Jake grabbed up the radio, keying the switch. “Shem?”
Shem’s voice sounded agitated. “Phoenix said yesterday he was staying another night at camp one, he was fine, staying with the Canadian team. Pemba and Lobsang radioed down to say they can’t find him, he’s not in camp one.”
“Anyone spoken to or seen Phoenix Loudon from the Mountain Eagles team?” Jake said sharply on the open channel.
Oh my God. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be.
Yes, it bloody could.
“If he was with another team today that team may well be crashed out asleep and have the radio off.” Tom said shortly to Jake, knowing he wasn’t convincing either of them. “If he has managed to con someone to help him up to camp two then he’s probably crashed out in his tent blogging, or he’s asleep, or partying somewhere and hasn’t heard the radio, Jake, we are done, we’ve gone as far as we can today, it’s not safe. Someone else is going to have to do the heroics.”
“If there’s any chance it might be him I’m going to have to go.” Jake said grimly. Tom Looked at him, and Jake looked right back, grabbing his crampons. “It’s going down and it’s not dark yet. I can’t leave that stupid child on a rope down there.”
No, neither of them could. Swearing, Tom grabbed the radio from him as Jake grabbed his kit.
“This is Tom and Jake with Mountain Eagles, we’re at camp three. We’re going down to look.”
Jake didn’t try to make him stay, which was just as well as Tom would have refused point blank. It was stupid. It was a seriously stupid, risky, possibly lethal decision to climb further today, and yet they had no choice. Every fear Tom had had since bloody Duckface Loudon set foot on the mountain was coming true; they had no option now but to do something dangerous beyond rationality that they never, never would have planned to do unless forced to by some prat of a helpless, pointless client. The only saving grace was that to do it together meant each of them had someone trusted to watch them, to partner them on the ropes, someone they knew and trusted so implicitly it was like having a second body, that was the only safety net they had. Putting his kit back on and forcing his body to function was one of the most physically demanding things Tom had ever done in his life, including several marathons, wild water swims and mountain ascents. ‘Tired’ didn’t begin to describe it, and that increased the danger tenfold of hypoxia, of frost bite. And yet they reached the rope, clipped on and climbed in silence together. Descending the Lhotse face, exhausted and numbed, was one of the least fun things Tom had ever done. It was so, so easy to make a mistake when tired, it was lethal; so easy to hurry instead of be careful, to put a foot wrong on this wall of ice, so easy to lose concentration and let your mind drift. But down was so much quicker than up, and even at camp three the oxygen was thicker, Jake was moving fast and smoothly and after a while Tom felt his head clear and it seemed easier to breathe and move even with his legs on fire and his body aching. Twilight was coming and it was fast getting colder.
About fifteen minutes below camp three, on the steepest stretch of the Lhotse face, the climber came into view, hanging limply from the ropes in his harness, and Tom swore passionately as he saw him. The climber was in a pink suit. He was damn lucky the ropes had held him; somehow all their nagging and teaching and crampon tuition had stuck and he’d managed to front point his crampons deep into the ice, and that had probably saved his life. The fixed line wasn’t meant to hold weight, just to give you time, but Loudon was a lightweight in every damn sense. Jake pulled a canister of oxygen from his rucksack as they reached him, stabilised themselves on the rope and got hold of him, calling him sharply. His violet eyes were open but they were vague, unresponsive. He looked so young all of a sudden. Limp, his face slack, his lips were looking badly cracked and he was very cold. Conscious but too cold, dehydrated and tired to function. He was in the state where unable to move, with nothing left to help himself, he would simply hang here in a stupor that would gradually become the coma of hypothermia and end in death. Tom twisted him around like a puppet on a string to get hold of Phoenix’s back pack and dug through Phoenix’s belongings. There was almost nothing there. No food. No thermos. This infant had no idea of how to look after himself, no grip on mountaineering, no idea of the dangers he was playing with. The naivety was shocking. They had no hot fluids with them, they’d left what they had with Dorje, and they’d had no time to melt snow or to get themselves warmed and hydrated at camp three and Tom was feeling the own effects of severe cold setting in to his hands and his numbing feet and face not helped by exhaustion, his own dehydration heralded by the aching in his kidneys, the dryness of his mouth. Jake strapped the oxygen mask on Loudon and cranked it up on high.
