Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 18


To: Flynn
5th May 11.42am

Dear Flynn

We have received an update. Unfortunately it appears that there may have been some truth in the rumour. Reports are apparently somewhat confused from base camp as the telephone lines are still patchy and filled with static, but the Embassy say they have confirmed with Jacob’s expedition that everyone is alive. However they are currently coming down the mountain with two injured climbers, and this is likely to take some hours. It is not fully clear which two, but Jacob’s name has been mentioned.

The Embassy is continuing to try to gather further information. I will not circulate this more widely until I have confirmed information.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Paul
5th May 15.32pm

James, we’ve heard from them, Tom telephoned to the ranch a few minutes ago. Jake has a broken arm. Tom says he was exhausted and very cold but they are both all right and in Kathmandu where Jake is in surgery having his arm operated on. Dale tells me Kathmandu hospital inevitably deals constantly with some of the most serious altitude and frostbite injuries on the planet and has a lot of experience and expertise with this, and he and Flynn are sorting out a medical evacuation with their insurers to get them back here once Jake is ready to travel. I’m still in a state of thank God they’re off the mountain.

Because this is Tom and because if they want to stay here they’re going to need a few days’ serious rest, I’m going to ask Gerry, Bear and everyone else not to come rushing over here at least for a week or so and to try to be calm about this, and I’d appreciate it if you could spread the same message. Not stepping on Tom’s toes is going to be very, very important.

Love to you and Niall and thank you so much for chasing the Embassy all night. I’ll let you know as soon as we hear anything more.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The hospital kept Jake for twenty four hours. There were conversations about thrombosis on flights, anti-coagulants, other stuff in both languages that went over Tom’s head. Usually able to process the basics in whatever language they happened to be needing at the time, right now he continued to feel as though he was watching this from under water, or some deep anaesthetic that took away all emotion. Jake never stopped for long at anything unless they lay somewhere together and he had a book, and even then Tom was used to his stirring and changing position. Here on the heavy drugs they’d given him, he slept most of the time. To see him this limp, this silent – it was hideous. He was gaunt. It was actually worse now he was clean and no longer dressed in the bulk of climbing gear, Tom’s eyes kept returning again and again to the worst spots. The bones that were visible in his face and at his collarbones, his golden hair lank and dark against white hospital linen. The blond beard. The blackness around his eyes was worse today, the cracking of his lips worse and the blood spots there were blackened too. His nose and forehead were starting to peel skin where the windburn and frost nipping had damaged the skin, and his fingertips were red and slightly blistered. Tom’s own weren’t much better. Neither of them spoke much at all, only when it was absolutely essential about utter mundanities, like what time it was and to pour Jake another glass of water from the jug beside his bed, or for Jake the kind of pointless coaxing such as are you ok? Or: Get a cup of tea. And: go and eat, I’ll be fine. Tom did it all, mostly to stop him having to say it or worry. There was a kind of unreality of being ripped so abruptly from the familiarity of the mountain’s starkness to the hum and bustle of civilisation. Both of them were hoarse and not managing much above a whisper on cold burned lungs. Tom still coughed, constantly and quietly and the fierce aching of his ribs echoed the pain in his legs. It took effort not to limp or let Jake see him limp. A lot of the time Tom sat against the bed with his hand under Jake’s not to put any weight on him, but his fingers against Jake’s larger ones.

There was the assault of the helicopter flight out to the airport. The hospital seemed mildly impressed at a med evac being organised at such short notice and with such efficiency; it appeared to be rare in their experience. The sun shone brightly on the airport tarmac but the day felt bitingly cold to Tom. He was still wearing his battered and crampon-ripped down suit and Jake was in hospital scrubs, and Tom’s last look across towards the white mountains of the Himalayas was from the steps of a jarringly modern and shiny small plane where a medical team with North American accents, one of whom had come to meet them at the hospital and travelled on the chopper with them and with whom Jake was being sociably polite as Tom was not capable, helped Jake across to the bed, laid him down, covered him up, strapped him in, messed with his IV, surrounded him with equipment and wired him up to it. And then the plane took off and turned away from Nepal.

