Someone walked through the fire just before dawn.
The rain had passed some hours ago, and the movement caught Dale’s eye as he lay awake. Long, thin legs in buckskin pants. The guy glanced down at him as he moved unhurriedly by Mason’s huddled form in his sleeping bag and then directly through the embers of the still glowing fire without disturbing them in the slightest. His boots made no sound and there was an odd kind of glimmer of light around their outline as if they guy was moving just fractionally slower through time. His hair was greying, hung long over his shoulders in two tails tied with leather strands, he had a chiselled, weather beaten face and he gave Dale a nod and a warm smile, and walked on down the path towards the valley floor. Dale returned the nod politely and leaned up on one elbow to watch him go with a mildly detached sensation of well that was weird....
It went well with the lingering feel of standing in the meadow with the butterflies, the freedom and lift of it, and Dale knew it for what it was. The things that you saw so vividly, felt so vividly, but which left no memory traces behind them, came from outside you. They were borrowed from someone else’s eyes and memory, and at a guess, the butterflies came from David’s. Dale found himself still swallowing on a smile at the thought of it as he packed up his bed roll later that morning. That moment of standing on the rock edge seeing everything connected, the energy in everything.... there was nothing hard or alarming in it as there had been at times when he’d experienced someone else’s viewpoint before; the light and the butterflies carried nothing but pure exhilaration. Tired from very little sleep and slightly light headed, there was a ridiculous sense of thrill at the memory, as if it cushioned everything else in his head.
Jasper crouched down beside him, looked at him in a way that required no explanation, and Dale unsuccessfully tried to stifle another smile and look appropriately serious, which didn’t go well.
“Yes, I’m sorry about last night.”
Jasper nodded slowly, dark eyes watching his face, voice low enough that none of the others had even glanced around from their own conversation. “Anything bad?”
Dale shook his head, meaning it. The hissing, odd thing on the stairs was disturbing in the dark, but it wasn’t in daylight, not here with them. “No. Some not so pleasant dreams, but nothing awful.”
“You know better than to wander off by yourself at night, or tell me ‘never mind’.” Jasper gave him a steady look. “Let’s go find somewhere quiet.”
Not surprised, Dale finished fastening his pack, got up and they left the others who didn’t take much notice, and walked some way further into the canyon. It was a peculiarly beautiful place. There were carvings in a few places where the rock was worn smooth; Dale noticed them as they walked, rough horses in herds and what looked like deer, and a few less specific designs that reminded him of the medicine wheels on Mustang Hill. They were not so far away from the ruins of the Shoshone village here.
It was impossible to participate in this kind of matter with Jasper with your head still in the clouds; just walking with Jasper to somewhere suitably private while knowing exactly what for was in itself a very focusing experience, and Dale’s stomach was distinctly unsettled and his palms slippery by the time Jasper took a seat on a boulder in the wilds of a red rock canyon with no one else within a mile but them, and Dale, knowing perfectly well what came next, unbuttoned his jeans with his mind on nothing at all but why on earth slipping away anywhere last night had ever seemed like a good idea. Jasper took all the heat out of situations like this just when you most needed the cushion of a little strong emotion. He was never annoyed, never anything more than calmly matter of fact as he waited for you to play your part in the transaction, and Dale slipped jeans and underwear down, aware of the chill of the morning breeze and how acutely tangible it made him feel. He was very definitely present through the next few minutes; he had no doubt whatsoever about it, and he was extremely connected to the here and now when they walked back a short while later. The others took as little notice of them returning as they had of them leaving, no doubt assuming nothing more significant than a call of nature, and Dale returned to packing his kit, sentient that no one but Jasper knew he was doing it with a hotly smarting butt and a very definite knowledge of the reasons for communicating instead of wandering off in the dark at the top of a canyon. And a powerful sense of closeness to him and to Paul, as real and as normal as the fact that out here, in the middle of nowhere and up on the top of a canyon, one got spanked for breaking an everyday rule as matter of factly as at home.
There was an odd kind of mood lift that came with privation. Dale noticed it that morning not just in himself but in the others too. All of them were hungry after several days on basic dry rations, all of them were a little stiff from a night on the ground, damp from yesterday’s rain and cold in the early morning chill, but there was a surprising cheer in everyone’s voices, and an easy kind of chatter that flowed while they ate and packed up to move on. It was something seen during long, long nights of corporate projects where no one slept and where eating was done from half cold takeaways while you worked. Sometimes the cheer was called ‘punch drunk’, but it was as if people began to concentrate on anything that in a seriously uncomfortable situation gave them any kind of comfort, particularly the most primal things. The intense sensory pleasure of hot coffee and the sweetness of donuts, which on an ordinary day you’d eat without noticing. A kind of pride and celebration that said this was a hell of a night, but we got through it. Dale knew the feeling too from his experience of being what Flynn and the others called grounded. When your day was severely simplified and restricted, you began to notice and take real pleasure from anything good, from the smallest of privileges that usually you’d barely notice. The human spirit, in circumstances of hardship fought back, and a little rough living cleared both your head and your senses.
This morning, it took the shape of the black tea, even with the revolting iodine behind it, still being wonderfully hot and strong, and the bright sun beyond the canyon cast long, bright shadows over the rock, making the damp ground steam, and the presence of the others and the comfortable conversations, and a certain satisfaction in being dry. Warm. Unshaven, unwashed and scruffy became a kind of service medal, where you took pride in the endurance it signified.
“Going to be a hot day.” Luath said, getting up from the now put out and raked over fire and stretching until his shoulders cracked. “Which way are we heading today?”
“Down the wagon trail.” Jasper nodded towards the pasture south east of them. “We’ll find it and follow it down to the woods.”
It was a bright, sunny morning when they climbed down the canyon, following Tam who scrambled straight down the steep wall and then sat at the bottom to wait for them. Mason didn’t hesitate this morning, nor linger over doing up his pack and shrugging it on, appearing to have realised the futility of fighting endlessly against them and trying to resist the inevitable. In fact he looked like he’d slept well, his hair was as wild as his jaw was rough, and Paul tousled his hair affectionately as he passed him, shaking the shagginess into further disarray.
“You look like you’ve been living wild out here for months, no one would ever know you for an exec.”
“Yay me.” Mason grinned back at him, shrugging the pack higher to do up the harness, and he put a hand out to heave Luath’s pack up his back and onto his shoulders as Luath shrugged it on. He did it effortlessly one handed; the guy had solid upper body weight, but there was something in the simplicity of the gesture that caught Dale’s eye. Unsolicited help, freely and confidently given. Luath gave Mason a nod and a smile, clipping his harness.
“Thanks. Go ahead, I’ll follow you. You’ve got a lot more chance keeping your footing than I have.”
So Mason led them down the canyon, down over the rough red rock until the wilderness began to take over again in the flat pasture below. The Shoshone man who had walked through their fire at dawn, was sitting not far from the path, cross legged and looking out over the plains, and Dale paused for a moment to follow his gaze and look with him out at the open land that stretched out into the foothills of the snow capped Tetons under an electric blue sky.
It was beautiful, strongly coloured and wild and stretching out in all directions, open ground and sky, that filled you with peace and a sense of freedom, and that was all. That was what the man was looking at; it was like being gently tapped on the shoulder and shown something. There was nothing more behind it, no deeper message, just a friendly sharing of what the man was thinking, and Dale met his eye and gave him a nod and a smile that appreciated it. The man’s hair moved in the breeze very slightly slower than the grass moved, and it faded out at the ends into pure light. No one else glanced twice at where the man sat; Paul and Mason walked right past him, and the Shoshone man went on sitting, his hands resting lightly on his knees, taking no notice of them either, his tanned face turned up to the sun.
They walked south east, until amongst the scrub they found a visible, pale and dusty track where nothing grew, where the ground was impacted, showing two hard, dry earthed lines that ran visibly east to west into the distance. Discreet, but there.
“This is the wagon trail.” Luath said to Mason, as they reached it, and walked on the cleared track. Their pace was slightly slower today; unlike yesterday when driving rain had kept their heads down, today the bright sunshine made it tempting to slow down, and they were gathered together close enough to talk. “So many wagons went by here over so many years that nothing’ll grow and cover the marks. The ground’s scarred. Although we’re headed east, the wagons mostly went west out of Three Traders and across our land, headed towards Oregon.”
“Surely the ground’ll grow over eventually?” Mason said, scuffing gently at one of the tracks as they walked. “I mean you don’t graze stock out this way, there’s nothing for them to graze on. It’ll just all over grow won’t it?”
“I grew up near a Tudor hunting park in England.” Dale said with a surprisingly strong memory of it; the gentle hills and the green woods. “Nothing left of the castle but a flat patch of grass, but there’s still a visible track through the park where the road was, and where the wagons and carriages rolled, just like this. Three to four hundred years old – two hundred and fifty years older than this trail - and it’s still not overgrown yet.”
The rolling ground ran ahead of them. Yellow weed, low, scraggy bushes of sage brush in darker green, rocks and pebbles in amongst the dirt and rough grass where at intervals Tam paused to snuffle, following invisible trails of coneys.
“I read everything I could about this when I first came out here and saw the trail.” Luath said thoughtfully, gripping the straps of his rucksack. “Philip had books on it, it was an interest of his. The wagon trains moved at about two miles an hour, you know that? We’re walking faster than that. Cows tied on the back, dust rising and hovering for miles because of the wheels churning it up, deep ruts when the ground was wet. On some stretches of the trail that have been preserved further west, the track actually carved a visible channel several feet deep in the rock. Can’t imagine now putting your whole life and your family in a wooden wagon, every last thing you own, and heading out for months, driving across the middle of nowhere with no real idea what you’re going to find when you get there.”
“Always meant a lot to me that we live on land where people did that.” Paul agreed. “We’re talking about thousands of them. Thousands of wagons, all nationalities.”
“Hard to imagine getting a wagon over this ground, the terrain is rough out here.” Mason turned around, walking backwards to look at the canyon now in the distance behind them. “I mean that climb yesterday – wow. The view from up there is amazing, but if you’d said to me a week ago, you’re going to climb that monster there I’d have said yeah like f- uh, like heck I will, I can’ t do that. I mean it was hard – it was damn hard, it felt like walking for friggin ever and steeper than hell, but man that was amazing. You read about people doing all this stuff and wonder why, and then you fight your way up and you stand up there, and you know. Man, you actually know.”
There was something very genuinely passionate in his voice that made Dale glance at him, understanding something else about the purpose of having clients live out here on the ranch with them. Mason was now a person who’d experienced a sunrise. Who’d climbed a canyon. Who’d seen a coyote pass by in the dark, and sat around a fire with them in the middle of nowhere. Those experiences were incorporated into him, they were now a part of who he was, and those shared experiences would forever connect him with them who had experienced those same things alongside him. Experience did change you. The experience of being loved by Flynn, Jasper, Riley and Paul had opened up emotions and thoughts he had never thought existed, had spurred him to take steps to places inside himself he never would have been aware of without them, had changed his entire perspective on the world irrevocably and forever.
What Flynn would call growing new brain connections. What Jasper would call freeing and feeding the spirit. What Riley would call the damn obvious.
“That’s one of the things I really like about you, Mason.” Paul was saying. “You know how to value what you achieve. You’re good at saying I did that, and I feel good about that because... and it’s not something a lot of men are good at. If we’d taken you to the foot of that canyon the first day we hiked out....?”
“I’ve have told you where to go, yeah.” Mason grinned at him, a little guiltily. “Wasn’t too happy with anything that morning. Felt like everyone was mad at me and wanting to prove I couldn’t do a damn thing, couldn’t hike, I’d have said I couldn’t climb either.”
“That’s the thing about someone who does the kind of job you do.” Luath told him. “People in your line of work aren’t quitters. Show them something hard, and they don’t back away, they step up to the plate and beat it. Why’d you think we wanted to prove you couldn’t do anything, son?”
“That was kind of how it felt.” Mason said awkwardly. “I guess it was a bit paranoid. I screwed up out with Riley, you made me admit I had; it felt like this was ‘yeah this is what we do with screw ups’. I guess it is what you do with screw ups, but it isn’t that bad. I don’t feel like everyone’s watching to see me mess up to say there, now you gotta admit you screwed up.”
I feel. That was one of the first honest statements they’d heard him make that reflected, genuinely on what he was thinking and gave away how he felt about anything. No macho posturing, no brushing it off.
“That’s real progress.” Jasper said to Mason. “That’s what you’re working on. If you feel like you can trust us not to try to make you fail, then maybe you can trust us on other things too.”
“Hey I don’t buy all that touchy feely crap,” Mason said a lot more brusquely, “I ain’t scared of nothing, I don’t need that sort of pop psycho-”
“- tree hugging, meterosexual cowboy bullshit, yes.” Dale finished for him. It was ridiculous to remember how very strong that thought had been to him at one time. “None of it relevant at all to the work place, just state the exit criteria and cut to the chase. I went through that whole stage myself, Mason. Trust me, it didn’t make things any better.”
Mason had turned to look at him, shocked. Dale went on, aware that Paul was watching him too and definitely not smiling.
“I came out here in total denial having had a breakdown, and spent the first few days fighting it, thinking I’d just do whatever Flynn and the others wanted, say whatever they wanted, and then I’d get the hell out of here and get back to work. The only person I was fooling was myself.”
“You came here from a breakdown?” Mason demanded. Dale gave him a nod.
“In the middle of. My corporation put me on a plane within 24 hours of the main event, but I’d been boiling up to it for months.”
“What were you doing?”
“Mostly roving project management.”
Mason went on watching him for a moment in disbelief as they walked, then shook his head.
“I have a really hard time picturing you in a suit, you know? You look like you were born out here in a saddle, you’re just that kind of a man. I never met anyone like that in a corp.”