“We haven’t got time to wait for him to liven up, it’s going to be dark and freezing cold out here in half an hour. I’ll lower him down, you get down ahead of us to a stable place and I’ll let him down to you.”
It was not a safe thing to do. At all. They were both exhausted, dizzy with fatigue and too damn tired for this, but guides had died out here. World famous climbers who could have survived had died of hypoxia, cold and exhaustion, sitting beside clients because they couldn’t move them or help them, and would not leave them to die alone. The Captain always went down with the ship. Trying anything at all was infinitely better than Jake sitting down here beside Phoenix to hold his hand and die with him. Either way, Loudon might very well cost them three lives today.
There were not that many stable places around here but as Phoenix was lowered down the steep ice face he slid rapidly and smoothly, and at each ledge and break in the slope, Tom was able to anchor in and help to stop his descent, take his weight off the rope and let Jake make his way down safely to the next clear spot. They worked on the lowering for a while as Tom controlled his fall and to Tom’s relief Phoenix was showing distinct signs of reviving, he was starting to help himself clumsily and to grip the rope and take his some of his own weight. Below them, in distant sight, two climbers were steadily making their way towards them with the light, easy pace of the Sherpa and it felt like the coming of the cavalry. As they reached them, Pemba pushed back his scarf to show his weathered face and smile. It was Lobsang beside him.
They were carrying hot tea – truly hot tea and right now, exhausted, hurting all over and so tired it was hard to stand up, it tasted like the food of the gods. Pausing where they were on the ropes, Pemba fed a cupful to Phoenix who was not talking, not coherent, but had reached the point of standing and walking with someone hanging on to his harness and Tom was beginning to think of the ladders on the Cwm and the Bergschrund crevasse and start to plan how they were going to manoeuvre him over, when there was an abrupt rumble from above and Tom grabbed Phoenix, forcing him in close against the ice wall and covering his head as Jake above them flattened himself and ducked. The fist sized grey rocks were the ones that fell down the face all the time, they were a constant hazard here, and Tom saw a handful of them whizz harmlessly over their heads, crashing down into the base of the Lhotse face above camp two. He saw the last one coming, rolling down the ice, and this one was closer to the face than the others. It bounced about ten feet above Jake, Tom saw it fly out and shouted, he remembered afterwards that wordless scream to Jake, and Jake twisted hard, tearing his head out of the path of it. It caught his arm instead, just below the shoulder, with a thud that was abrupt and loud and sickening, like a pumpkin being smashed, and for a second Jake was thrown off the face. He dug his ice axe and his crampons in a second later, the fixed line held him and Tom scrambled up the face at the greatest speed he’d ever managed, grabbing him and steadying him until he had his balance once more.
Jake was as white as a sheet. For some minutes he made no sound, he shut his eyes and he clasped his hand hard over his opposite shoulder, stooped over on his knees on the ice. The sky was greying rapidly overhead, it was as if the clouds were scudding behind his head against the now shadowed ice. Tom gripped the nape of Jake’s neck hard. Jake wasn’t moving. He was hardly breathing, the breath must have been knocked out of him with the force of the impact.
“Tom?” Pemba said urgently. Shaking all over, Tom looked down at him and Lobsang and the reeling, limp form of Loudon between the two of them.
“……get him down, I’ll help Jake.”
He had to shout it to make himself heard over the rising wind. Pemba hesitated, but Lobsang took Phoenix’s rope and began to lower him down. It was getting harder to see, the wind was rising and snow was starting to blow around them. Tom reached up and activated his own headlamp and then Jake’s, still gripping him.
“Jake? Say something for God’s sake!”
“My arm’s broken.” Jake said it through his teeth without opening his eyes. His hand moved slowly, with care, then he nodded. “Yeah. Upper arm.”
There was no way of taking his jacket off to look, even if it wouldn’t mean risking his arm freezing in this wind.
“Anywhere else?” Tom demanded. Jake shook his head slowly.
“Don’t think so.”