There were armchair type things that were odd in a plane. Tom paced by them for hours at the far end of the cabin, staring out of the window while sea went by below them. As soon as the plane took off, Jake slipped back under the heavy painkillers the hospital had insisted he take to cushion the flight. The monitors he was connected to were level and calm, the medics were relaxed, he got the impression this was all precautionary rather than urgent. There were several stops to refuel. There was food on board; the medics kept offering him bizarre things like stroganoff. At some point Jake roused enough to manage something approximating a smile at him and to choke down some yoghurt one of the paramedics persuaded him to, and Jake tried to talk for a while with his this is going to be fine tone, harassing gently until Tom choked down a roll and a mug of coffee, but within half an hour the drugs overtook Jake again and he sank back into sleep. And it went on. And on. Through the dark, through the first hours of dawn. They appeared to have been spending their lives in that cabin when the plane came in for the third refuelling stop at thin, grey sunrise on yet another tarmac full of planes and yet another anonymous airport. The air crew came and went, and then he heard a British accent speak to someone beyond the open door and Dale stepped into the cabin.

Tom stared at him, a blank stare, because it was just too unreal that he should be here. He was immaculate. Alert and crisply dressed in a formal jacket over jeans, clean shaven despite the hour of the morning, dark hair straight; he might as well have been wearing a suit in this stuffy cabin cluttered with medical junk. But his eyes – his eyes were so concerned and so comprehending that Tom found himself on his feet. Those eyes put into words what he couldn’t feel and should feel, it was like being handed a script. He had no idea what to do, none at all, he couldn’t find his voice at all but he managed to get a hand out and Dale gripped it. Firmly, strongly. His hand felt very warm. A larger man was behind him. Flynn. Taller, dark fair hair tousled, and he had an expression to his face that Tom knew well because it was so often there in Jake’s; it was deeply and reassuringly familiar. Flynn was not as tall as Jake- he was a couple of inches shorter than Tom himself – but he carried a sense of presence with him that was powerful the way Jake’s was, his confidence and his surety was like Jake’s, and Flynn straight came past Dale and put a hand out to grasp the back of Tom’s neck, a warm, powerful grasp, and Tom found himself pulled against a solid shoulder and wrapped inside warm arms in a hard, crushing, inescapable hug that held immense comfort. And Flynn did not politely let go either. Tom felt his knees start to shake in response. It caught everything that Dale had elicited and pulled hard, and Tom found himself holding his breath hard, trying to keep the wave of awful stuff locked down inside him. He kept it in. Just. Flynn cupped the back of his neck when he finally let go, looking hard at Tom’s face in the same way Jake did, the searching stare that looked for are you all right? And then Flynn stepped past him and Tom saw him very gently put his hand over Jake’s good one. Tom cleared his throat, trying to speak clearly.

“He looks worse than he is. They’ve got him doped right up – painkillers, shock-”

Exhaustion. He’d had literally nothing left, there had been a few hours at camp three where Tom had fully expected him to slip away, and yet Jake had revived himself and made it down the mountain. He’d climbed through the ice fall with all the strength of powerful will Tom knew in him, done it cheerfully, and he’d burned out anything he had left, and then he’d handled the assault of the surgery. This awful endless sleep – it was terrifying, Tom had to keep justifying it in his own mind to keep panic at bay. Flynn didn’t answer and he didn’t speak to Jake but he glanced at his watch and nodded hello to the medics.

“All right. We should be heading out in a few minutes. Dale, talk with the flight crew. Tom, let’s sit down.”

It was politely phrased but it was said most definitely as a statement and not a question, and Tom saw one of the medics’ expression in response. They had been gently suggesting that in a number of ways in the hours they’d been in this cabin, trying to interrupt his pacing of the far end of the cabin where he was out of their way and not likely to disturb Jake. It hadn’t got them very far. Flynn took the seat next to the window, flatly tapping the seat next to him in a now kind of way. Tom sat down slowly, stiffly, watching Dale walk down to the front cabin with a certainty that spoke of utter familiarity with planes, crews and directing them.

“….Flight crew?”

“As to where we go. There was some discussion about whether Jake needed to be at Jackson Hospital, or if the medical team here thought he was well enough, we could go straight to the ranch since we can provide a landing strip. There’s no point taking him to Jackson if in a few hours they discharge him and we’ve got to put him through a couple of hours more travel in the car. From what the team were telling us through the Med Evac central, he’s been stable and doing well the whole time, no sign of any complications.”

