber and stand for a week without protection or sustenance of any kind, simply to refute the cage. To refute what he had been, in there. Instead, he kept silent for a long moment, watching the soft rise and fall of the sleeping bag where Will dozed, gurgling and laughing in his sleep.
“Yeah, I’m willing.”
“Thought you might be. How about some more soup, as a start.”
“That’s part of the trouble, though. If I’m really going to do this, have to do it kind of slowly at first or I’ll run into a lot of trouble. Probably already in trouble after the two bowls I had earlier. You remember how it was before, person gets real sick, loses all the strength in their muscles—including the ones for swallowing and breathing. Not a good situation. Can mostly avoid it, if I go slow.”
“Ok, we’ll go slow. And go easy on the starchy things, because that’s where the trouble comes from, isn’t it? From your body re-adjusting to burning starches for energy, after being without for a long time.”
“But this time…well, you’ve been eating some. I was hoping that might not be so much of a problem this time, so you could eat more sooner, and start doing better. What do you think?”
“Think I’ve been losing some more weight lately, so had better go slow.”
She didn’t want to believe that, but knew he was probably right. “Well, you were at 66 that time we checked at Susan’s, when we first got there. I don’t think you’ve gained any since then, have you?”
Einar shrugged. Didn’t really think so, not the way things had been going, and Liz continued. “Oh, what am I saying? I know you’ve lost some since then, I can see it. Several pounds, at least. That’s a really scary number, you know?”
“Aw, doesn’t bother me much.”
“That’s the scariest part…”
“You want me to be bothered?” He was starting to laugh then, saw the look on her face and stopped.
“No, I just want you to eat more soup. Here you go. Have this, and I’ll start some more.”