His left arm. The loss of use of a hand or foot was a killer up here. Sick to his stomach, Tom dug in his kit and fumbled out a rope.
“I’ll short rope you, get you down to camp two. We can get Shem up in the morning.”
A gust of wind blasted suddenly, spraying snow over them both. It was shockingly strong and bitterly, bitterly cold. The light was going fast now, it was dimmer minute by minute. He could no longer see Lobsang, Pemba and Loudon below them. Jake shook his head slowly.
“Going to need to stabilise it.”
“At camp two.”
“It’s through the skin. I’m losing blood, I can feel it.”
Oh dear God.
Tom felt his guts turn to water, the wind struck right through his suit and froze him to the bone in one breath.
“No. No, nothing’s spurting, it’s slow.”
Exhausted, cold, severely dehydrated, weak from having barely eaten in the last forty eight hours – it was a recipe for utter disaster. They were both drunk with exhaustion, they had both pushed today far beyond their capacity, taken their bodies to a limit that a few hours ago had seemed exhilarating in its extremity. Now Tom saw with awful clarity the price it was about to exact. In this state, shock and blood loss would finish Jake swiftly and efficiently, render him too weak to move within minutes, and it would be right here in the dark on the lethal wall of the Lhotse face with the temperature plummeting and the wind rising every minute. Thinking of him trying to make his way one handed, stumbling with shock and hypothermia over the ladders stretched over the Bergschrund crevasse – Tom grabbed his good arm, attaching a rope to Jake’s harness between the two of them. Camp two was easily an hour away in turning weather over complex obstacles, and Jake didn’t have an hour. When he became too weak to move… if he was out here on the Face he would never move again. But camp three above them was much nearer. There were no ladders and crevasses to cross and there was oxygen stored in their tents. Shelter. Stoves. Water. Rest. A chance.
It was a decision made at maniac speed, fumbling at his harness with hands so stiff and cold he could hardly tie the knots.
“Jake, we’ve got to go back up. It’s a hard climb, we’re going to have to move it like hell but it’s nearer and I can get you warm and on oxygen until we can get help. Move, come on. Climb.”
What help exactly?
At camp three, at that elevation, they might as well be on the moon. It was buying Jake nothing more than the next hour, that was as far as Tom knew he could plan right now, but the next hour was more than enough.
Jake was going into shock. It was in his movements, it was in the slowness and mechanicalness of his body, the cast of his face and the drugged look in his eyes. He would never have let Tom rope him if he’d been fully aware and Tom knew it, but he climbed silently behind Tom and Tom pulled him as fast as he was able to, throwing his heart and every ounce of strength he had into attacking that steep ice slope from hell at maniac speed. On this mountain that still wasn’t very fast. His chest was on fire, he was coughing and every inch of him was burning, tears were running from his eyes at the sheer pain in his legs and yet he hauled on and knew Jake moved with him. The hours and days and weeks of practice together paid off in that awful trek, the years of learning each other’s stride and breathing patterns, they did it on autopilot and Jake hacked his crampons in at each step, bracing them both with a giant strength that had to be draining from him fast, keeping pace. Losing blood, weakening by the moment and in pain Tom didn’t dare imagine, he had no idea how Jake kept on going, but he did. He never stopped, he never slowed. The wind was blasting directly down on them as camp three came into sight in the distance. Snow was swirling, it was getting harder to see by the minute and Tom had never been so cold or exhausted in his life. He was sobbing under his breath with sheer pain by the time he left the fixed ropes and grabbed Jake’s good arm. Jake reeled as Tom unclipped him from the line, and Tom dragged him by brute force, stumbling along the face in search of their tent and holding onto him with iron force. If they lost their balance here, if they let the wind sweep them, it would mean a several thousand foot fall straight down the Face. It was hard to see, it was hard to find anything and the mountain here was nearly sheer. It was the most terribly dangerous moment of the entire day full of dangers, it would have been so easy for either of them to have slipped and taken the other with them straight down the face, but somehow Tom held him and dragged him and there at last was their tent.