“Neither did I.” Dale said dryly. Luath cast him a brief smile; he was listening to this with a lot of interest. Dale thought about it for a moment as he walked, trying to put it honestly into words.
“It had a lot to do with the kind of man I realised I was, and it had nothing to do with the corporate. It had to do with me, and my life being screwed up because my values were screwed up. I could try going back to work and block out the fact I was broken. Or I could take a real look at surviving the next fifty years.”
“Was that why you pulled out?” Mason began, but Paul interrupted, looking directly at Dale and his voice was the do not think I’m buying your baloney one.
“No. That hurt you like hell and I know it did. I won’t listen to you say it in that absent minded tone of voice with nothing on your face like it happened to someone else.”
“Hey that’s harsh,” Mason began, and Jasper shook his head.
“No, and Dale knows it isn’t. Helping him avoid what bothers him feeds the whole problem he’s dealing with. It’s the harshest thing we can do.”
They were both right. Paul took a step closer and slid an arm through Dale’s, and Dale glanced briefly across at him, deeply appreciating the gesture that said what Paul had often said straight out loud to him lately, as if he knew what it felt like to hear it.
I’m right here.
“It was bad. I’m not brushing it off or trying to sound macho about it, this isn’t about trading war stories. I’m not proud of it. I shut my eyes to the whole mess coming until I’d got myself into real trouble, it was about not wanting to face it or deal with it, or feel in any way like I was failing, until it got so out of control I made myself the talk of the whole corporation for hallucinating in the middle of a meeting.”
“Hallucinating?” Mason said, shocked. Dale gave him a nod.
“Sleep deprivation. About three months solid of it. I told you it was stupid.”
“Stupid?” Mason said expressively. “I’ve heard you having nightmares, we all have. You don’t wake up laughing you know? ‘Screaming’ doesn’t equate with ‘stupid’.”
“I was stupid.” Dale said frankly. “And stuck. Deer in the headlights stuff. I had no idea what else to do but carry on, I hadn’t got the tools or the knowledge to do anything else. You know about this stuff, what was it like for you?”
“Ah none of the crap was my fault.” Mason’s tone picked up the belligerence again at once. “There were a few women with whole feminist issues about they’re as good as the men but they go running to HR the second someone raises their voice or talks to them like they would a guy, you know, this is how the game gets played? If you want tea party manners, go teach kindergarten.”
“You say that like you feel like it was your fault.” Luath pointed out. “You’re defensive, you’re not dispassionate, you’ve got feelings about it.”
“They were a whole load of frigid, pointy assed bitches and it wasted so much Goddamn fu........ ah man.”
Mason let out a heavy sigh as Jasper turned back to look at him, eyebrows raised, and stooped to pick up another rock.
“Hey that was just a little one. Half a rock, that’s fair?”
Jasper said nothing, and after a moment Mason skimmed the half rock out over the scrub and picked up another palm sized rock, adding it to his jacket pocket.
“You want to tell me what happens at the point I can’t walk for all these rocks?”
“I don’t know, I guess you’ll have to find another way to drag them around with you.” Jasper said mildly. “Words don’t just go away, their effects don’t disappear. How many have you got in there now?”
“This makes ten.” Mason said sourly. Jasper turned back, pausing to wait for him.
“They’re around. In my pockets, wherever.” Mason’s offhand shrug gave it away, Paul knew as soon as he saw it what Jasper had picked up on.
“Show me.” Jasper requested again. “Put them down here on the grass.”
Slowly Mason drew the rock back out of his jacket pocket, then a couple more from his trouser pockets, making no more than a total of three on the ground. Jasper looked back to Mason, who spread his hands.
“Hey have a heart. So I lost a couple on the way, big deal. This kind of thing shouldn’t carry over to the next day anyway. New day, fresh start, clear the slate.”
“How many were you carrying when we broke camp today?” Jasper asked him. Mason gave him an irritated look.
“Ok, three. Are you going to be an ass about this? I swear a bit, all normal people do!”
“How many should you be carrying?”
“I shouldn’t be carrying any, I’m an adult for crying out loud! You can screw this, I don’t care what you think they ‘symbolise’,” Mason’s sarcastic tone was accompanied by exaggerated finger movements demonstrating the inverted commas, “I’m not buying it!”
Jasper crouched down in the grass, quite calmly, not taking his eyes off Mason’s face. His tone wasn’t reproachful or critical, he asked the question in exactly the same quiet tone as he had before.
“How many should you be carrying?”
“Go to hell!”
Luath shrugged off his pack and sat down with the obvious understanding they were going to be here for a while, and Dale, pausing to help Paul get his pack off his shoulders, followed his example, taking a seat on the pale, dry tracks in the grass. Mason gave them a speechless look of disgust and anger, and stalked away, headed north. Jasper put a hand down to the grass and sat down, and Tam promptly pushed her head in his lap.
“Doesn’t handle being ashamed of himself well, does he?” Luath said, leaning back against his pack.
“Or not being able to control the situation.” Jasper pulled Tam’s ears gently, silking them through his fingers, and she pressed her chin on his knee, closing her eyes as she blissed out. “No problem, we’re in no hurry.”
Mason stopped a few hundred yards away. Paul, intentionally not paying too much attention to him, opened his water bottle and took a few swallows. Dale, chin on folded arms on his bent knee, glanced across at Jasper.
“Jas? Do you know anything about blue butterflies in these pastures? Light sky blue, quite small.”
“A northern blue, probably.” Jasper shaded his eyes with his hand to see Dale against the sun. “There’s the occasional one around here, you see them more up by Jackson.”
“The blue ones?” Luath shut his eyes, turning his face up to the sun. “I remember Philip telling me, David was here when there were still some buffalo left grazing and making wallows, the mud and grass turnover threw up flower seeds and the whole of these valleys were thick with flowers and the butterflies bred by the million. David described it like walking through a blue cloud.”
“Mmn, I dreamed about it.” Dale said lightly. Paul, watching him glance upwards at the sky over the canyons, saw him suddenly smile, his eyes lighting up. “Look. Eagles.”
A pair were circling, their wing tips spread like fingers against the sky, high above the red cliffs in the distance.
They sat for a long time in the grass. Dale, on Paul’s insistence, lay down and watched the sky, shoulders and his still sore butt against the rough grass and the impacted earth of the trail, and without much effort at all, his mind slipped into that half out of gear feeling where he could feel the ground vibrate faintly, hear a slow, steady rumbling.... it had been at the back of his mind for a while. If he didn’t focus too hard on it, if he just let it come without emotion, without grabbing for it, the rumbling turned into the recognisable creak of wheels turning and the occasional low of cattle. It held all the magic of drifting into pictures in a story book, it was fascinating, irresistible to just lay back and listen.
Jasper gave Mason the best part of an hour before he got up and walked out towards where Mason was sitting with his back to them, half hidden in the scrub. Probably less angry now than upset with himself, unwilling to lose face, and with no idea how to go about repairing the situation.
Without sitting up, and thinking of the butterfly field last night, of David crouched on the edge of the canyon, of the soft sound of wheels creaking at the back of his mind, all of which felt good this morning instead of insane as it should probably feel, Dale looked up at Luath, who was chewing jerky and watching the clouds roll overhead.
“Luath? You knew David too, didn’t you?”
“I did.” Luath said peaceably. “I was here a year or two before Paul came. Long past his train robbery days. I’d have loved to sit and listen to Philip and David discussing that.”
Yes, so would I.
“Do you think Philip would have known about the train robbery?”
Luath snorted. “There’s a lot of questions in that. Do I think David was involved? I knew David. He couldn’t have kept his hands out of it if anything with a thrill or danger was going on near his land. Do I think David would have told Philip anything about a train robbery, especially if he was involved in something dubious?”
Luath hesitated, thinking about it, and Paul watched him, smiling.
“I don’t either.” Luath agreed.
“Because Philip wouldn’t have liked it?” Dale asked mildly. Luath shook his head.
“Not exactly. Something to understand about David. He was an older man who loved a much younger one, and at the time they met, in some ways Philip was the wiser but much less streetwise one. Philip’s safety and financial security was a big deal to David, but he wouldn’t have had anything to do with a bank in planning for it. David was an Edwardian. He was a man of his time, the last of the pioneers. Protocol wasn’t something he’d spit on if it was on fire.”
“And that was a different generation to Philip’s.” Dale said softly, understanding. “Yes, I forget how fast and how much the world changed between 1900 and 1950. Socially, technologically, in every conceivable way. The cities changed and developed much faster than the rural areas, there were only very limited ways in such a big country for technology and communication to reach and have any real effect on poor, rural areas- places like Three Traders must have been like time warps.”
“David had depended on himself all his life and always lived in rural, less developed places.” Luath tore another piece of jerky off with his teeth, continuing slightly indistinctly. “Frontiers of different kinds. Dockyards and ships, ranches, back woods towns like Three Traders. In the world David came from, if you wanted shelter, you cut the wood and you built one. If you wanted water, you found a creek or dug a well. If you wanted food, you hunted. If someone threatened your people, you did whatever you had to do to keep them safe, and if they died, you had to bury them yourself. Philip grew up in a city with gas lights and running water. If something went wrong you called the plumber or the undertaker or the police, who sorted things out for you. I know you wouldn’t have wanted to tell David you had a problem with someone or something unless you were sure of what he might do to fix it. There was some incident once with some contractor who tried to con them, and Philip and James had their hands full keeping it from David while they handled it because they had a fair idea of what they’d have to stop David doing to the guy if he found out.”
“Which makes him sound like a thug, and he wasn’t. He was a good man.” Paul said to Dale. “He was what Riley would call a yak whomper, but he did what was right by his own standards.”
“Just a bit of a loose cannon, you never knew what he was going to do about something until he was doing it.” Luath agreed. “Wasn’t given to discussing much, he just did it. He hated anything that smacked of meanness or bullying. Couldn’t stand it. Where David came from, people stuck together or they died. They didn’t shut their doors and take no notice of what went on down the street, everyone was everyone else’s responsibility. That old man you found from the mine, Gam Saan, was a classic of David’s friends. Philip was the same kind of a guy. As far as Philip’s work went, he’d steady any man who he thought was worthwhile, whether it was with a quiet word, a bit of advice or some discreet financial backing. He put good people back on their own feet. David did the same thing, just in a different way, but I think there were things he felt were his job to deal with, and not Philip’s, and things like the train- if he was involved, then he’d have had reasons and he wouldn’t have thought Philip needed to know about them. David did what he felt he needed to do, and if he had to then he got his hands dirty in a way he wouldn’t have let Philip.”
Yes, Dale understood that without difficulty. He had seen things in cities around the world, in corporates, in investigations he’d advised on, which were not things he’d ever want the others to know or be tainted by, who were good men, unsoiled by and unsuspecting of how ugly things could be at the highest and most private levels of the corporate giants where the frontiers were above and beyond the law. Part of loving them was standing between them and that kind of ugliness, and Dale knew he had the knowledge to ensure that it would never touch them here in his lifetime; Flynn did the same with them on very practical terms and Dale had always understood the fierce protectiveness inside it, because he felt it himself.
Luath had paused, looking back to Paul. “What in the world is a yak whomper?”
“Ask Riley.” Paul advised. “He explains it far better than me.”
“It’s a new stock breed we’re incorporating.” Dale said seriously when Luath looked bemused. “We cross-bred them to the wombles up on the east pasture last season. They’re a bit violent, but very tidy.”
Paul looked him with his eyebrows raised, and Dale looked back at him straight faced, mirroring the eyebrow raise until Paul laughed, shaking his head.
“Ok, just you wait until I get home and work out what you’re talking about.”
It took maybe another hour before Mason and Jasper came back to them, and Mason, red faced and angry and mumbling, apologised to them It had obviously been something that Jasper had helped him figure out how to do; it was a very graceless apology but Paul suspected it was quite likely one of the first Mason had ever made. Jasper explained quietly that Mason owed each of them some compensatory time for the unpleasantness, and Dale followed Paul’s example of requesting his shelter rigged tonight, Luath and Jasper agreed with them, and Mason pocketed eleven rocks. Jasper had clearly added one more for the rant before he stormed out. No one commented on it, and Luath helped him pull his pack on, and still red faced and silent, he stalked a little ahead of them on down the trail.
“You know, I hate granola.” Luath said as they walked. “Jerky, ok, I can live with jerky, but three days on granola? I’ll never take steak for granted again.”
“That’s what you’re angling for when we get home?” Paul asked him, and Luath laughed.
“With green beans. And ice cream.”
“Donuts.” said Jasper. “Still hot.”
“Linguini.” Paul said thoughtfully. “Crab linguini. Guaranteed to make Flynn and Riley go on strike on the grounds that Real Men Don’t Eat That. Mason, what’s your poison?”
Mason glanced back, and for a moment Paul thought he saw suspicion as much as hesitation on Mason’s face; he hadn’t been expecting a friendly voice.
“...hamburger. With fries.”
“Mmn, a stacked one.” Luath agreed. “Cheesecake. Proper New York Cheesecake. Bacon and eggs for breakfast. And coffee. For the love of mike, proper coffee you can stand a spoon up in.”
Mason grinned at him, and Paul took Dale’s arm again, falling into step with him.
“What about you, hon? What’s your order?”
“There’s lots of things I like,” Dale said lightly and Paul nudged him.
“You can’t live on poached eggs on toast. What do you crave when you’re sick of granola?”
“Poached eggs on toast.”
It was said with enough humour for Paul to smile, but shake his head, knowing it for what it was.
“Rabbit trail. This is theoretical, come on, brace yourself. Make it up. Tell me the wildest lie you can think of. You love spinach and mustard. Stuffed peacocks ears. Concrete on toast.”
“........ I suppose I used to like fish finger sandwiches.” Dale hesitated for a moment as they walked. “We used to get those on Friday nights or holiday evenings in the boarding houses at school. White bread, fish fingers and huge amounts of tomato sauce.”