The medics here had been making reports? It was slightly alarming to realise that he hadn’t noticed. They’d talked to him a few times, he hadn’t really been listening; he couldn’t remember anything they’d said. Flynn gave him an experienced look and put a hand down to recline his seat.

“Lay back, close your eyes.”

“Yeah I don’t do bunny.” Tom said dully, ignoring the seat movement. Hunched forward with his elbows on his knees he could see through the window, a cloudy, gloomy day. He still had no idea where they were.

“Neither do I.” Flynn paused for a moment to look straight at him from uncomfortably near to, abruptly between Tom and the window. His eyes were extremely steady and his tone was not subtle. “And while Jake’s not able to look after you I’m responsible. I get that it’s been a hideous few days and you’re so over-stimulated right now you can’t think, I can see you’re in pain and you’re worrying about Jake, and you’re tired-”

“I’m always tired.”

“I know that’s hard.” And he spoke very quietly. Like he knew as Jake did that the very low volume helped. It was what Jake would do. Put the seat back, insist, except Jake would say nothing, just fence him in with one leg braced against the seat in front, pull a book out and read, like he was putting up a wall between Tom and the rest of the world. “But the first thing you need is rest, and that will help. Lay back now, close your eyes. We’ve got a good four hours flight ahead of us.”

Slowly, Tom unfolded himself and lay back in the seat. Dale came back to sit on his other side, his always soft voice low like Flynn’s.

“They’re happy to take us to the ranch. Emmett and Jackson hospital know what’s happening.”

“Tom.” Flynn said firmly. Tom closed his eyes. A moment later he felt a jacket spread over him, and despite the thickness of the down suit that had withstood the summit itself, the additional warmth was penetrating and very welcome.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He didn’t sleep. He was coughing too often to manage even to doze. But Flynn and Dale were both quiet, unspeaking and still, and each of them was a man who had a tangible presence when they were in a room. Combined together, they seemed to spread some kind of calmness and hush through the entire cabin. Jake slept on, even the paramedics were quiet and Tom felt some of the agitation fade a little. When the plane began to bank, he opened his eyes and looked down. The land below was green, green as the eye could see with snow-capped mountains on the horizon. Infant mountains compared to the ones that he’d seen day and night for weeks. Dale caught his eye and gave him a slight, understanding look, following his gaze.

“Thank you for your email.” Tom said to him. It came out as a hoarse whisper, not intentionally. He caught the slightly bemused look Dale gave him.

“You got to read it?”

“Yes. On the way down at camp three.”

He couldn’t think past that right now, that was all he could manage. Tom let Flynn bring his seat back to the upright position as the plane came into land, and by the grass landing strip below they were rapidly descending to he saw a jeep waiting with Jasper standing leaning against it, his arms folded on his chest.

Dale said something professionally graceful to the medics and the plane crew; Tom was grateful for that. He was beyond offering anything that made any sense at all. Jake stirred as the plane landed and Tom saw his eyes open and search the cabin immediately until they found Tom’s. Tom shouldered his way straight past Flynn to reach him. Jake managed a smile, but his eyes said a whole lot more. He was glad to see Dale and Flynn, and Tom thought there was relief there too; he also had enough coherence to thank the medics himself in his usual way. There were a whole lot of medical instructions from the team doctor that sounded like some old Charlie Brown cartoon – blah blah blah – while Tom silently willed him to shut up and let them get out, and then Flynn stood back for Tom to support Jake on his slow but steady way as he walked down the plane steps, out of the stuffy heat of the cabin into fresh, cool breeze. What time it was Tom had no idea; day and night appeared to have lost all meaning. Jake reached over and hugged Jasper as they reached the jeep, smiling, saying something about grass instead of snow. Tom couldn’t process it. He went around the far side of the jeep to steady Jake as he slid into the back seat, sitting next to him to try and brace him as much as possible, aware that Flynn was doing the same on Jake’s other side.