Jake sagged heavily to his knees when Tom let him go to wrench the zip open in the lambasting wind and snow and manhandled him through the entrance. Jake more or less sprawled face first across the floor of it and Tom saw him roll slowly onto his back. He could have nothing left after that terrible climb. He didn’t make a sound and his face was hidden behind his goggles and his frozen, frost covered scarf. He didn’t move again. Tom yanked the tent skin zip closed to shield him from the storm and crawled around the outer skirt of the tent against the wind, head ducked to keep the blast from knocking him down the face while he checked the pegs. They’d fixed the ice screws in deep and most of them were holding. Tom doggedly re fixed the ropes, staying low to avoid the wind blasting him right over, aware he could no longer feel his face at all. It wasn’t possible to see anything of the other tents, not even a glimpse of colour or shape in the snow that was hammering like a sandblaster. They might have been the only people left on the mountain. There was no identifying the sky, no seeing anything above or below or in any direction, there was just grey, blasting grey, the darkness and the tent in front of him under his gloves. The wind was deafening now. The noise wasn’t that much lessened inside the tent. Tom crawled slowly inside and managed to get the flap sealed behind him, fumbling at it with hands that barely worked. And then it took all his strength not to just drop on the floor beside Jake. Everything was numb. Everything was too much effort to move, even breathing took too much effort, and even that didn’t hurt any more. With mechanical knowledge he knew that this exhaustion, this stress was making it deathly likely his body would begin to close down, preserve what it could for his central organs, slam shut the capillaries in his hands and feet and sacrifice them in a struggle for survival. Severe frost bite, dead fingers, dead toes would follow fast. Tom knelt up and somehow got both pairs of gloves off his fingers. They were white. Not dead white he didn’t think, and they weren’t frozen yet, just very cold and stiff. So stiff that even when he got the neck of Jake’s suit open to feel how cold he was, he couldn’t actually feel anything, but Jake’s skin had the same pinched white. His eyes were closed, he was breathing, but it was very faint. Tom peeled the goggles and scarf back from his face and fumbled for one of the oxygen cylinders at the back of the tent. He couldn’t find one with anything in. He turned them over with numbed, shaking hands for a long time trying to read the valves and finally managed to twist a valve and feel the low flow on his hand. He manhandled Jake out of his rucksack as carefully as he was able, and Jake was heavy, unresisting, his eyes didn’t open while Tom somehow got the sleeping bag unfolded and Jake into it, by dint of pulling and shoving and wrestling it inch by inch with numbed hands while jarring Jake as little as possible, until at last he got the hood over Jake’s head, and fixed the oxygen mask to his face. It confirmed what he knew. Jake was deeply unconscious. If he’d had any glimmering of awareness left at all, being moved would have been agony for him, but he’d held on with everything he had left until they reached the tent and now…. He was limply unresisting, no longer there. Tom took a deep breath and forced himself try and open Jake’s suit and have the guts to look at the arm and evaluate how bad.
The fracture made him gag. In what dim light his headlamp gave, he could see white bone through the skin, plenty of blood was in Jake’s sleeve but it was bleeding sluggishly, surprisingly little. There was nothing to be gained by messing with the fracture. Trying to wash it, putting pressure on it, all of it would just add trouble. It was likely to stay cleanest inside the shelter of his suit and Tom zipped it back up. The only relieving thought was that this cold, Jake’s circulation would be slowed, blood vessels contracted, and hopefully he wouldn’t be bleeding much internally. Tom managed to get his own back pack off, dug through it and found his Dex case with the pre loaded ampoules. It had been terrifying a couple of weeks back at camp 2 giving Jake a shot of this. He couldn’t feel anything now. Jake didn’t stir as Tom managed to get enough of his suit aside to find skin and push the needle in, and then cover him as best he could. And then he collapsed. Flat on his back beside Jake, with barely the strength left to keep pulling air into his lungs. It wasn’t left in him to try and get himself into a sleeping bag or protect himself from the cold. Too much energy was gone. Drained. There was nothing left. The wind’s roar was battering and rocking the tent, this tiny little capsule, just a thin layer of cloth enclosing them on the side of a rock on the highest place on the planet. It was only their weight pinning it down. Tom watched the sides being hammered as if they were under attack from iron bars. There was no such thing as ‘just snowflakes’ up here. The mountain had turned on them. The magic and beauty of dawn this morning had transformed from a Siren into a Fury. This was violence beyond all imagining.