Mason broke the short silence following that description. “Ok, explain to me. What the heck are fish fingers?”
It was to do with the unpredictability of where they were and where they were going. There was no context to relate it to, which took away the usual scripts of what to say and what to focus on, and became literally a place in which you could say anything. Over the next few hours the conversation ranged from wish fulfilment over food to the history of the trail to how far they’d walked, which Dale knew in detail, to wishes about where they’d camp tonight. Luath’s preference being for a soft surface and Mason’s preference being for a wash, they both greeted the sight of the woods and the river with delight and joined forces to beg for a night spent on the river bank. Mason, having examined the river, further begged Jasper that they ate fish tonight as a break from granola, and Dale, after several minutes of surveying the local surroundings, manufactured a fishing rod, carved a fishing hook from the sharp sage brush wood on the banks and located bait in the thicker grass by the water, and Luath and Mason both paid close attention and followed his lead.
Paul, sitting down far enough back not to disturb the fishing, glanced up at Jasper as he crouched down beside him, keeping his voice low.
“That’s the most I’ve yet seen Mason want to turn it around.” Jasper leaned on his knees, watching the three by the river. “He was pretty upset over what we’d think of him. That’s the first time he’s let me know it matters.”
Paul nodded slowly, watching Dale step out to the middle of the river and indicate to Mason the stretches where he was most likely to find trout.
“I’m getting the impression Mason thinks Dale’s got a case of PTSD. Which is probably not a bad holding theory. I nearly stopped you on that story last night. We were talking it out a long time afterwards... Dale, not Mason, I know it ought to be just as much about Mason and Luath and it is, of course it is, but right now I need to focus on Dale. And that brought up a lot for him, it really shook him, which is good, which is what it was for, I know, but.... wow? A bit of warning would be nice?”
Jasper put a hand behind his neck, squeezing gently.
“We talk, the feelings come up, we talk some more. That’s what the stories are told for, they’re just parallels.”
“And you’re never afraid of opening up whole cans of worms, I know.”
“You don’t like him to hurt. Neither do I. But you open up and drain a wound.” Jasper said simply. “So long as those kind of feelings can be stirred up then they need working through until the power’s taken out of them. This is a good time, it isn’t possible to be out of sight here or to save reactions up for later. I think you drained out a lot last night.”
And of course Jasper would have been somewhere nearby in the dark last night, never interfering but there if they needed him. It was very difficult to get anything much past Jasper. Paul nodded slowly, watching Dale fish.
“He’s hit a kind of spaced out calm today. I think you could probably call it punch drunk, but it’s the most at peace I’ve felt him be since we left home.”
They caught eight decent sized fish in the end. They scaled and gutted them on the bank and roasted them on sticks over the fire which Mason built with only minor prompting this evening, and after three days of granola and trail mix, the fresh, hot fish tasted like heaven, even slightly charred and eaten from sticks.
Afterwards, they stripped off and washed, wading in the river and swimming where the current allowed, although the water was icy cold, and as they were dressing, Luath threw a balled up pair of socks to Mason who’d run out of dry ones, and an impromptu game of catch began in the grass. Jasper joined in with them. Dale, who’d been towelling off on the bank, watched but moved instead to his rucksack, sorting through it in a way that made Paul think he was sorting through it more to look like he was busy than because he actually needed anything out of it. If it had been Flynn and Riley playing, he might have joined in; Riley excelled at dragging Dale into whatever he was doing, and for Riley, Dale was usually willing to be dragged.
Paul was about to find a conversation that would distract him when Luath called to him and flung the socks wide. Dale caught them without effort and flung them out to Jasper, a strong, accurate throw, and Luath, walking past him, out of breath and laughing, stooped over his shoulders from behind to give him a bear hug rough enough to make Dale laugh too, Luath’s rough jaw against his. What he said, Paul couldn’t hear, but there was something about the way he did it that Paul recognised, and when Luath towed Dale to his feet in a way that was horseplay yet not rough at all, it clicked. It used to be a sweet man in glasses that Luath confiscated the books of and dragged into games, who was equally shy and left to himself would hang on the fringes. Luath knew exactly how to catch the confidence of a man like that. And he was doing it. Dale, keeping to the deeper fielding positions as he usually did, was still watching and moving to the right places to be free for a catch, and the catches were deft, fast, his slim body and long legs moving swiftly and sometimes twisting at incredible angles to reach the improvised ball, and he wasn’t hiding that he was enjoying himself. Watching Luath, Paul was reminded of something else too; that Luath used to smile like this a lot. He used to play around like this often, he used to laugh easily and to clown around with Gerry and the others in the days when he and Roger would join in with this kind of thing together. It wasn’t until you saw him do it that you realised how very rare it was now.
They didn’t come back to the fire by the river until dusk meant it was getting too difficult to see to catch. Mason put up the shelters, without a word and without looking round, before he came to sit with the rest of them on the boulders on the bank by the fire, and Paul put an arm around Mason’s shoulders and gave him a squashing hug.
“I’ve been wanting to do that all evening.” Paul informed him. “You have done a brilliant job of turning today around, I am so proud of you.”
That kind of thing never sounded patronising from Paul. Dale, watching Mason’s face lit up with a grin that was self conscious, knew how it felt. As an adult few people ever said to you good job, well done, I know that was hard; certainly not about the things that were simplest and hardest. Flynn, Paul and Jasper said those things frequently. They were normal words here, things you were often told, which were normal to hear in conversation.
Exactly, Aden. Normal around here, something you need to support and join in with; you understand it perfectly well but you’ve never yet opened your mouth and said anything of that kind to Mason yourself. Gerry said he was desperate for approval.
Ok, desperate for my approval. For some bizarre reason.
Aden you’ve got all the self esteem of a tree frog.
He hadn’t noticed what he was doing until Paul caught his hand, pulling it away from where it rested on his opposite arm, and turned his arm over to look at it in the firelight. The marks of his nails were small and neat but deep; distinct half moons, rapidly turning from white to red where the skin was broken and grazed. Paul took his other arm, turning both his hands palm up and palm down and Dale saw with him the grazes and faint bruises in a couple of places before Paul took each of his hands in turn, slapped them hard, and pulled him to his feet to dust the back of his thighs equally soundly.
“Dale Edward don’t you ever let me see you doing that again. There is a first aid kit in the pocket of my pack, get me the scissors right now.”
Mason, giving Dale a slightly wry look as Dale went to get the scissors, shook his head at Paul.
“Man, I am never pissing you off. You remind me way too much of my mom.”
“What’s your mom like?” Paul asked him as Dale brought him back the scissors and sat down to surrender his hands one at a time. Mason watched Paul trim Dale’s nails as short as possible.
“Actually, she’s fantastic. One tough lady, I wish I saw her more often. I know you spoke to her, she said you called her to talk about sending letters, the rules, that kind of thing.”
“I did. So did Flynn.” Paul took Dale’s other hand, turning it closer to the firelight to see more clearly. “I liked her very much, she cared a lot about how you were doing and what you might get out of being here. We have to pick contacts very carefully to be sure they’re going to support what you’re doing out here and not make it harder; she was very definitely all for doing whatever was going to help you.”
“Did she know how hard things were getting for you at work?” Luath asked Mason, who shrugged.
“They weren’t hard, this was just another petty HR complaint. No big deal.”
“Bullshit.” Dale said quietly. He didn’t move, his hand was relaxed in Paul’s and his voice was its usual soft tone, but his eyes were on Mason. “You’re out here on the same terms I came out here; you either fix yourself or you’re fired. There’s no manoeuvre room, no negotiation, that’s the deal.”
“Yeah, but...” Mason began dismissively, but he couldn’t seem to make it go any further. Dale glanced back to his hand, watching Paul trim another nail close down.
“Go on then, professor?” Mason demanded after a moment of silence, interrupted only by the soft click of the scissors. “What’s the magic secret you want to share with the class?”
Dale glanced over at him and when Dale meant something you felt it; there wasn’t a whole lot in his face but he spoke a great deal with his eyes, particularly when he was losing patience. “You’re out here tonight because you were an alcoholic, flown out to us on the condition you sorted yourself out or you lost your career. And you’re joking, you’re grinning about it, you’re not scared. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“No?” Mason said mulishly. Dale didn’t answer. There was another moment of silence, in which the aggression behind that ‘no’ was loudly audible.
“So when were you ‘scared’?” Mason said sarcastically.
“When I realised I was so out of touch with reality that I was in total denial of the mess I was in.” Dale watched Paul cut the last nail and took his hand back. “And when I looked at that mess, properly, honestly, I couldn’t envision any kind of future. I was done and I knew it. That was bloody terrifying. How do you feel about being sent here, Mason?”
“It’s a laugh a fricking minute.” Mason said sharply, “How do you think I feel?”
“I think you’re angry enough with the people that sent you here that you’re damned if you’re going to do anything that might prove them right.” Dale said matter of factly. “I think you’re mostly thinking fine, send me here, screw you, it won’t change anything. And that Andrew can screw himself if he thinks you’re going to sign off on the conditions he talked about.”
“How the fuck do you know about Andrew?” Mason demanded furiously. “That was nothing to do with coming here, that was nothing to do with anyone! Andrew had no right-”
He was on his feet, his voice rising, and Jasper put out a hand towards him, his voice quiet.
“Mason, we don’t even know who Andrew is.”
Paul, watching Dale, saw him take a breath that stabilised himself, and realised what had slipped out.
I saw him do this with Gerry. Just come out with something he rationally couldn’t have known. I’ve seen him do it with objects, photographs. I’ve seen him get close to it with me, with Flynn, sometimes he understands what you’re telling him about yourself or something you’ve seen or done so well it’s easy to tell him because it’s like telling someone who was there. It’s something he’s barely even comfortable admitting to me in private, never mind in front of Luath and Mason.
He was pulling together a swift excuse to cover Dale, something that would brush it off, when Dale said quietly,
“Sometimes I just pick up on things. Bits of things. I don’t know who Andrew is, but I know how angry you are with him, and I know there’s a piece of paper you’ve looked at and torn up. I don’t know what was on it.”
“Pick up on what things?” Mason demanded. “What do you know about me?”
“No more than I’ve said.” Dale said levelly, but Paul heard the adult tone slip into his voice, modulated, controlled. “I apologise if I startled you, it was quite unintentional. Who is Andrew?”
There was something in his tone, in his gaze, that was affecting Mason. Paul, aware of Luath sitting very still, braced for a row, and Jasper watching impassively, saw Mason look back at Dale and after a few seconds, in response to that tone, actually sit down again.
But he did this for years, he managed furious people shouting and screaming at each other, he got his agenda around and under theirs without them ever noticing, we know how skilfully he can use body language.
“Andrew’s one of the board.” Mason said after a minute, sullenly. “Supposedly a friend. He pulled some contract, some ‘behaviour’ contract I’d have to make with the board that when I came back, that I’d be a good boy and politically correct and all kinds of crap. I told him where to shove it.”
Dale made a quiet sound that said nothing more than that Mason had his full attention. Mason rubbed angrily at his thumbnail, scraping mud off it.
“The board deferred it. Said I could sign it when I came back. When you lot cleared me and said I was ‘fixed’.”
“You know that isn’t true of us.” Jasper said to him quietly, and Mason gave him a brief, sideways glance.
“.......yeah, maybe. But I’m not signing it. They can stuff it.”
Dale made that quiet, receptive sound again, and Paul, taking his cue, said nothing at all. Jasper was equally silent. Luath, watching Mason with a great deal of pity, was also watching Dale, who was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands lightly clasped in front of him.
They were quiet for a long time. Finally Mason said in a forcedly lighter tone,
“Aren’t you supposed to be making some kind of counter argument on their behalf?”
“Actually, no.” Jasper said candidly. “This isn’t a emasculation exercise. The line of work you’re in requires men to be sharks. We’re not concerned with how nice you are to work with, our aim is that you leave a happier, more successful shark. We’ll support you if you want to go back to work and we’ll support you if you want to quit your job. It’s you we’re here for. Not the corporate.”
Mason didn’t respond. He was staring into the fire, shoulders hunched, there was something of a weary boxer in the stance. Paul put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it.
“You’re tired. It’s all right, honey. Let’s get some sleep, it’s going to look better in the morning.”
Mason got up without a word. Luath went to get ready for bed too; his bed roll was near to Mason’s and Paul heard Luath strike up a mild and fairly one way conversation about night fishing. He captured Dale’s hand quietly, drew him in the other direction, out of the light of the fire, and Dale walked with him, down onto the river bank and up river, until the firelight and voices had disappeared into the dark behind them.
There was only the moonlight to see by; the half moon was still quite low in the sky but the stars were bright above the river and the air was getting colder. Paul turned Dale to face him and searched his eyes. They met his way too easily and Paul knew it; when Dale was actually connected to you, really and sincerely, looking you straight in the eye wasn’t easy for him because it made that connection too open. There was that kind of tired and detached, world-weary compassion in them too, the way he used to look all the time when he first came to them, as though they were children he couldn’t confide in. It had always raised one instinct in Paul and he did it right now, turning Dale by one arm and swatting him.
“Don’t you give me that look.”
“Ow.” Dale twisted a little away from him, sounding half amused, half protesting. “You’re getting slap-happy you know-”
“I can do this properly,” Paul warned him, “without the jeans, and a lot harder if necessary. Stop it.”
He saw the shields fracture.
It was the first time; the first time he’d ever seen Dale intentionally, consciously let them go and step out from behind them, but he saw Dale breathe out, deeply and heavily in a silent sigh and his shoulders sagged slightly, the stiffness and poise went out of him, he closed his eyes and the weariness came into his face, taking over from the sardonicism.
“Sorry. I know, I’m sorry.”