Jasper drove slowly and very gently over the rough grass; he was as careful as he possibly could be but Jake was still white to Tom’s eye by the time Jasper drew up at the front door. Tom had been braced for an excited crowd of Falls Ranch people and dreading it: there were so many people belonging to this household, they seemed to come and go in herds. However only Paul was there in the doorway, and only he came to meet them as Flynn and Tom between them helped Jake ease to his feet. As soon as he was up, Jake walked away on his own, put his good arm around Paul’s neck and kissed his cheek, looking and sounding a whole lot more upbeat than he should, and Tom knew he was trying not to panic them.

“In one piece. I promised.”

“More or less.” Paul returned the kiss, Tom could see his effort in return not to grasp Jake, very careful of the strapped up arm. It was like participating in some mad comedy of manners, everyone thinking things that would never be said. For a moment it reminded Tom horribly of his mother and one of the garden parties he’d hated and loathed as a child. Then to his shock Paul burst out sharply, “Look at you with a beard Jacob Winthrop- Oh my God you’re emaciated! You look terrible, you both do! Are these scrubs? They sent you home in scrubs?”

“They’re home, let’s take it from there,” Flynn said from behind Tom, and his voice sounded very steady. “Jake’s doing ok, the medics were fine with releasing him.”

“Every other item of clothing we own,” Jake told him candidly, reaching to take Tom’s hand and hold it firmly, “Is filthy and up a mountain in Nepal. I planned for us both to be cleaned up and looking a lot better than this before you saw us, but the choice got away from me.”

Paul shook his head, pushing Jake very gently past him and collecting Tom with the other hand, gathering him in to smile at him although his eyes were anxious. Tom didn’t have the wherewithal to resist if he’d wanted to. He could see reflected straight back at him the confirmation that Jake truly did look as awful as Tom thought: Paul was shaken, although he was trying not to show it. “I can’t get over either of you with beards, you look like pirates. Tom, hello sweetheart, I’m so pleased to see you. Come in, you get him inside before he freezes.”

Jake led the way into the family room to one of the several deep, dark leather armchairs, gingerly sinking down into it and tipping his head back with a sigh of relief.

“Oh that is good.”

“Did they feed you anything on the plane?” Paul took the rucksack from Tom, standing it in the hallway. Jake shook his head.

“Neither of us felt much like eating. But then we stopped eating at camp three on our way up – it seems like about a year ago, I think it was about five days ago – and we never really got started again.” Jake reached out with his good hand, caught Tom’s again and squeezed it. “You look so cold. I was lucky, the hospital had to get me cleaned up to go into surgery. You’ve had no chance, have you? We left base camp with just about what we stood up in, straight to the hospital. Don’t worry about being polite, go and get in the shower love, you must be desperate.”

“Tom, you don’t need to be polite, you two live here.” Paul said very definitely. “You do whatever you want. Kitchen bathroom or either of the upstairs bathrooms, shower, bath, whichever you’d rather, help yourself.” Paul turned to find Dale who’d followed them in silence and was standing quietly, face expressionless. “Dale, go get him towels and clean clothes, something warm. Tom, soak as long as you want, there’s no shortage of hot water.”

Flynn was watching and when Tom didn’t move, put a hand on his shoulder, tapping firmly. “Tom, it’s all right. Go with Dale, and I’ll watch Jake.”

“He will as well.” Jake gave Tom a smile that was the nearest to his real one that Tom had seen in several days, although he spoke very gently. “I’m fine here. Make yourself comfortable.”

There were other people to help take responsibility now. People who could be trusted to look after Jake and not to come between them while doing it. In fact in all the time they’d spent on the ranch, asking for space had never been something Tom had had to do by word or gesture. they’d always been amazingly tolerant. Amazingly tactful.

Tom nodded, firmly enough to be convincing, heading upstairs in Dale’s wake. He’d always found this house large enough to be daunting. It was thickly carpeted from the stairs upwards which was surprising in a ranch and several doors stood open, showing bedrooms where bright patchwork bedspreads were visible on wooden bedsteads. There seemed to be no one else around, but it was still very much foreign territory; this was a lived-in home belonging to people that mattered, rather than neutral territory like a tent or a hotel. It was all alarmingly clean too when he felt filthy to the bone and barely fit to touch anything. And as if he was looking at it all from a very long way off, down some long tunnel. Dale opened a door on the landing and took out a stack of cream towels.