They were both dangerously dehydrated. Both exhausted, both semi asphyxiated. Jake was unconscious, deep in shock and badly weakened by exhaustion and blood loss and bleeding out all the time, and as Tom had handled him he had realised something else that Jake must have been struggling with on the hard climb back up here: blasted with the storm cold on top of shock, he was severely hypothermic as his body began to shut down. His skin was icy cold. White. Tom fumbled for Jake’s radio on his harness as the nearest one and tried it. Static blasted at him. The weather was obviously destroying any radio signals. He tried a few channels but there were no voices out there and no one responded to his calls. So there was no contacting camp, no telling anyone where they were. No one would be able to climb in these conditions anyway. On the steep slope of camp three the other tents around them might as well be on Mars… scrambling around to them would be suicidal. And there was nothing they could do anyway.
As the facts added up, Tom shut his throat on the now gathering knowledge, grim and terrible, that whatever he did at this point, Jake was in his last few hours. Their bodies had already been balanced to the knife edge of survival when they climbed down from camp four some hours ago. The shock and injury had tipped Jake hard over the edge of what the human body could tolerate; his kidneys would now be well into the process of packing up, his organs were starting to fail, he was succumbing to hypothermia, weakened past withstanding it. He was going to die, right here in this sleeping bag, in this tent. His breathing was already so shallow and spaced out that it was hard to feel. This tent would collapse and be buried in the snow, covering both of them, and next season there would be two bodies frozen here together wrapped in the canvas. This tent was going to be their tomb and grave. For a man who should have passed like a warrior worthy of all the gods, sent out onto a river in a boat set afire, laid beneath a carved stone in some great cathedral, this tiny piece of flimsy high tech canvas was so wrong it was an insult.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He lay watching the tent shiver, hard against Jake, numbed outwardly, internally so bitterly overwhelmed with impotence and rage and grief that it was even harder to breathe. He hadn’t the strength or the power to fight back, there was no fight left in him. Nothing left to do. Nothing at all but be with him. And bit by bit he knew, even the grief would slip away. He’d feel nothing, he’d enter the passive detachment of severe hypothermia as he began his slide down into unconsciousness, and that alone made him hang onto that emotion and that rage with everything he had. He clung to it. He bathed in it.
He wasn’t sure when he first heard the rustling of the bag. It was under his leg; as the tent flap whipped back and forward against him the plastic rustled, and it niggled at him, a very soft but penetrating sound so normal, so petty that it insulted them. Normality, irritation, plastic had no business interrupting this. Until finally he forced up the will and the energy to move and put a hand down, partly to fasten the tent flap tighter, partly to make that irritating little rustle stop like swatting a fly. It was a print out in a plastic bag. As he felt it, he recognised what it was and Tom’s heart lurched at the sight of it as he pulled it out from under him. Someone must have passed their tent at some point before the weather turned and shoved through what passed for the mail delivery out here, knowing that they had expected to pass through camp three tomorrow on their way down. With clumsy and semi frozen fingers Tom desperately tore at the bag where he lay on his back against Jake, recognising Dale’s email address with a wash of emotion so strong that even though it was hard to make his fingers work, he stuck at it, frantically wanting the paper in his hands, to hear real words up here in the loneliest and most terrible place on earth. It was like a hand abruptly held out, someone to feel and clutch and hang on to when a moment ago he’d been alone at the end of the universe.
It was hard to read at first. His eyes kept sliding off the print with his urgency, his starved brain struggling to process, but the more he read the more he concentrated, and from somewhere, as the words went on, came tears. Hot. Scalding hot tears that hurt his eyes and turned to ice in seconds on his eyelashes. Laying there, he read. And read. And read it through again and again, and all the time the tears kept running. Weakly; he was too damn dehydrated to even cry properly. But it was like being thawed from the inside out. He had no idea how long he lay there with those pages, clutching to the voice of a man thousands of miles away, on a sun warmed canyon top underneath the same sky they were laying under on this snow hammered rock at the top of the world, but it raised a flood of emotion within him, powerful, too great even for the cold to blot out.