Paul tugged him closer and Dale turned his face into Paul’s neck, held on to him, and Paul hugged him tightly, aware of Dale’s full weight against him. And that was real.
“It’s ok.” he said into Dale’s hair. “We are ok. I don’t care what Mason knows, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care how mad Mason gets,”
“Yes you do.” Dale said with bleak amusement.
“Not if it comes to a choice.” Paul said very definitely. “If it ever comes to a choice between a client or your wellbeing or Riley’s wellbeing, the client goes and I won’t think twice. It’s that simple.”
“Mason deserves better than that, and he’s not any kind of a threat.” Dale said heavily. “I just made one hell of a mess of that. I lost my patience and I engaged with him, which was stupid, and I’ve been open all day because I’m as tired as hell and I didn’t even realise what I was talking about until I said it. I have no idea who Andrew is, I just felt the anger and the paper and said it.”
“Open how, honey?”
“There have been a few whats about today.”
Paul heard the word, the wry joke in it, and remembered the conversation by the hot springs some days ago when Dale had seen the old man with the fishing rod,
“You mean like the times you’ve seen David? She was a .... what?”
“Yes, she was definitely a what...”
“What kind of whats?” he said matter of factly, and Dale sighed again, not lifting his head from Paul’s shoulder.
“There was someone I’d imagine was probably a Shoshone gentleman up on the rocks this morning. Wagons on the wagon trail, not surprisingly. A couple of kids were playing not far from the track while we were walking. A lot of butterflies last night, I knew that dream was a bit different to just a usual dream, it always feels different if it’s a ‘what’ situation. It happens when I’m tired and I suppose emotional, it happened when we were at the hot springs.”
“I remember. Did they want anything?”
“Not a thing. They were just there, doing their own thing. It’s quite nice actually, very peaceful. Which is very strange and probably not at all sane, I told you I was tired.”
“I am not freaked, stop the rabbit trails.” Paul said very firmly. “Did you get any sleep last night?”
“Not a lot.” Dale admitted. “The few times I dozed I kept dreaming and it wasn’t pleasant so I didn’t much want to sleep. I had a try at going and doing something else, but Jasper caught me at it.”
“Good for Jasper.” Paul ran a hand under Dale’s sweater to rub his back, slow and deep circles. “What are we going to do about these dreams, hon?”
“I don’t know, they’re getting worse.” Dale said frankly. “Face them I suppose. That’s what it took the last time they were bad. Face up to them, see what’s really there. They disappeared overnight when I realised what I was trying to tell myself.”
“Which must feel like a hell of a lot to cope with on top of what you’re already handling.” Paul said with sympathy. “I’m not surprised it’s coming out in your sleep, all this emotion has to go somewhere. It must feel like you relax, let your guard down and whoosh.”
“Then come lie down with me and we’ll talk for a while.” Paul held him back to see his face, smoothing his hair back. “Don’t worry about Mason, let Jas and Luath take care of him tonight. Apart from that one slip you said exactly what Flynn or Riley might have said to him, and he might take it in hearing it from you, God knows you know firsthand what he’s dealing with. Come and lie down and don’t try to go to sleep until you’re feeling more settled. And if the worst happens and you do have another dream, I’m going to be right here with you, I’ll be here to help.”
The others were in their sleeping bags and quite possibly asleep, but the light of the fire was enough to read and write by. Dale, once he was laying on his stomach in his sleeping bag, pulled his journal out of the rucksack and opened it on the grass, uncapping the pen. Paul twisted to see what he was doing, and then lay back in his own sleeping bag, linking his hands behind his head.
“What are you working on?”
“I’ve been writing to Tom. I can’t send it, but I can write it to send later.” Dale turned another page. He was looking through the pages of his own handwriting; Paul had seen him do it a few times, reviewing, re reading. There was a carefulness to it that was innate to Dale. There was always an immense steadiness about him, a reliability, a certainty that whatever you put in his hands was secure. Then he said lightly,
“And making lists.”
The casual conversation was good if it distracted him. Paul kept his voice quiet for the sake of the others, following Dale’s light tone. “Of anything special?”
He said it so offhandedly that Paul wondered what he meant by it, then Dale said studiedly, as if it was almost too inane to mention,
“It makes it easier to call them to mind, I can call a list to mind once I’ve seen it written down.”
“Things that are good?”
“What’s been good about today. Things that are good to think about.” Dale turned another page, not looking at him. “Lungta. Tom told me about it, it’s fairly vital where he is. Good energy. If I think deliberately about good things, concentrate on them and their energy- it shuts down the uglier things. Feels like it fills the hole. It helps.”
“I wonder if I ever consciously stop and think about what I’m filled with?” Paul said, racking his brains to try and take that rather painful this is ridiculously childish, I’m just doing it for want of something better to do tone out of Dale’s voice. It wasn’t childish at all for him; right now it was so real a discovery and so strong in his mind he wanted to write it down. And it was a new and distressing thought that letting go of these hard, raw emotions felt to him like having a hole inside, an emptiness. It must feel almost to him as if I’m not made of that, then what am I?
“It’s natural enough that whatever you’re filled up with and thinking about is going to spill out. I guess it’s going to colour how you react and what you do, we think about it with the clients – the music and information they’re used to filling themselves with - but I don’t know I’d ever really thought about myself.”
“Cooking.” Dale glanced over at him from the book and gave him a faint and affectionate smile. “That takes up a lot of space in your mind. You love to cook, you consciously plan it, you think about it whenever you want to relax or to take your mind off something. What you cook depends a lot on how you feel and what you’re thinking about, and who you’re thinking about.”
It was perceptive, and not something Flynn or Riley would have come out with. Paul gave him a rather startled look, and then smiled.
“Ok, yes, that’s probably true.”
“For Flynn it’s the horses. And being outside.” He’d written a few brief words down in a column and Paul didn’t try to look at them, appreciating enough that Dale wanted to tell him.
“We need to help you do this.” he said, thinking about it. “Find good things that help you fill that hole.”
“Mmn.” Dale made one of his very British noises, turning the page over to smooth a fresh one down gently with his palm. “Like you sitting on the porch with me when I’ve completely lost it. Or telling me flat out when I don’t connect to what I’m saying. Or singing at me until I give in and talk to you. Or clouting me on river banks. Those are all pretty good.”
He couldn’t look at Paul but his tone gave it away, and it was like a body blow that he could say it, that he was saying, softly, openly, that it helped. Paul leaned over and put an arm around his neck, kissed his cheek and held him, and Dale hugged him back tightly.
It was the saloon again. So crowded with men and women and even with children that there
was barely room to get in the door, and someone was standing on the bar and talking. Dale turned his back on it, let the saloon door swing closed behind him and walked away, digging his hands in his pockets against the chill in the street. The heavy smell of coal smoke was in the air, and on the other side of the street, where the rail tracks ran, a massive locomotive was steaming in the night air, her cabin glowing faintly from the fire stoked inside her. The streets were quiet, deserted. When he paused, and turned to look up the slope of the valley, above the saloon and the hotel and the stores down here on the main street to the houses set into the valley wall above him, chimneys were sending smoke into the sky, and windows were lit, but the whole town was silent. The stars above the valley were hard and cold, like the frost under his boots. He heard the faint scuff of someone moving behind him and turned. It came from the far end of the street, where the rougher side of town began. The narrow alleyways, the workman’s sheds, the rougher boarding houses and the shanties where the miners lived.... he watched the dark alleyways, the dark entrances between the smaller, poorer buildings where newspaper sometimes stuffed up cracked windows and iron topped roofs instead of tiles, and he saw the boy, the drum tucked under his arm, dart like a rat from one alley to another, visible for just seconds in the street.
And then the stairs at home again.
Just the sight of them made Dale’s heart lurch and start to pound. He stood at the foot of them, in the dark. The whole house was in total darkness, and it was colder here than in the street at Three Traders.
He knew, as he stood there, that he couldn’t walk away. Whatever lay up there, he knew he had to walk up the stairs and face it. Look at it. And yet even gripping the banisters and thinking of taking a step up towards it made his heart thump harder and his mouth dry out, and sweat break out across his shoulders, over his palms. It was worse than crouching on the floor of the map room with blood welling from his palm... worse than laying in a white cotton bed in a dormitory of chattering, terrified little boys in pyjamas, with lightning flashing through the window and thunder shaking the sky, and believing, to the marrow, that tonight he was going to die. It was even worse. And Flynn and Paul were not here. Riley and Jasper were not here. There was no one in this house but him and It, whatever it might be.
It took everything he had, every ounce of knowing he had to, to make himself take the step towards the landing. And then another step. And another. And slowly he moved deeper into the dark, into the heavy gloom where it was damper, and colder. A damp, saturating cold, that went bone deep, and went with a damp smell of old buildings, unfixed leaks and mould. There was a soft hiss from somewhere in the dark. Something barely audible, but vicious. There was something terrible here. Something evil. The feel of it was in every inch of the gloom, Dale was aware of the nausea rising in his throat as his gut clenched. He was shaking slightly, he was aware of it in his knees, in the hand he put out to feel his way through the dark. Something was here, and it was moving. It was behind the massive shapes like building blocks, that grew so large they loomed over his head. It darted between a gap, so fast he didn’t see anything but the flash of movement in the dark. Stalking him.
In the room with the half open door, the little steam train was still running on its tracks. Noisily, around and around, in an empty room, at manic speed. Dale watched it for a moment, instinctively keeping his back to the doorframe, until the abruptly the whirring train derailed and shot across the wooden floorboards, clattering towards him, the cow catcher at the front of the engine smashing into his foot with enough force to throw the train over on its side. And then silence. For a toy train, the blow was surprisingly hard. He recognised the crash from down the landing this time. The book. Dropping into the hallway with a sound like a gunshot, hurled hard enough to bend and crush the pages. The sound made him jump, the threat of it made him clutch the doorframe, there was real danger here. Something so evil in the darkness that he was afraid to move. He didn’t go to look. He didn’t retreat towards the stairs to where those little hands waited to shove. Instead, summoning all his courage, he felt for the next obstacle in the dark and slowly, feeling his way, walked on, closer and closer to the end of the hall. The broken window slowly emerged from the gloom. Shattered. It had been stained glass once, although the window was so filthy the colours were barely visible. Shards lay scattered on the floor, so widely that it was apparent the window had been violently smashed. Dale crouched down to turn the grimy shards over, rubbing a thumb over them to see the colour, catching sight of a fragment that had once been a white horse, and another that was the golden hair of a boy, and part of a jewelled crown.
He saw the flash of movement in the dark as the thing shot towards him at supernatural speed with a hiss so triumphant his blood ran cold, and two burning eyes blazed at him for an instant, close to his as the blow hit his midriff. It was little, horrendously fast, too light to knock back or grab; in a split second it struck and was gone again. He recoiled in horror, fending uselessly with his hands, but it was far too late. In the dim light from the window he saw the rush of blood through his shirt, the large shard of glass buried deep in his stomach, and it went through him slowly – the ripping, burning ice of the glass, the dripping of blood, shockingly warm on his hands... He heard nothing this time but he felt the thing whip by him, and another shard with a viciously jagged tip flashed in the light, aimed this time for his face, his throat, any soft and vulnerable point of him, a furious, unstoppable onslaught, so ungovernably wild that no matter how he dodged and ducked and twisted and shielded his head, sooner or later one of those slashing blows was inevitably going to land, and all the time he fought it, his blood poured down and covered the floor, covered everything, everything was wet and slick with it, and still the thing struck, and struck and struck......
Jasper sat in front of the fire with his hands flat down on his knees, shoulders loose, spine as long and extended as a cat’s. He did this to relax, especially when he wanted his mind clear. A fit, relaxed body went with a fit and relaxed mind, and both were needed to maintain strong, positive energy.
There was the soft sound of a dog’s paws on the grass before a wet nose pressed his neck and a lashing tail whacked him around the shoulders as an enthusiastic Shane licked his face. Tam was beside him, her tail lashing too, although both excited dogs were quiet. Jasper put a gentle hand on Shane’s muzzle and signalled to both dogs as he got up from his seat on the grass by the fire, and walked softly to the side of the camp where Paul and Dale were both asleep under the shelter. He crouched beside Paul, ensuring Dale was soundly asleep before he put his hand lightly over Paul’s mouth. Paul’s eyes opened at once, met his, and Jasper let him go, nodding towards the dark pasture where two dogs were waiting eagerly. Paul glanced back towards Dale, watching him for a moment before he very carefully withdrew from his sleeping bag, found his boots and his jacket and followed Jasper out into the pasture.
The stars were bright overhead and the moon was full and luminous. Flynn was tying up Leo’s reins to let him graze at enough of a distance to be well out of earshot of the camp. He let Leo go with a gentle slap on his neck, turned and Jasper returned Flynn’s rough hug strongly, briefly, stood there together by the horse softly tearing at grass in the darkness. Paul zipped his jacket, turning his collar up against the cold, and Flynn turned to him next, putting a hand behind Paul’s head to look at his face with dark eyes before he wrapped Paul in a hug that was as comforting as it was strong. His jaw was rough, he smelled of grass and horses and leather, and Paul kissed the wonderfully scratchy familiarity of his cheek as he let him go.
“Asleep. I wasn’t waking him, we worked flat out all day keeping Gerry busy.”
“He’s getting twitchy about the surgery?” from long habit, Paul automatically turned Flynn’s collar down, straightening it as the three of them walked together towards the riverbank, leaving Leo grazing. Flynn grunted.
“A little more than he’ll admit. Ri’s fine.”
“How wrecked is my kitchen?”
Flynn gave him a brief grin under the brim of his Stetson which threw heavy shadows down on his face as they reached the shale by the river.
“It won’t be by the time you see it. Relax, Ash is at home.”