“This is the nearest one.” He opened the door into a large tiled bathroom with a bath and a glass shower cabinet. “Help yourself to whatever you want in the cupboards and cabinets, it’s general stock not anyone’s in particular.”


It might have been a conversation between strangers. Tom couldn’t have managed any more at this moment. Thankfully Dale was always contained, he rarely gave direct eye contact either and he was discreet enough to get the hint and leave. Tom resisted the urge to lock the door and lean against it. He unfastened the down suit slowly, aware this was the last time he’d ever take it off. It was fit only for throwing out; torn in several places where he or Jake had caught crampons as they scrambled down from camp three, battered, stained, sweat soaked. The face in the mirror above the sink was heavily bearded, the hair wild, like some thin and gangly mountain man with black bruises around his eyes. It didn’t look like his. And he couldn’t bring himself to undress any further. He jumped at the quiet tap on the door and the voice on the landing.

“Tom? It’s Paul. I brought some tea up, may I come in?”

How did you answer that? Was it allowable to say no?

“… Yeah,” Tom managed. Paul opened the door and came to put the tea down in his reach on the windowsill.

“I thought you could use this, I keep hearing you cough. Your throat sounds as terrible as Jake’s does. He fell asleep in the chair just now, more or less in mid-sentence, Flynn said you mentioned he’d been very doped up. Is there anything you need me to do for him or get for him?”

I have no idea, I didn’t hear much of what the medics said.

What kind of useless man didn’t pay attention when a doctor was talking about their partner?

Paul had shaken out a couple of towels and put them in reach of the shower, and he paused, giving Tom a very direct look. Then he put them down.

“Right. I know I’m not your favourite person but Dale gives me that look all the time. What’s the matter sweetheart? No, please don’t tell me nothing. Need me to get Jake?”

That was way, way too acute. Tom shook his head sharply. Paul nodded slowly.

“Ok. Then can I help?”

“No. Thanks.”

“You look terrified.” Paul kept on looking as Tom’s face started to burn. “I’d have thought you were desperate to get out of that suit... have you taken that off since you came off the mountain? Tom, are you hurt?”

Tom shook his head slowly, disjointedly, aware that the shaking was moving slowly from his knees and hands upward into his chest.

“… I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?” Paul said very gently. He was trying to figure it out, his horribly kind eyes were searching and they saw far too much. “Breathe honey. It’s going to be ok. Take a breath.”

Tom took a breath automatically, and pulled at another of the fastenings of his down suit, trying to loosen anything tight around his chest as it was feeling increasingly like a clamp around him. He was surprised for a second at the plastic covered paper sheets that fluttered to the bathroom floor and stood looking down at them as Paul did. Paul had the tact to say nothing and not to try to pick them up, he just waited with that terribly, terribly kind concern on his face.

Tom stooped to pick up the papers. The email that had been written in this house by a man who was also in this house, and holding it, his chest released in one rush, like a dam breaking. He put the papers down on the sink and abruptly walked past Paul onto the landing before he could change his mind. It was beyond wrong to wake Jake now; it was unkind, selfish – and yet he headed downstairs, seeing Jake stir in the chair and lift his head at the sound of him. He woke as though he knew Tom’s footfall, as if even this drugged it still reached him. He turned to look, and then his fogged eyes cleared fast, going straight to the laid back focus Tom recognised. The kind of focus he had when he was bottle dancing on a rooftop, looking like he was just messing around while not missing one single step. He even got up out of the chair easily like he’d just been lazing there to read instead of stunned with drugs and broken bones, and Tom knew that was for his benefit too. Hating himself for doing it, Tom took his good arm gently, taking him towards the kitchen out of earshot of Flynn on the couch opposite who was watching, Paul coming down the stairs behind them... he felt Jake catch on within a couple of paces. Jake controlled their speed, making Tom slow down, and he stepped ahead of Tom, opening the door off the kitchen into the bathroom to guide Tom in ahead of him. He closed the door behind them and then, only when they were alone, he reached directly for Tom’s face.

“What? What’s wrong?”

Having got this far, it was here that his nerve failed him. Tom gripped his shirt front and the shaking began to get worse, and Jake pulled him close, hugging him tightly one armed.