‘You taught me last summer about how powerful it is for things to be put into words and released out loud, how deep it goes to hear something spoken directly. You told me even if I know it, even if I’ve heard it plenty of times, I still need in those hard moments to not evade the direct experience of letting him say it out loud and how it will feel to hear it. You were right. It takes the guts to consciously, intentionally relinquish my control. To trust him, to let go entirely and not cling on to guarding myself.
I keep finding out new layers of how deep this advice has taken me and how much I value its wisdom. It’s been about realising the energy it takes every day just to hold on to it all, the deepest and the worst, the most pathetic fears, the most petty little losses that are the ones that make me sweat to think of. The desperation of that control, which is, in essence, fear. Sometimes it’s been about finding the courage to let myself acknowledge those losses to someone, make them real in words and admit out loud that they’re there. Let myself grieve them without judgement or trying to justify them so I can let them go and free myself for so much more important things, to not be distracted all day every day by the effort of heaving them around with me, to be so afraid that I have to clutch them with me in everything. And I see the same in others, this need to make these things heard by someone, for their story to be told. It’s never the big things, it’s the little things that mattered the most to them.’
The irony of it was painful. Advice he’d given, from the heart, knowing it was a truth and one he’d never fully pulled up the courage to follow himself, despite being loved by a man who would do everything in his power to make it easy, who would always understand.
Who had encouraged him, gently, for years, with more patience than any other man could have shown, not to be distracted by the effort of heaving that junk along, of having it there, cluttering up every moment…
Yes, he owed Jake that, here and now at the end.
Jake, unconscious on the ground beside him, hadn’t stirred since they reached the tent. He wouldn’t rouse again. This was the long slide down into coma and the end, and he was already well on that path. Tom held on to the papers, not able to look at him and see that whiteness in his face, but finding his voice. Rough and harsh from swallowing ice and blasting frozen air, coughing and rupturing his throat for hours, it sounded nothing like himself. His lips were frozen and swollen, numbed, but this was the last chance, the very last moment he would ever have to find his courage, and he said it out loud to Jake, who was everything, and who lay there beside him, hearing nothing, feeling nothing, slipping away beyond paltry matters, trivial fears, such little human concerns.
“Jacob? The… St George’s medal I gave you. The one I got in the market in Peru. I… told you… I said he was the patron Saint of boy scouts, the flip stuff I always say, I never had the guts to tell you. He’s the patron Saint of Heroes. That’s why I wanted you to have it. You are the real and proper meaning of hero from the myths, the chivalry traditions, all of it. I studied them for years before I met you and I know, it was men like you that they wrote the poems about, every story that ever really mattered. More than that.”
It took a deep breath to say it, the deepest thing at the very heart of him.
“…St George… The Knight. He’s… he’s the earthly manifestation of St Michael. The Archangel Michael. I had… I had a thing for him, St Michael, ever since I was a kid. His window – his window in the cathedral, I used to sit for hours and watch it, the picture of him, his face … it was beautiful. I knew everything about him, every word, every story, his chapel in the cathedral…. it was the one I lit candles in, it was the one I always went to… there were carvings there of him slaying the dragon, his statue at the altar, he was the one I always called on…. The Archangel of chivalry. The …. The warrior and the dragon slayer, the protector and the bringer of justice, the both sides of the sword … he was the only one who could ever contain Lucifer, take him down and win, the angel who believes and grants every soul, no matter how unworthy, one more chance… it’s everything. Everything I’ve ever known in you. You’re my Michael.”
My golden boy.
With the warm ocean blue eyes and the straight smile when he meant something the most, and the height and width of a warrior, the bedrock strength of will and integrity that rooted you and anyone else in his vicinity, with the easy humour of someone with infinite… infinite mercy.
“It was so hard to tell you anything at all. I don’t know why. It’s ridiculous now. So stupid. Such a waste…. But the worst thing? The very worst thing to me......” it took huge effort to let it reach his numbed, swollen lips. “…I have never been able to love you the way you deserve to be loved. The way I want you to be loved, the way you should be loved. I’m so sorry for that. I don’t have that capacity left, it’s damaged. It was gone before I ever met you and knew I minded. I’m broken, Jake. Whatever I do, however I try, however much I want to be the one who can, I am never going to be able to give you that.”