They sat down together on the edge of the water, Jasper cross legged on the shale itself, Flynn astride a boulder, and Paul sat on another boulder near him, with a kind of a quiver of memory that ran through him. It had been a while since the three of them had been out like this, together alone at night. Once, in some of the most heady months of Paul’s life, this had been a private time the three of them had together, night after night when the rest of the world was asleep, and Flynn and Jasper were drawn to the water or to the hills like magnets. In those days Flynn and Jasper had still been gangly, in the last of their teens, and the nights had been filled with science and history, philosophy, geography, as the two of them read, dissected and got drunk on the wonderful contents of Philip’s extensive library. Old concepts, stories, theories and thoughts, things that belonged to the night and to privacy. They were both taller and broader now, solider in the shoulder and jaw, the starvation for information and the energy not at all dulled, but matured and more controlled, and Paul glanced from one to the other of them with a quiet smile to himself at what he saw and how well he knew it.
“Well?” Flynn glanced at him, feeling Paul’s eyes on him. “How is it going?”
“I’ll let Jas tell you about Mason,” Paul looked down at Jasper with apology and Jasper gave him a calm nod. “But I’m very glad to see you, I need some help with Dale.”
“More is coming out.” Flynn said without surprise. “We thought it would out here.”
“It’s what’s happening and how I respond to it that bothers me.” Paul admitted. “I’m winging it. I don’t fully understand it and he doesn’t either, and I’m scared stiff I’m going to put a foot wrong out of ignorance.”
He got a look from Flynn that he knew; a lot of thinking going on behind the very dark green eyes that didn’t give much away at all but said, if you knew how to read them, that he understood and you had his full attention.
“I don’t think you can. Missteps and talking things out is how relationships work and he needs the experience. This isn’t therapy you’re doing with him. You said right from the start and your instincts were dead on, he chose you, he wanted to do this with you. He’s led it.”
“And I’m getting protective. I know.” Paul took a breath, watching the river flow past them like molten mercury in the dark. “I know why you’re not wanting to talk too much about this; you don’t want to risk it feeling clinical to him. He needs us, not a therapist, and it needs to be personal and messy and emotionally involved, of course it does, but I need some help here from both of you.”
There was a short silence. Flynn didn’t do personal challenges well; perhaps a little more easily from Riley who was openly outspoken about what he saw and in clearing the air between himself and them when he felt it needed clearing. Ironically the one of them who could do it best was Dale, and Paul, from over a year of knowing and loving Dale, followed his example in speaking quietly, gently, but stepping definitely out onto that edgy ground.
“Flynn, I think you’re worried you’re a bad role model for this because your experiences with your parents were pretty grim in their own way, and you probably relate to some of this yourself. You’re trying not to make it harder for Dale and you think I’m better qualified to do it. That’s fine, I’m sure as hell happy to try, but Dale and I both need you, and we need your help to understand what’s happening because we don’t know and you do. Jas, I’m not sure what you think but I know you’re hanging back too, and if I’m aware of it, you can bet Dale will be.”
Jasper’s eyes met his in the dark, unwavering, listening without criticism. Flynn’s face was immobile and he sat with his elbows on his knees, hands linked, watching the water. Then he glanced back to Paul with a brief look that was as near an apology as he was likely to get, but his voice was quiet.
“What do you need to know?”
It was a relief to be invited to take these things out of his head and examine them. Paul tipped his head back to see the sky and the brightness of the stars overhead, gathering the threads of thoughts he’d been working over all day.
“I’m getting better at knowing what defensive behaviour looks like in him. It’s like a kid hiding inside an Armani monster suit, it’s not what he says or what he does but what’s underneath it. If I act silly, make him laugh, just plain annoy him, it pulls him back when he’s really getting wound up. It’s like pushing a sense of proportion back at him. I just don’t know why it helps and I can’t help him understand it if I don’t understand it myself. And I know this developmental delay issue is a big one and I’m getting more and more aware of it, I know it’s heavy on his mind too, and I need to know what to do about it. I’ve seen that stuck part of him and I know how strongly he reacts every time he makes any kind of connection with it. We’ve talked about different parts of him at different ages, we’ve known that for a long time, but I hadn’t realised how very concrete it really is.”
“Children with avoidant attachment,” Flynn said after a long moment, slowly, “have had to deal with their needs not being met by the person they’re attached to, but still had to maintain that attachment no matter how difficult it was. A child can’t survive alone. If what that adult is doing to them is too threatening to the relationship, then the feelings and memories to do with those incidents have to be shut down. If feeling them, acknowledging them, makes the child angry with the adult, too distressed to cope, or want to attack or to leave the adult, they’re too dangerous to allow. The child’s also experienced emotional abandonment from the parent, so they know all about it at gut level. So they abandon the part of themselves that holds the knowledge of the trauma. They split it off. Separate from it.”
The river clattered softly against the rocks and an owl hooted from somewhere in the woods, and then Flynn said more shortly,
“So it is concrete. The split off part is right where it was left, at the age and stage of development it was left, and what you then get is avoidance and conflict between the two parts of the self. Each one threatens the other. What complicates it further is emotional survival was based on separation, so any contact between the two parts feels like risking total disintegration. There’s a huge amount of fear involved. He’s taking down the barriers between himself and this separated part, and the more he gets to know about it, the closer he gets to it, the more he’s feeling what it feels and knowing what it knows, and the more he’s having to reorganise what he remembers and see it in a different and far harsher light. It’s going to raise a lot of grief. It’s re constructing his whole sense of self, and it can get overwhelming. That’s why it’s so important Dale leads this himself and sets the pace to what he can cope with.”
“Dale never paces himself, Dale sees a possible solution and burns straight down to it, ready or not.” Paul pointed out. “That’s exactly what’s happened, isn’t it? He got to a point where he was safe and together enough to do something about this sealed off bit, and he had the instincts to know he had to open it up to relate to us the way he wants to be able to. That was what he was trying to explain when he first told me about it, although he didn’t have the words for it. He has to fix problems. He has to get it right.”
“He’s releasing a lot of trapped emotions, a lot of information that at the time he shut down as too dangerous.” Flynn picked up a stone, flicking it over in his hand before he flung it out towards the river. “Worse, these won’t be organised, narrative memories. They’re too early. They’ll be vague fragments, so talking about them or fitting them into any kind of coherent story to be able to even think about them is tremendously difficult, and he isn’t someone who does vague and disorganised well.”
“I know you’ve had him write his own story over and over.” Paul said, watching him. It was something Flynn often had their clients do, something he’d done with Riley years ago, a way of gradually gaining a clearer and kinder perspective on yourself, what had happened to you and how you came through it; the narrative you built your sense of self on. Flynn shook his head.
“That’ll come further on down the line. What I want him to do right now is to go on letting himself feel some of this trapped stuff without getting distressed to the point he shuts down. That’s the big step. To unfreeze it and process it. Own it.”
“So what do I do?”
“You’re doing it.” Flynn said briefly. “Join him where he is at that particular moment in time. Empathise with him and support him, at the different developmental levels. Which you do, on instinct.”
“And then do what?” Paul demanded. Flynn shook his head.
“That’s pretty much it. I’ve seen you do it, Paul, you know exactly what you’re doing. You help him shift his attention to what’s going on under the behaviour. You don’t focus on him pacing up and down the porch, you focus on understanding that he’s panicked, and the panic is pretty much a flashback, and you ignore the pacing and work on comforting him to the point he admits he’s panicked and lets you help him calm down. You help him realise what’s happening and you help him put the feelings into words and share them. You talk to the shut off part, I’ve heard you do that too. That’s important, it’ll respond to the signals that you know it’s there, and you’re drawing it out. He reacts hard to that part whenever it’s triggered. Whether he consciously realises it or not, he knows it’s a no go area, his instincts are telling him don’t ever open that box.”
“While another part of him is saying you have to open that box to move forward, and we’re standing with him saying yes, this is going to feel like hell but we’re here, we’ll help and you’ll live through it.” Paul said slowly, reflecting on several conversations over the past few days. “I can see now why he swings between wanting me to push and help him get this out when he’s calm, and being mad at me when I do it. Depends which part of him is in the driving seat at the time, but he always comes back to knowing he wants to do this when he’s regulated.”
Flynn gave him a brief, wry twist of the lips that might have been a nod towards a smile. “You know to cut the fear down, you help him to keep one foot here with us in the now while he feels it, and that’s the difference he knew when he started this. He has us now and he feels safe enough to do it.”
“He doesn’t feel safe enough.” Jasper said quietly. “I knew that, but hadn’t understood quite why. We know what works for Dale and we’ve been doing it, but I hadn’t taken into account the separate spirit, who it is or what it needs.”
“So what do we do with that part?” Paul asked. “I’ve just about got him to the point where I can mention it without him disappearing into the distance, but he hates me doing it.”
“You both know what to do and I’ve heard you doing it.” Flynn said bluntly. “We need to identify it as real part of him and relate to it the same way we do with the rest of him, so we accept it as a part of his whole even if he can’t. It’s a form of denial. Over time he’ll learn from us how to relate to it himself, and that’ll move towards him being able to accept this part can co exist with him without having to stomp it down, to realising he can relate to it without getting totally disorganised every time, and eventually he’ll assimilate it into himself.”
“I’ve heard you put this split-off part at age three or four?” Jasper said. Flynn gave a short nod, looking at Paul, who also nodded.
“Certainly not much older. Flynn’s right, it- he- is at a stage of magical thinking. The scratching and pinching at himself is a giveaway too, that’s a preschooler’s shut up, stop it gesture. Reasoning doesn’t work when he’s really coming from that part; I don’t think he’s got a whole lot of cause and effect thinking either, which is why we get the bolting which he doesn’t do now when he’s himself.”
“But they’re both himself.” Jasper reminded him quietly. “We need to honour that and be open about it for Dale to learn how to. We can’t love only four fifths of the person. Nor can we expect a child of three or four to feel secure within the expectations we have of the man. I see what you’re thinking, Flynn. Paul, you’ve done much of this on good instinct when you’ve kept him close, kept him at home with you and spent the time with him. How much of a day would we really leave a child that age alone?”
It was the darkest part of the night when Flynn mounted Leo and rode back the several miles towards the house. Paul walked back to the camp, needing the time to sleep, but Jasper stood for a long while in the midnight blue pasture with Tam, watching the man and horse grow smaller and smaller in the distance and letting the silence and the space sink into him, before at last he walked unhurriedly after Paul.
It was apparent from some way off that someone in the camp was awake. Jasper slowed his stride as something caught his eye, then softly crouched down in the long grass, putting an arm around Tam’s neck to keep her back. He could make out Mason’s shape under his shelter. Luath’s. Paul’s, lying still enough to say that he had settled back into his sleeping bag and quickly fallen asleep. The one awake was Dale. Sitting very upright on the ground beside his sleeping bag in the low glow of the firelight, stiff and very still, his journal laid open in front of him. His hands were steepled in front of his face, his fingers pressed hard against his mouth like a child’s gesture of shhh, and his eyes were fixed on the page. He sat there for a long, long time, not moving, and it wasn’t something that should be disturbed. Jasper, waiting, thought it was almost twenty minutes before Dale finally appeared to reach a decision, lowered his hands to close the book, aligned it precisely in front of him, and laid a hand very lightly on Paul, asleep beside him.
Paul opened his eyes and blinked for a moment at the grass beyond his sleeping bag before he followed the source of the hand. Riley would have launched into mid explanation before Paul had his eyes open, knew where he was or had sorted Riley out from whatever he’d been dreaming about. Dale waited until he leaned up on one elbow, and he spoke softly but with a calmly measured tone, his eyes fixed on a point over Paul’s shoulder.
“I would prefer not to be touched, or to discuss it please, but I need to let you know I had another dream.”
Paul ran a hand over his face, pulling himself further up out of his sleeping bag.
“....Ok. Why don’t you have your people call mine and we’ll set something up?”
That usually would have gotten him at least a look, if not a smile, but Dale didn’t respond, and Paul’s stomach lurched slightly as he got proper sight of him. He was white faced in the moonlight, body and face rigidly controlled, and his eyes were expressionless as if he was somewhere else entirely. Trying not to let alarm show in his face or voice and to gain a moment to think, and groggy after only a short time asleep, Paul sat up and nodded at the ropes supporting their shelter.
“Do you feel as stifled under here as I do? Unknot those for me, hon, let’s take it down. The sky’s clear, it’s not going to rain tonight.”
It was something normal, something domestic and practical, and Dale silently and efficiently reached to untie the ropes. Paul helped him softly lower the plastic, fold it, and laid it out of reach, and abruptly they were open to the sky with space all around them. It was colder without the shelter, the breeze was very fresh, and Paul lay back, holding out an arm and keeping his voice to its usual tone.
“That’s better. Need a hug?”
“No. Thank you.”
He was breathing slowly. Deliberately very slowly and deeply with intense control, sitting cross legged on the grass in the way Jasper would, and his journal was close to hand. Paul looked from it to him and his voice softened with sympathy.
“Yeah. You’re doing everything you know how to do, and it’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s fine.” Dale said very quietly, and it was so hopeless a denial that despite the worry, Paul nearly smiled.
“Baloney.” he said gently. “It’s ok honey. It’s going to be ok, I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
That went deep. He saw the controlled breathing abruptly get a lot shallower, he saw the shudder that went through Dale’s shoulders no matter how much he tried to stiffen against it, and he saw Dale’s eyes go from the detached ‘somewhere else, looking at something else’ expression, to a flash of something; just a flash, but it was there.
“That is a lot of over solicitous claptrap.” Dale said shortly. “For your information, you are the one who insists on the sharing of every petty detail. I am perfectly capable of coping with nightmares, I’m not entirely sure why you feel you should lose sleep in order to be informed of the fact but who am I to argue? I committed to this relationship, ergo I have done as you’ve asked. Si fueris Romae, Romano vivitomore.”