“It’s ok. It’s ok. Just tell me.”

He sounded ridiculously calm when Tom knew that neither of them were feeling calm at all. The effort to hold it together and not to shake him or jar his arm was horrible. Jake was injured, ill, dealing with all he could take; he didn’t need this too.

“No. We talked about this.” Jake said in his ear. “You need to tell me.”

“… I can’t undress.” Tom blurted it out, turning scarlet even as he admitted it. His legs were shaking. The terror was fast getting out of control now he’d let it escape, told it to him. “Jake I can’t, I don’t-”

“You don’t what?” Jake pulled him gently back far enough to see his face, searching it closely, and Tom saw him put the pieces together, his eyes went abruptly intense. “Who checked you over at the hospital? Tom? Who had a look at you? Did anyone look at you? Tom, answer me. Did anyone check you over?”

Tom shook his head jerkily. Jake didn’t respond for a second or two, although nothing showed in his face. Then he nodded, guiding him into a chair.

“Ok. That’s ok, sit down, let’s have a look.”

He tried to stoop to help and Tom heard his stifled hiss of pain and grabbed to stop him.

“Jake don’t, it’s fine, I’ll be fine-”

“You do it.” Jake ran a hand over his hair, rubbed his neck, his voice very calm. “I’m here, you can do this.”

Tom felt for his hand and hung on to it for a moment, too afraid to try. Jake gave him that moment, the two of them pressed together in that immaculately clean bathroom. Then squeezed his hand with large, warm, familiar fingers.

“Come on. I was fine, you’re going to be fine.”

Tom stooped down and forced himself to unknot the mess of the laces of his climbing boots. He had not removed them since they left the tent at camp four to set out for the summit. That evening – the time spent rescuing Phoenix, the climb back up to camp three, stabilising the tent in the storm, laying beside Jake outside of a sleeping bag and not getting himself warm or hydrated, just being too cold, too exhausted, too stressed, scared out of his mind – there were things about that time that Jake did not know about, things Tom never intended him to know about, and all of it together meant there was every chance he knew exactly what he was going to see under those boots. He’d seen pictures of severe frostbite. Seen it first hand on other people once or twice. The frozen flesh went black as it died slowly over the months following the frost bite. What was the phrase the medical profession used…. January’s frost bite was July’s amputation? The damage would gradually turn to pure, ebony black over the weeks, beginning from the tips of the toes and creeping up the foot towards the ankle. Toes could fracture when the flesh froze, literally snap off, the dead flesh past feeling anything. Black dead tissue and bone never revived, once it had died off it had to be amputated before the rest of the body became poisoned. It was not unusual for survivors of Everest to lose toes, parts of the foot, sometimes the foot itself.

The fear was overwhelming. To face a future that would not involve running, climbing, exploring, freedom, to face Jake with a body damaged and deformed – it was unbearable. It produced an animal terror that swelled in him, rivalling anything he’d felt on the mountain in the past few days. And yet somehow he went on doggedly unknotting those laces with trembling, clumsy hands, aware that Jake was rubbing his back, standing directly against him and murmuring all the time he did it. Everything hurt so much it was impossible to isolate it, to really know if it was in his feet, had reached his toes. He managed to tear one boot off, and then the other, dropping them on the floor, and then peel off the heavy socks that were ruined beyond ever being worn again.

Beside him he was aware that Jake sat down very quickly on the sink with a sound as if he’d swallowed a yelp. Tom didn’t dare to look. There was a tap at the door, Paul’s voice, hesitant but anxious.

“Jake? Please can I help?”

“Can you call Emmett?”

There was a moment, then Paul opened the door quietly, phone to his ear. He was calm, his extreme calmness helped, and he held the phone out to Jake who took it, putting it between his shoulder and ear to free his hand to grip Tom’s.

“Emmett, it’s Jake at Falls Chance, Tom’s got some frost bite, both feet-”

Paul quietly crouched between them, reaching to very gently take one of Tom’s feet in his hands, then the other, touching with sensitivity.

“He’s warm.” He said with experience a few seconds later. “They’re fully thawed. Tom, are they numb? You don’t know, do you? Everything hurts so much you don’t know any more, ok. Ok honey. Jake, I see second degree, two toes affected on the left, three on the right.”