He’d never consciously let himself think it before. Not even to let it get into words in his head, it was too shattering for that. And to say it out loud made it rush up out of him, silent and harsh, painful, tearless sobs as there was no body fluids left. He turned over towards Jake, pressed against him and sobbed, but it wasn’t with bitterness any more. With grief, immense grief, with rage, but not bitterness. There was no one to hear. No one up here who would ever know. With the papers clutched in his hand, with Dale’s words on the print out and that understanding voice within him of another man on the planet who got this, there was a tremendous release in it and he felt it, each harsh and juddering sob letting something go of something heavy and tight that if he let himself sob, went out of him in fractured pieces. He had no idea how long he lay there sobbing and feeling it leave him, with a kind of stupid relief to it, it seemed to go on forever. But eventually it died down and instead he felt freer. Drained, but more peaceful. And where numb hopelessness had been…. there was now a glimmer of something else. He hadn’t cared before. Now he felt around clumsily for the Dex where he’d dropped it, fumbled with it for some time before he managed to free another pre-loaded syringe and with what force he could summon up, stuck the hypodermic hard through his down suit to reach his hip.
The fact he didn’t feel it at all wasn’t reassuring. He had to check he’d actually penetrated the suit and reached his own skin, but within a few moments he felt his head clear slightly and it got easier to breathe as the Dex hit his brain. Tom lay still for a moment more, just breathing, thinking again of the man in the pasture at Jake’s home. The place Jake called home, where there were other men who loved him, and again, it was like a hand reaching down to tightly grip his. Dale had the nerve Tom knew he lacked, but Dale was calling on the same instincts they both shared at the very deepest levels of who they were. What it was to love your man like this, to be able and willing to do for him what you’d never have the courage to do for yourself. It fought back the numbness. It dragged up emotion that came from the very deepest part of him. Memory. Life. Something deeper beyond and more than this desolate place. Tom shut his eyes, gathered himself, and rolled over, forcing himself up onto his hands and knees.
It was an immense effort not to just drop down again, close his eyes and let go. It took everything he had, but the stove was where they’d left it, within reach. The lighter struggled to work, but after several false starts with stiff fingers the flame lit, and there were two unused canisters of gas. Tom set it where it wouldn’t get knocked over or blown out as the tent was hammered around, and undid the tent flap, forcing himself to move and scoop deep snow into the saucepan.
The flame burned painfully slowly up here where there was so little oxygen, but it was a thread of warmth. It took forever for the snow to melt, and while it did, Tom dragged stuff out of his rucksack until he found chocolate. It was frozen into ice, stiff and cold, but held near the stove flame for a while it softened enough to snap. Tom bolted several mouthfuls of it, chewing slowly enough to be sure that he bit chocolate and not his own cold numbed tongue or cheek, and the sugar was like another hit of Dex. When the water was eventually warm he brewed heavily sugared tea, syrupy, revolting but strong, and lifted Jake’s head, splashing enough into his mouth to wet it. Even if he didn’t swallow, it would still warm him. For several minutes he just ran warm fluid into Jake’s mouth, aware it dribbled straight out again, but finally Jake’s mouth and the cords of his throat moved. He swallowed weakly, and when Tom trickled a little more, he swallowed more easily. Drop by drop Tom got the syrupy stuff down him, filled a mug with what was left and gulped himself, slowly enough not to throw it straight back up. Then he filled the pan with snow and began all over again.
He managed to do it once more, with strength that came from the sugar and the warm liquid. To get some down Jake and some down himself, to eat more of the chocolate, and then to put some of the semi chewed, semi liquid chocolate from his own mouth into Jake’s mouth and rub it on his gums, a disgusting process that might at least force some more sugar and calories into him. He didn’t have the strength left for anything else. He crawled inside Jake’s sleeping bag with him and wrapped himself as much around Jake as he could without disturbing the shattered arm. It would have been better to have undressed but he doubted his ability to get his down suit or boots off or to ever get them back on again if he did. And there was nothing to do then except let go to the dark, and pray.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015