“Dale? What’s going on?” Luath’s voice was quiet and fogged with sleep from the other side of the sinking fire. Another serious giveaway; Dale normally would have been extremely concerned not to disturb anyone. Paul sat up and reached for his jacket to shoulder into, thankful that they all slept fully clothed. It was acutely chilly out of the sleeping bag, there was the sharp smell of frost in the grass and the air, and he found a sweater and a jacket for Dale, handing both to him and getting up to find his boots.
“It’s fine, Luthe, sorry we woke you. Dale, put those on. Let’s go sort this out somewhere quiet love, it’s ok.”
“It’s the middle of the night and I have no intention of doing anything but going back to sleep.” Dale informed him. The British accent was getting sharper by the word, enunciated clearly and viciously. “You are quite welcome to wander around if you feel the need to.”
Total panic, and I’ve never seen it this bad.
Paul gently hooked an arm under his and hoisted him to his feet.
“For what?” Dale yanked away from him and swiped up the journal from where it lay on his sleeping bag, levelling it accusingly at Paul like a barrier between them. “For more of this nonsense? More solicitude and sentiment? Allow me to tell you something, Paul. It has very little connection with the real world. Actual ‘life’ doesn’t look like this; this is just the opiate nonsense you tell small children.”
“I bet it really feels like that tonight.” Paul said with compassion and saw Dale’s eyes flash from hard to blazing in a second, something so alarmingly bright that his stomach chilled in response. Dale held the journal up higher for him to see.
“This is lies. Do you understand that? All of this is nothing but lies. Every bloody, wretched word in it is lies, and that is all.”
He pitched the book hard and accurately, deep into the heart of the fire. The flames blazed up immediately, stirred by the fan of it landing.
The destructiveness of it cut Paul to the core. There was so much of Dale in that book. Months of painful work, thought, insight, trust- it would have been as impossible to watch him burn himself as the journal. Paul lunged to grab it, but Luath was there first, striding past him in the dark, and he caught up a stick and knocked the book out of the fire onto the damp grass. It was smoking. Luath picked it up with the cover singed but intact.
It was the expression in Dale’s eyes that gave it away; he hadn’t managed to hold on to the hardness. A man being forced at gunpoint to burn down his own home might look like this.
Mason was on his feet, watching, and his face was difficult to read. Luath looked grim and his eyes met Paul’s as he brushed ash off the book, silently demanding to know if he had this or if he needed help. Despite the fact he’d been suddenly awoken, he looked sharply alert; he’d lived in this family too many years not to be familiar with brats melting down in the small hours of the morning and he’d always been very good at them. Jasper was standing silently behind Dale. He’d appeared out of nowhere, and so far he’d given Dale no clue he was there, but his hands were slightly out from his sides and Jas moved like lightning if need be.
Flynn explained this. Try to reduce the fear, interpret what’s happening, and let’s face the fact there’s two people here and not one. And don’t let it look like a crisis even if he’s convinced it is one.
Paul took another slow, careful breath, then picked up the dropped sweater and jacket, took very firm hold of Dale and walked him away from the camp.
A long way from the others, too far to hear them or smell the smoke of the fire, where it was quiet and they were alone, he turned Dale to face him and looked right into his face, tugging Dale close to him.
“Has anything in that book ever hurt you? Made you feel ashamed? Frightened you? Tried to make you do something you felt was wrong? Look at me.”
Dale didn’t move away but his eyes evaded Paul’s. Paul swatted him, hard enough to get a grimace.
“Dale, look at me right now.”
He responded. Unwillingly, but promptly, his grey eyes lifting to Paul’s.
“No.” Paul repeated. “And you know me. You know I’ve got your back. So you can trust me that whatever is telling you that book is dangerous and should be gotten rid of needs to be questioned before you listen to it.”
“This is a perfect example of why this kind of conversation is ridiculous,” Dale said icily, although he hadn’t pulled away. “It’s pointless discussing-”
“Ok, then let’s get to the point.” Paul interrupted him. “Paul, I just had a dream every bit as horrible as I was afraid it would be last night, when you told me a whole lot of crap that it would be ok. I let myself trust you and I’m mad with you about that. I’m mad with you about encouraging me to let this awful stuff out of the box in the first place and believe it could get any better. I’m mad I believe enough to let myself wake you up and see this. I’m mad that we’re in the middle of nowhere with people who just saw me lose it. I feel terrible and I don’t know how to handle it and I need Flynn and he’s not here. Anything I’ve left out?”
Dale’s eyes were glinting like light off steel, although his tone was freezingly courteous.
“‘Mad’ as a synonym for ‘angry’ is a particularly ridiculous example of Americanised-”
“Yeah, you can rabbit trail that one ‘til you’re blue,” Paul said bluntly and gently. “It’s one whole lot of defensive noise. What you actually want is comfort, and you’re pretty mad at me for wanting that too. So we can row for a while, or you can bolt- I’d rather you didn’t, it’s dark and I’ll worry about you, but do what you’ve got to do. Or you can take a deep breath, hang on just a little bit longer and let me help. Either way is fine, I’ll be here when you’re ready and it’ll be ok, but either way you can stop using that snotty, I don’t care tone of voice to me, because I don’t believe it.”
Dale was so angry he was rigid; he was hardly breathing, but that got a very brief, real look that wasn’t angry at all and was a lot nearer to despair. Paul held out his hand.
“Hold my hand, honey. Come on.”
Grateful for the uncluttered, visible path of the wagon trail which was easy to follow in the dark, Paul walked with him, keeping the pace slow and steady, and with a firm hold on the long, slender fingers, chilled and tense in his but tightly gripping him back. They were long out of sight of the camp. The dark pasture lay open all around them, silent space as far as the eye could see, melting into shadows where the mountains lifted out of the horizon. The sky was a high and clear, deep midnight blue, the stars were bright, and the semi frozen grass crunched softly under their boots as they walked. It was silent but for their footfall, and their jacketed shoulders bumped at times.
The more mature and icy he sounds, the more he’s blasting you with information on how totally invulnerable he is and how he needs absolutely nothing, the more defensive it is. It’s about not trusting you to take care of him. It’s about putting you off, making sure you feel redundant, or offended so you won’t do anything too painful to handle like sympathise with him. It’s about keeping control when he feels most fragile so there’s no chance you can hurt him when he knows he can’t take it.
I swear when he’s triggered he goes back in his mind to that house with her; the beliefs and the skills and the tactics of the person who survived. That’s who this other self is. The protector. With a truly scary vocabulary.
“How about you put the sweater on?” he said aloud, going for the strongest thing on his mind. “It’s cold out here and you’re shivering.”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Mmn, because the sweater’s warm and it’s comfortable and you probably don’t feel like you deserve to feel any better,” Paul said mildly, unfolding it, “And I want you to put it on which makes it even worse. Must feel like an evil sweater. Knitted in the realms of darkness, by the demons of-” he paused to check the label, “LL Bean. Shall we drown it or burn it? Put it on the next coyote that comes by?”
Dale took it out of his hands and shouldered into it, mostly to make him shut up. Paul helped him with it, eased the jacket on over the top and zipped it for him, and heard Dale growl in response.
“There is no need to walk anywhere at this hour of the night, I am perfectly competent-”
No, I’m not playing.
“Oh good grief I completely forgot.” Paul interrupted him on sheer impulse, taking his hand again and pulling Dale with him. “I know it was around here somewhere – I don’t believe it, what on earth did I do with it this time?”
It cut the rant off in mid sentence; Dale was probably too surprised. Towing him and chuntering gently about leaving things laying around and never being able to find anything, Paul retraced their steps and walked around in circles in the pasture for a while, searching the dark ground with commitment that was based on nothing more than extemporization, although he was aware that Dale was increasingly co operatively walking with him. And that the just the act of walking in the dark and the quiet was regulating. It gave Paul time to get his own balance, to think, and to move from acting calm to truly feeling calm enough to be with him without getting caught up in what Dale was projecting, and that was so important to do that he took his time before he finally scuffed at the trail, and then stooped to pick up a small pebble from among plenty of identical ones with a sigh of relief that should have entitled him to an Oscar.
“There is it. Thank goodness I found it, I must stop leaving it laying around.”
He was aware of Dale’s ‘you are a bizarre and ridiculous individual’ look, but took no notice, sitting down on the grass and pulling Dale down beside him. The hush was as vast as the pasture around them. Open space and darkness. Paul put a hand on his back, rubbing, and for a moment Dale didn’t respond. And then he politely but very definitely slid away from Paul, out of his reach, wrapping his arms around his knee. He’d come down from the crisp detachment to quiet. Withdrawn. And it wasn’t a more positive step. He was folded up in one of his impossible huddles, one leg under him, his long back stiff, his shoulders hunched, and he was still shivering despite the jacket. The nearest Paul had ever seen him this seriously triggered before was on the porch a few days ago, when he’d seen Dale pacing, trying desperately not to run.
Because that was one of the very first times he ever allowed me to see him when things got this bad. Usually he’ll do anything to stop anyone seeing or knowing. That’s what he’s always done; he goes off alone until he’s got himself back under control, he doesn’t like anyone to know. But he woke me up tonight. He made the decision to stay and to let me in on it, to try and feel it. Which has to be overwhelming.
Paul let him go, keeping his body language relaxed and thinking furiously through everything he knew.
We know with all our traumatised clients; trauma has no time sense when it’s triggered. So the way he feels right now, the very worst of it happened just two minutes ago. This part of him lives permanently in that moment, right where he left it. And in that moment there was no any of us, he was alone, so he has no reason to believe I won’t do just the same thing as the adult that did this to him. Nothing feels safe.
So do I shut up and wait and just be with him? At least I’m here, at least he’s letting me be here? Or is that doing exactly what she did, putting it all on him to find his own way through? Do I push and hope I don’t tip him over the edge?
For Pete’s sake, he’s Dale. He told you last night, what felt good to him was that you have pushed these past few weeks, you don’t let him intimidate you and you don’t quit, even when in the moment he looked like he was fighting it off. He doesn’t want to win; when does he or Ri or Gerry or any of them ever want to be left to win when things go bad? Talk to the part of him re living that moment, try joining him there.
“You know who I am, honey?” he said conversationally to Dale. Dale didn’t react, didn’t look up, and Paul sat where he was, one hand digging gently in the grass track.
“Say my name. Who am I?”
“That’s right. You’re here with me and we’re all right. Where’s your mom right now?”
He expected another crisp burst of oh don’t be ridiculous, but slightly to his surprise Dale answered him at once, without much tone in his voice at all.
It was a lot worse to be right than to be wrong. Even though Flynn had explained it, even though he’d felt it instinctively at gut level for a while now, it was still a shock to have it confirmed. Paul had to swallow before continuing, gentling his voice still further, and painfully, consciously, making sure his sentences were short. Appropriately simple.
“Mhm. A long way off, and she’s ok darling. Your step-father’s looking after her, isn’t he? She doesn’t know what we’re talking about. It can’t upset her.”
If I’d had any idea, Paul thought with the one tiny thread of his mind that wasn’t wholly focused on Dale, what ground I was about to trespass onto when Flynn told me we were messing with your loyalties, I’d have been too afraid of screwing it up to ever get this far. Which is some of why Flynn’s kept so quiet. He didn’t want to break my confidence because he knew where this would need to go. It must have killed him to head home and leave us to it tonight.
He glanced down at an unusual shape among the pebbles running through his fingers and absently picked up the chipped stone with the point missing.
“Look, an arrowhead. Riley’s found a few of them on the banks, he’s got a collection somewhere.”
He held it out on his flat palm for Dale to see, uncomfortably aware that the pupils of Dale’s eyes were huge as Dale glanced towards him. Even considering it was night, they were huge.
Hypervigilance. Flynn explained it, didn’t he? Your whole body’s on hyper alert for danger, even your eyes are blown up to watch for it. You’re sitting there so quietly, terrified. You sat like this in that bloody house with her, quietly terrified. Did anybody even know?
“They’re easiest to find after the spring rains.” he said just as conversationally, moving closer to put it into Dale’s hand. Dale took it, and flinched as Paul touched his back, but Paul took no notice of his stiffening, rubbing deeply and slowly.
“I’m sorry hon, I can’t leave you alone. I can’t do it. We’re all right. Breathe. I know this feels horrible, but it’s going to get better in a minute. I’ve got you, I’m right here. We’re ok.”
That seemed to help. He didn’t move away again.
Bit by bit, he seemed to breathe more easily. Bit by bit Paul felt his racing heart rate slow down, the tightness of the huddle he sat in eased out a little at a time, and when finally Paul shifted nearer to put an arm around him, this time he leaned into Paul silently. Paul held him closely, going on rubbing his back, the back of his head, smoothing his dark hair which somehow even after their third night in the wildness was still tidy, putting his heart into his hands. The quiet and the stillness of the dark pasture was like a sponge; it absorbed emotion, it drifted away into the vastness of the ground and sky, and left behind calm. Paul was aware of it, the extreme isolation of the open ground around them, their smallness against the miles of open land that ran to the mountains, and no need to move on or do anything but sit.
“I think,” Dale said eventually, and his voice sounded exhausted, but it was much more his usual tone. “This may be where I tell you I had another nightmare.”
“Oh no kidding me?” Paul said lightly, and felt a very weary snort from Dale, who straightened up slightly and twisted around to wrap his arms around Paul. He was still shaking a little. Paul held him tight with a wash of overwhelming tenderness for the weight of the dark head resting on his shoulder, and they sat like that for some time.
“What was it about?” he said into Dale’s ear after a while. “I’m guessing not a whole lot of rainbows and kittens.”
“No.” Dale drew away, running his hands over his face and taking a heavy breath. “No, rather more to do with demonic things stabbing me in dark attics.”
“There was a .....lot.... of blood.” Dale admitted. Paul ran a hand gently over his face, as distressed by his expression as the lightness of his voice.