Oh that helped. Encouraged, Tom made himself look down, still fully expecting to see ink black, the colour of dead tissue. He braced himself for it. He breathed out in one sharp gush at the sight of first one foot, then the other. There was definitely a little dusky blueness at the very tips of two toes, small patches like bruises, but all five of them were swollen, hugely blistered with almost the entire length of each toe grotesquely sausaged in a clear blister that was swelling almost visibly, reddened and peeling. Living, vigorously protesting tissue, not dead tissue.

“Paul thinks second degree and I agree with him,” Jake relayed into the phone, “Two toes affected on one foot and three on the other, clear blistering – yes he’s warm. Are you sure? I’ll get him straight to Jackson now if - ok. Ok, thanks.”

He handed the phone to Paul, turning back to catch Tom’s hand again and hold it, winding his fingers through as if he was afraid of Tom slipping away, although his voice was easy.

“He says to soak you in a warm bath, not a hot one. Give you painkillers, if you don’t feel it now you will in a while, and don’t walk on those feet. He’s about an hour away, he’ll be here as soon as he can. Paul, do you have ibuprofen?”

“Yes, I’ll get it.” Paul disappeared towards the kitchen. In the doorway Flynn had been listening to all this with his arms folded and his face absolutely expressionless. Now he unfolded his arms, came in and picked Tom up from the chair just as Jake would have done before Tom had time to realise what he was going to do. Just scooped him up as if he weighed nothing, and carried him upstairs, holding Tom close against his chest and turning slightly to ensure no part of him was knocked against the wall or banisters. He did it so gently. Almost shockingly gently. It wasn’t awful. There was almost a relief to it.

He felt very like Jake for some reason and Tom wasn’t sure why. Jake followed them slowly; Flynn moved very unhurriedly all the way to let Jake keep pace beside him, taking Tom back into the bathroom on the landing and lowering him down on the chair beside the bath, letting him go so gradually that there was no jolt or worsening of pain. He kept a hand on Tom’s shoulder while he leaned to turn the taps on, checking the temperature with his hand, and then he disappeared, pulling the door to behind him and leaving them alone. The fact he didn’t say anything, didn’t look, just went and left them alone, made Tom appreciate him all the more. Jake put a hand briefly under the taps to double check, then fumbled with the fastenings to Tom’s down suit, helping him strip it down as best he could with one hand. Then abruptly he stopped and put the hand up to cup Tom’s face instead, his thumb running over Tom’s cheekbone.

Why didn’t you say?”

There was no way to answer. Jake answered it for him, with pain in his face that turned Tom’s guts inside out.

“Because you were scared out of your mind for me, you had no chance to think about anything else and I wasn’t together enough to know. I’m so sorry. I never dreamt they hadn’t made sure you were ok, I should have checked. I should have made sure, I should have known you couldn’t say it to strangers…”

He hadn’t even been conscious enough to know what day it was. He was only awake now because he was fighting the medication with everything he had, and he shouldn’t be doing it. He should be able to rest now, he needed peace, not more drama and worry, and yet the relief that he knew, that it was in his hands now - Tom shook his head mutely, unable to look at him, tears starting to run despite anything he could do about it. Jake sighed hard, put a hand behind his head and pulled Tom’s head close against his for a moment, his voice hoarse and soft against Tom’s ear.

“It’s all right. It’s all right, everything’s going to be all right. We’re going to get through this. You’re shocked to hell, you’ve been so strong-”

His voice cracked. It was an awful, awful sound and Tom looked up in horror, distraught that there were tears on Jake’s face too. Jake pushed his hair back off his face, taking a deep breath to try and calm himself, then pulled the down suit off as best he could without letting Tom stand up, fumbled him one handed out of the layers of clothes beneath with Tom’s help and searched him. Searched him all over, every scrape, graze and bruise with a concern that was horrible, before he helped him into the bath.

It hurt. Tom had been longing for weeks for this moment of being able to get fully, properly clean again but the water against his feet and fingertips hurt like fire and it took all the courage he had left not to show it. Paul must have brought the painkillers up although Tom didn’t remember seeing him. Just Jake passing him the tablets and a glass of water, watching him swallow them and sitting beside the bath with a hand on him, helping while he tried to wash – scrub – from hair down to feet with fingers that felt swollen and burned. Jake’s hand was no better, the water must have stung and burned him too.