“That’s horrible. What was it, do you know?”
A long, tall figure was walking unhurriedly down the trail towards them. Jasper. He leaned a hand on Paul’s shoulder to stoop and kiss Dale and then Paul in a gentle and matter of fact hello as he sat down on the grass with them, and Dale glanced up to watch. He often did when he saw them say hello, or goodbye, or tease, the myriad times Jasper and Riley and Flynn touched or hugged them without really noticing, but Paul had seen Dale quietly, consciously absorbing it. He appreciated it with the quiet reserve of a man who had come to them in full maturity; it was a culture he didn’t take for granted.
“What else was in the attic?” Jasper asked Dale. Dale winced slightly, crossing his legs and looking down at his hands.
“It’s always the same dream, it just gets a little worse each time. It’s the landing at home to start with. I walk down it, it gets darker, colder, there’s odd and massive furniture like a lumber room and a broken window at the end of the hall.”
“And?” Paul said gently when he saw Dale suppress a shudder. It took Dale real effort to answer, Paul saw him look down at his hands again for a long moment.
“There’s the book with the prince in it. Once I heard a crash and went to look, and the book had been thrown downstairs. Something pushed me down the stairs after it. This time, I was looking at the broken window and something picked up a shard of glass,” his voice got tighter, he cleared his throat and Paul heard him steel himself to say it, “It’s small. Stabbed me in the stomach. There was blood everywhere and it was still.... slashing at me, trying to reach my face.”
The realisation hit Paul like a bucket of cold water. It was hard not to flinch. Flynn had mentioned ‘animosity’..... trying to kill was a little more than animosity. It was absolute rage and hatred, and it was horrifying.
“What does it look like?” he asked softly. Dale shook his head.
“I don’t know, I can’t see it. It’s fast. I can feel it, it feels – evil. I can’t describe it any other way, the sense of something evil, awful.”
Oh darling I bet it really does feel evil to you.
“White light.” Jasper said quietly to him. Dale glanced up and Jasper put a hand out to cover his, folding his fingers over Dale’s.
“Above you. Below you. In front of you. Behind you. To your left, to your right.”
Dale took a breath, a deeper one, and closed his eyes, then he let the breath go and Paul saw his shoulders relax slightly as though he’d let his muscles go loose to focus on whatever it was he was doing.
“That’s a protection, isn’t it?” Paul asked, and Dale nodded without opening his eyes.
“It’s a kind of filter. It’s supposed to be white light; I cheat slightly. I can do it better if it’s a kind of yellow or gold light, it’s easier to think of and it seems to work the same way. It always helps.”
“Is it actually there, or is the help in the mental process of imagining it?”
“Yes.” Dale opened his eyes and gave him a very slight, tired smile. “I’m not sure there’s a difference. I can quote lists of dream symbolisms, you know? I did some background reading when I was wrecking everyone’s sleep nightly with dreams about stallions and Mustang Hill. Page four, category D: www.dreamscape.symbols.org, second column, beside an advert for tyres: dreaming of dying is supposed to be mentally letting go of something, a transition, or seeing a dead end within the status quo. Category H: dreaming of a house is known to be a symbol for dreaming of yourself. I suppose that all makes sense.”
Paul looked across to Jasper for help, hating the frustration behind the dryly self mocking tone in Dale’s voice, and the rigid denial behind it.
Because you’re bright, hon. Way too bright for this, at some level you’re stopping yourself admitting it, because it’s too much to handle.
Jasper met his eyes, and Paul, taking a discreetly deep breath, tightened the arm around Dale’s shoulders.
“I think it’s probably something a lot simpler. Think about it? Something that you’re terrified of that’s small, up on a landing with that book, out of control and trying to hurt you?”
“Paul, it’s bloody demonic, this thing is evil.”
“Yes. To you it really feels that way.” Paul reached for his hand, twisting his fingers to wind them between Dale’s in a way that turned his ring up. Gold in quartz, a simple band on his fourth finger. “You can hardly stand listening to me talk about it. Small, something ugly, horrible, very threatening to you that we’ve discussed a few times? Who’s that?”
He saw Dale’s eyes sharpen with real shock as he realised, then he shook his head, dismissing it.
“No. You talk about it like it’s an actual ‘thing’. It isn’t. It’s a rather sentimentalised way to elicit empathy for and conceptualisation of a form of developmental delay that presents within the context of attachment difficulties. That’s all it is.”
And the kid just said yes loud and clear.
Paul squeezed his hand gently.
“So how is that different to visualising your white light?”
“What do you think this being wants when it attacks you?” Jasper said mildly when Dale didn’t answer.
Dale gave him an expressive look. “Fairly obviously, to commit homicide?”
Jasper met his eyes, saying nothing, but after a moment Dale looked down.
“Ok, I’m taking this seriously. It is approximately 2 o clock in the morning, I’m sitting in the middle of nowhere and I’m taking this seriously.”
“You are not in the middle of nowhere.” Jasper said firmly. “You’re home, on your own land. You know exactly where you are. Think about it.”
Dale took another slower breath and his voice was quieter to match Jasper’s when he answered. “I don’t know. I don’t know what it wants. To make me leave or attack me for being there? To scare me? In which case, incidentally, its success rate is impressive. This thing hates. I can feel the hate coming off it, the whole place is filled with it. It’s worse than what we saw on Mustang Hill, Jas. I’ve tried walking through it and facing it down, sometimes that’s what it takes, but this doesn’t fade, it gets worse.”
“I don’t think he’s any kind of a monster. I think he’s about three or four years old.” Paul said gently. Dale snorted.
“We are not personifying it. No. Really Paul, no. Trust me, there is nothing sweet about it.”
“No, I bet there isn’t.” Paul agreed. “You’re telling his secrets, you’re breaking his rules,
you couldn’t do anything that threatened him much more. I’m not surprised he’s hitting back. He’s the one with the beliefs about trust no one. He’s the one who’s afraid that loving us, and feeling calm and good about anything here is all lies and it’s going to hurt you. Pretty much all the stuff you were saying to me when you threw your journal in the fire. There wasn’t much sweet and harmless you were feeling then.”
Dale glanced up at him and while he didn’t let much of it slip, Paul saw enough that he gripped Dale’s hand, painfully and horribly aware that he could talk about it in that dry, calm British accent, and that it was just a very well practiced, reinforced veneer over God only knew what. How it must feel to have something so powerful break free inside you, something primal and messy and with such force, when you were someone to whom control was all your safety, someone quiet, dignified and shy, who hated to draw attention....
“What else do you see in the dream.” Jasper asked him. “What else do you feel? You said it was a repeating dream. Think through it, look at the images.”
“I’ve analysed it a few times.” Dale admitted. “The emotion is mostly apprehension. There’s something alarming ahead but I know I have to walk towards it. The consistent elements – the landing at home, it changes gradually, gets grey and cold, there’s no one else in the house. There’s an empty room with a train, a train on a track running round and round – which logically is pretty much symbolic of Silver Bullet isn’t it? Mentally that whole lot of information is just circling and not going anywhere, I’ve got no more evidence to move it forward.”
“It’s a full sized train?”
“No.” Dale glanced at him. “It’s a toy. And no, that is not coding, this is not some small, homicidal maniac in a quiet corner of myself that wants to kill the rest of me.”
“What if it is?” Jasper said mildly.
Dale raised an eyebrow at him. “What if it isn’t?”
Jasper shrugged. “Then what have you lost? It’s another hypothesis you will have tested, and you’ll have more information to work with.”
“....That’s rather more coldly logical than I’d like to think about.” Dale admitted. Jasper gave him a half smile.
“I agree with Paul. I think this may well be who is doing some of your thinking for you. This is who takes over the wheel sometimes, with all the beliefs he’s got about what’s safe and what’s not. This who gets so frightened. This is who likes bubbles.”
Dale knew it. Paul saw the trapped look in his face and put a hand up, running it over his cheek.
“But you know what? What can he actually do to you? He can try to scare you, he can give you bad dreams and he can make you feel horrible because that’s how he feels, but he can’t actually hurt you. We’re here, we’re going to figure this out and get through it, you do not have to do this by yourself.”
Dale shut his eyes, not moving away, and when Paul let him go he lay back on the grass between them, tipping his head back to look at the sky.
Jasper was sitting quietly, unmoving, his face as calm as his body, and for a long while Dale lay watching the sky, and Jasper sat, and Paul looked out across the dark pasture. Then Jasper put a hand on Dale’s knee and got up.
“We’re not going to get any more sleep tonight. Come on. Let’s pack up and move on.”
The fire was out in the camp, Luath was scattering the last of the ashes, and all five packs were made up and waiting, ready to go. Mason glanced up at them, not with curiosity but with concern, and Paul touched his shoulder as he passed him, giving him a quick and appreciative smile.
“That’s kind of you both.”
“It seemed too clear a night to waste on sleep.” Luath’s eyes were on Dale’s face and he caught Paul’s eye and very slightly raised his eyebrows. Paul shook his head slightly in return, swinging his pack up on his shoulders. Luath held up the slightly charred journal to show Dale before he pushed it down inside his pack.
“I’ve got this, and I’ll hold on to it until you can handle it with some respect.”
Dale’s voice was very soft but Paul saw him turn to face Luath properly, correctly. He always responded strongly to that tone in Flynn.
“Yes sir. I apologise for disturbing you this evening. Mason, I apologise for waking you.”
“No problem....” Mason said a little dryly, looking to Jasper and Paul for help. Jasper shouldered his pack, waited for Mason to fasten his harness and walked with him in the lead towards the river. Dale clipped his own back pack harness and Paul took his hand, keeping Dale close with him as they followed.
There was a physical symbolism that Paul understood as they walked down the river bank to the crossing place; Jasper believed in the power of acting such things out with geography. Tonight they moved to leave the site of the dream behind, to go forward. Onward. They climbed down the rocks in the moonlight, waded through the shocking cold of the flowing river where deep below the water, in the drop beyond the shallows lay the wreckage of a long abandoned wagon, and they climbed up the bank into the darkness of the woods, following Jasper down the deeply muddied trail. They didn’t push the pace; it wasn’t safe in the dark. Instead they moved slowly, steadily, and not far into the woods, Paul felt Dale turn to look behind them and paused to follow his gaze.
Dale stood still watching something in the dark, and Jasper, who had stood back to let Mason and Luath lead, looked with him.
“Two children.” Dale cleared his throat, sounding numb rather than as awkward as he usually sounded when he mentioned anything he thought he saw. “Quite young.”
Jasper started up the path again, but took some steps off it, waiting for Dale and Paul to follow him. “Look.”
He led them some feet from the path, to the edge of a sharp drop into a steep hollow, and took his penknife from his pocket, casting the small torch beam from it down to the brown mulch and leaves below. They could see the remains of the broken iron hoops and a rotting wheel, where they had been lying probably for a couple of centuries. A couple of little wooden crosses stood in the corner of the hollow. They were weather-beaten, ragged, but someone had reinforced them not so long ago with new cut wood and twine gently fitted to the old.
Touched, reminded again of how much Jasper knew of these woods that none of the rest of them did, Paul blinked eyes that stung for a moment. Dale’s face was like marble in the thin moonlight that penetrated through the newly budded trees around them. The mulch smelled strong and fresh, the ground was soft and moved beneath their feet, as it must have moved beneath the wagon’s wheels when it slipped off the path centuries ago.
They followed Luath and Mason’s trail on uphill, steeply up hill, over the roots that lay under the rough ground, and Dale’s voice was soft.
“That wasn’t what they wanted me to see.”
“What was it?” Paul paused to get his breath, and Dale glanced back the way they’d come.
“A porcupine. They were following it, it was making them laugh.”
“A porcupine?” Paul led Dale to walk ahead of him as the path grew narrower. Dale walked steadily, trudging up the steep slope.
“....It’s often not significant stuff. With the visitors...... often it seems to be just wanting something they’re thinking to be acknowledged, like the view from a rock or how pretty the sun is on the pasture. That’s what they want to share.”
He walked in silence for a moment, then said more shortly.
“Flynn said to me that most of this trauma idiocy just wants to be acknowledged. It just wants to be heard.”
“I guess that’s a human need.” Paul said reflectively. “You must miss Flynn a lot hon, this is a hard thing to go through without him.”
“Actually in an odd kind of way it helps.” Dale climbed up another steep section using the overhanging branches for support and put a hand back to steady Paul. “If he didn’t think this was ok and nothing to worry about, if he wasn’t convinced this was going to end well, then he’d either be out here with us, or I’d be back at the ranch, wouldn’t I?”
There was a wryness in his tone that Paul understood and which drew an equally wry smile from him, loving Flynn himself.
“Yes. You’re quite right, you would.”
“Not out here watching kids playing hide and seek with porcupines in the middle of the night.”
“They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care,
They pursued it with forks and hope,” Paul said out loud, as it came to mind. Dale glanced at him, a very slight giveaway of curiosity despite his tension.
“The Hunting of the Snark.” Paul said with affection. “Lewis Carroll? You’d like his books, I’ll find some for you. He was a mathematician, they’re full of puzzles you’d probably understand a lot better than I do.”
“Define a Snark?”
“No one’s quite sure. It’s a poem, about a party that go hunting for the Snark, but there’s always a risk that what they catch may not be a Snark, but a Boojum. If you catch a Snark, that’s good, but if your Snark turns out to actually be a Boojum, then you vanish away.”
“How do you tell the difference?”
“You can’t until you’ve caught it, it’s the risk you take. It’s meant to be nonsense, it’s fun. My grandmother loved it, she used to read it to me – I’ve got the book upstairs in my study somewhere, I loved the pictures too.”
They reached a less steep section of path, and Paul found himself repeating one of his favourite sections without effort as they walked.
“Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried, As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide By a finger entwined in his hair.
"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice: That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true."
It was rolling stuff; the kind of thing that you said for the pleasure of saying it, and Paul was aware too that it was an unthreatening way to keep his voice in Dale’s ears as they walked in the dark; a constant reminder that he wasn’t alone.
They were seriously muddied by the time the light was thin and blue through the woodland. The path was rough, often steep and slippery, and they had to use their hands to pull themselves up or climb the banks and shelves, and Dale was aware in a vague kind of way of his hands being slimy and crisp where the mud was drying on the back of his wrists, and of the muscle burn in his back and legs. That was actually distracting enough to be good, and he worked on it, stretching his body further, harder, pitting it against the ground. It distracted from wanting Flynn. Despite what he’d said to Paul, which was true, there was still the awful gnawing of badly, horribly wanting him. To talk this through with him, to be held by him, to be with him, because nothing was ever too awful with him. And there was an odd, peculiar and nagging urge to just huddle down on the ground, and be as small and as hidden as possible against the undergrowth. Be small and still.
And then what, Aden? It’ll all go away? You’re over thirty, you’ve got no business even thinking this kind of rubbish, you ought to be ashamed.
Oh piss off and bully someone else, I’m sick of listening to you.
He snapped the mental retort without thinking, but there was almost a sensation of shock in response to it, and then a hard, biting backwash of the despair, the biting, gnawing sense of agitation, black agitation, so powerful that it’s sheer lack of control was terrifying.
And what am I doing about it? I’m quietly hiking through a damn forest.
He’d felt the edges of this for years. Often. But never in this uncontrolled wash, this tidal wave in a strength that made it hard to think, or move, to stand up against the fear or do anything but feel that niggling little want to get down on the ground and curl up as small as he could. So he walked, and kept his voice calm, and answered Paul appropriately, with no idea what else to do.
Ridiculous. It is not this bad. Count. Calculate, shut it out, you know it’ll recede.
No. I’m not doing that.
You know it’ll work. It’ll make this easier.
Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up-
He paused, finding his fingers clawed, braced and ready to bite into his arm,
Yes, that’s using pain or ranting to block out problems instead of dealing with them. I know this stuff. It’s no different to working at manic speed or hyper-focusing or running until I throw up, or any of the other tricks Flynn would jump all over because I know better. For pete’s sake, am I going to run from this for the rest of my life? Gerry fought it. He faced it down, and he won. It’s having the guts to face it down, over and over and over again, to do the hard thing instead of whatever staves it off another five minutes. I need to stop, and tell them.
In a dark wood, with the others who are hiking, with Mason, who has real problems? Are you going to screw up the morning for all of them even more than you already have done for something so pathetic, so needy? All this fuss about one bad dream? It was only a dream Aden. You’re going to make a total nuisance of yourself for a dream? You’ve handled far worse than this, you’ve never let it break you.
I damn near did let it break me. Without Flynn and the others, I would have. I never knew when or how to stop.
However it felt, even if every cell in your body screamed at you that you could go no further. No one knew or cared or saw as you crossed that invisible line and you just somehow blindly went on. He’d felt it a few times in his life before he came here; there was a cost to walking past that line that he’d never realised at the time, and he was at that same point now. He could feel it.
How many times have I been in trouble for withholding something far, far more minor than this? How many times have we talked about this. And would I ever want Flynn to force himself on alone like that? Riley? Would I let him? I’d die first.
But that’s different.
He didn’t have an answer, except to know what they would want of him. Unquestionably. All four of them.
If Flynn’s right, then this stuff does... like the whats... just want to be heard.
It felt artificial, wooden, to stop on the path, and Jasper glanced back to him at once, which made it worse. Dale forced his hand to go to the clip of his harness, to drop the pack from his shoulders, and to turn to Paul behind him even if he couldn’t look towards his face and his voice sounded as if it was coming out of some kind of mechanical speaker a long way off.
“......I can’t do this. I’m sorry, I’m done.”
“Ok.” Paul said very gently as though it was a completely normal thing to say on a path in the early hours of the morning, and his voice was reassuringly neither surprised nor disappointed. “That’s ok.”
Very stiffly, Dale crouched down on the trail, shutting his eyes, leaning his forehead against his hands with no idea what you did now. What happened when you gave up. He couldn’t look at them. Jasper’s hands rested on his shoulders, grasping for a moment, then gently leaning with his weight pressing down like Flynn did sometimes; it was familiar and Dale automatically braced against it with the relief of exerting his own strength, feeling Jasper let go more of his weight in response as he pushed back, and the deep pressure moved down through him, squashing some of the maelstrom back under some control. Paul’s voice said calmly,
“Mason, clear a space and build a fire for me? Let’s get warm and have a hot drink, I’m frozen.”
Luath helped him; Dale was vaguely, numbly aware of Luath and Mason talking and Mason working on the bow drill. It was damp, chill, the shadows were very heavy where they sat and the thin light spoke of dawn maybe an hour away, and when you listened, there were rustles and creaks around them, moving trees, moving creatures, God only knew what out there in the darkness, and the faint smell of damp decay and rot. Jasper ran a hand gently over his head and sat down on the muddy earth beside him, and his hand slid under Dale’s jacket and sweater, Dale felt the cool pressure against his bare back, rubbing slowly and deeply, in a way that penetrated right through the numbness. It gave a ridiculous amount of comfort, and it made him realise he was shivering hard. That was when he gave in to the urge to sit down, to huddle up as small as possible under that rubbing hand, and hug his knees. It helped. It really helped. There was a soft crackle in the darkness, the smell of smoke and Mason blowing softly, and then a flame flared in the night, sending out golden and orange light through the shadows. It was surprisingly bright. Mason sheltered the burning coal under kindling and within a couple of minutes on the trail was a small, leaping fire, overcoming the smell of damp with wood smoke, and sending out a startling amount of warmth.
“Shut your eyes.” Jasper said very quietly beside him. He was sitting very close, one knee behind Dale’s back as if Dale sat at his feet as he did at home. “Breathe. Feel your breath in your lungs. Feel the back of your hands. Your middle knuckle. The palm. The centre of your spine.”
He spoke slowly, softly; it was such a relief to feel safer, to be touched and to be close to him, and it was impossible not to guide your attention where he suggested. It brought things gradually back into focus, the sensation of unreality gradually slipped away, and Jasper went on talking quietly.
“Think about your body. Where it is. What it touches. Feel your clothes against your skin. Feel your weight against the ground. Focus on it, let your mind quieten down. Let yourself stop thinking.”
“How can anyone just ‘stop thinking’?” Mason said bluntly, feeding the fire with small twigs while Paul balanced a can of water over it. “It’s not like you can just turn it off.”
“My grandfather used to tell me to think less and listen more.” Jasper said mildly.
“We’ve been through this; your grandfather was a strange man.” Mason observed without malice. Jasper smiled, Dale heard it in his voice.
“He used to point out to me that animals don’t insulate themselves from the world with mental chatter; they wouldn’t live long if they did. It shuts out all kinds of interesting things.”
There was the sound of a zip opening, something rustled, then Paul took a seat on the ground with a handful of granola, holding it where Dale could reach it.
“Honey, eat this for me. I know you don’t feel like it, but you need the blood sugar boost.”
“He looks shocky.” Luath said darkly and Paul glanced up at him.
“I think you’re right. We’re ok, we know what this is.”
Looking up or moving was honestly too difficult. Jasper’s arm closed around his waist, lifted him back so that Dale was leaning against him, surrounded by him, and Jasper took the granola from Paul, putting it directly to Dale’s mouth. It was dry. Sweet. Chewing was an effort, but Jasper went on holding him with a grasp that was firm and very safe, his body warm and directly against Dale’s back, and it was like finding somewhere to rest after hours of drowning. They were all sitting close together around the light and warmth of the little fire in the dark.
“Tell me five things you can hear.” Jasper said in his ear.
“Fire crackling. Wind in the trees.”
The night was very quiet. Dale shut his eyes and swallowed on granola, trying to focus.
“Water running. Somewhere that way. My breathing.”
An owl hooted softly, the distinctive distant ho-ho-ho hoooo and Mason snorted.
“That’s an easy one. What is that? I keep hearing it.”
“That’s a great horned owl.” Luath turned his head to listen as the owl called again. “There are some great greys where the woods are thicker. They’re not shy, you often see them on fence posts come to see what you’re doing.”
“They always look so shocked.” Paul agreed. “Like you’re doing something obscene and they can’t believe their eyes.”
There was a soft swoosh and Luath smiled as something sailed past them overhead. “There he goes. Rog used to feed one up on Mustang Hill, it knew if he was up there reading he probably had food with him.”
“Other people go to read with a pocket full of toffee or cookies,” Paul said, smiling, “Rog used to head up there with a pocket full of raw chicken, the owl wasn’t much of a fan of carbs. It was when he put jeans in the washing machine still with raw chicken in the pockets we fell out. Flynn’s handkerchiefs are one thing – you wouldn’t believe what that man does with his handkerchiefs- but Rog’s pockets were something else entirely.”
“It didn’t get a whole lot better when we were in NY, just less raw meat in the mix.” Luath’s teeth flashed white in the firelight as he grinned. “I banned him from the laundry after he killed our first washing machine. We had to replace the floor too.”
“Was he that much of a disaster?” Mason asked wryly. Luath laughed.
“Not a disaster, no. Just usually with more interesting things on his mind. Unless it involved book keeping and figures; then he didn’t miss a trick.”
“What about five good things about yesterday, hon?” Paul said to Dale, putting more granola into Jasper’s hand and leaning to check the water heating on the fire.
He’d written it down just a few hours ago, and it was usually effortless to pull a visual image to mind, but nothing came at all. Luath answered when he didn’t, his voice still warm.
“Hmm. Fishing. I have to make more time for it, I never feel this calm in the city, I forget what it feels like. All the fishing addicts in the family are out this way, so I don’t do it unless I come home.”
“I just built a fire, from scratch.” Mason said. “I didn’t think this boy scout stuff was my kind of thing, but I have to admit, it’s.... pretty good. Walking the trail yesterday was pretty cool. And yeah, I like fishing, even with crappy hooks carved out of nothing. I mean anybody dumps me in the wilderness now and screw them, I’ll be fine. Sleeping outside – that’s pretty wild too. Not so comfortable, but lying looking up at stars, the air that fresh, sleeping by a fire? Not an experience you get so much in LA.”
“You, turning it around yesterday.” Paul said to Mason. “I was so proud of you for that. And you waking me up to say you were in trouble.” he said to Dale, just as straight out. “That much trust? I know how hard that was, and wow. Even if you’ve got to pay me back for it tomorrow, it’s worth the worst you can do, bring it on. You can look at me in the scariest way imaginable, I won’t care.”
“Pay back how?” Mason said curiously.
It was aimed at him, and Dale had no idea how to answer if he’d wanted to. Jasper answered for him, handing him another pinch of granola.
“If you like someone more than they like themselves, I think you’re messing with their view of themselves, and it can make them pretty defensive. If you’re not the person you think you are, then who are you?”
“Who’s got self esteem that lousy?” Mason demanded. “Who gets into existentialist crap on who are they? Just look in the damn mirror. Check the driving licence.”
“It takes a lot of strength to be afraid in front of other people.” Jasper said mildly. “Dale, how about five things you can feel?”
“The ground.” Dale pulled himself together with an effort, swallowed granola and took another deeper breath. Jasper hadn’t let him go and his arm was comfortingly firm, he was holding with real strength behind it and it felt very good. “Jacket. You. The fire, warm. Smoke in my eyes.”
“Because that’s concrete.” Paul said quietly to Jasper in an ‘yes, of course’ tone.
Luath leaned to dip a finger in the heating water, shook it off and used the sleeve of his jacket to lift the can off the fire.
“This’ll make lousy tea but it’s hot.”
They sipped strong tea around the fire as the light grew stronger and paler in the woods, first thinner blue, then grey, and then slowly a softer golden yellow as the sun began to penetrate between the trees. The sense of shaking gradually began to ease and Dale swallowed on the tea, breathing the fragrance in the steam and feeling the deep internal chill thaw a little.
“Feeling any better?” Paul said gently. Dale nodded, and Paul pushed his fingers through Dale’s hair, a possessive kind of touch that said he was concerned and couldn’t keep his hands away, Dale had seen him do it with Riley.
“I think you are in shock, darling. I’m not surprised, you’ve had a hell of a few hours. What do you feel like now?”
“Nauseous.” It was actually quite hard to think about it, to step back and separate it out into bits, and then to force his mouth to say it despite the well of anxiety it raised.
Because we don’t tell, do we? We never tell.
Shut up. In this family we talk about things. That’s what we do.
“......Cold. Stomach hurts. Throat dry. Head hurts.”
“You’ve already survived this.” Jasper said quietly. “Your body’s been triggered and it’s just running the old programme on repeat. Try and step back, and let it pass through. You’re safe, we’re here with you, it’s going to end.”
“This is what you meant by trying to re programme the system.” Mason said, watching him. Dale gave him a brief nod, past caring what he saw or what he thought.
“Mainframe totally bollocked up. Yes.”
“You don’t need to make light of it,” Paul said firmly, “Look at me.”
It took a moment to be able to, and Paul waited for him. It wasn’t so bad to just catch sight of his eyes, to have them in your general field of vision, but that wasn’t what Paul was waiting for. To look in his eyes – to really look in them was different. Paul had beautiful eyes, that was part of it. Dark blue with a glint of light deep inside them that Dale often noticed when he laughed or when he was thinking about something, and he poured warmth and affection from them when he looked at you. It invariably drew up a rush of equal emotion in Dale; it wasn’t possible to meet those eyes and feel nothing, and Paul ran his hand over Dale’s hair again, smoothing it.
“Be brave enough to have a really lousy day. It’s ok.”
~ * ~
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015