There were clothes. Old ones of Jake’s that must have been stored somewhere in this house for years; they hung soft and loose on Tom. Jake helped him dress one handed, he couldn’t do that much but he didn’t seem able to let go. He was still in the scrubs and wearing hospital socks when he called out onto the landing.

“Paul, which room do you want us in?”

“I didn’t know which you’d rather.” Paul came upstairs rather quickly as though he’d been sitting half way up and waiting. “Tom, there are the attic rooms which are further away and more private, but they’re small and there’s the stairs to think about, I really don’t want either of you having to handle an extra flight of stairs right now…. I made up your room in the bunkhouse but if you go out there I need one of us to sleep over there with you in case you need anything, at least for tonight. Dale will gladly if he’s going to be the easiest one of us to cope with-”

“We are not going out to the bunkhouse.” Jake interrupted him very definitely. He looked at Tom and his voice softened fractionally but not by much. “We are staying here with a phone in reach, a car if we end up needing Jackson Hospital and where I’ve got some chance of keeping you warm and safe through tonight. This floor is fine, Paul, just tell us which one.”

“Gerry’s room is the warmest and I changed the linen the day after they went out to Seattle.” Paul looked up as Flynn tapped at the door.

“Jake, Emmett’s here. Where are you sleeping?”

“Gerry’s room, thanks.” Jake kept a hand on Tom’s shoulder as Flynn came to lift him, carrying him down the hallway to a very small room on the left, with steep eaves, exposed dark wood beams and barely room for more than the large double bedstead and the dresser beside it. The low, large window looked directly out over the corral of horses and the wide green pastures rolling away in the distance. Flynn put him down on the bed and reached for the folded gold and cream quilt at the foot, pulling it up over him. It was then that Tom, sitting stiffly upright under it since it was vulnerable enough to be even sitting on a bed right now in front of this audience, realised belatedly he was shivering.

He had seen Emmett a few times at this house, the last time when Riley and Dale had just come out of Three Traders mine. He made a marked difference to the medics in Kathmandu and the paramedics on the aircraft. Scruffy, in his army fatigue jacket and black socks since apparently even medics got made to take their shoes off in this house, he gave Tom a brief smile and no further eye contact, going over him with gentle, unhurried and straight to the point hands. He reminded Tom sharply of Shem. It was painfully hard to think of her and the camp. They’d been ripped out of it so abruptly, it was still all going on over there without them – he couldn’t stop shaking.

“Mostly first degree, some second degree….you’re right.” Emmett glanced up at Tom. “You won’t lose toes. You’ve got a painful few months ahead while this heals, you’re both going to end up on first name terms with the Jackson physical therapy department, but I’ve seen frostbite that gets ugly and this isn’t it. Let’s see the hands. Yeah, you’re ok. Cover up again and let’s get you some stronger pain relief, Tom. I’ll drain the fluid out of those blisters and get them covered and dressed. Jake, I saw a whole lot of very detailed notes about you from Med Evac. How are you feeling?”

“Much too doped.” Jake said brusquely. He sat on the far side of the bed and Tom found he was gripping Jake’s hand far too hard, Jake’s knuckles were white with it. Emmet pulled the quilt right up over Tom’s shoulders, opened his bag and began to unpack it, looking to Paul.

“Can I have some hot water, soap, a couple of towels and a hot, sweet drink for Tom please? And he could use a couple of hot water bottles in this bed.”

“Coming right up.”

Paul left them alone, Tom heard his footsteps on the landing fade out of sight. With him gone, Jake moved his hand for a moment to Tom’s shoulder, gentle but steering him firmly, insisting until he lay down. As soon as he did, Jake took his hand again, gripping it firmly. Emmett set a syringe, Tom barely felt the shot in amongst the clamour of everything else that hurt, only that gradually it did not exactly stop hurting – merely that he became separated from it, from all sensation, from all emotion, his mind detached and calm as if he was an observer. His body relaxed and became content not to move a muscle, and the room began to become soft edged and hazy. The bed was ridiculously soft, he was becoming slowly warmer under the thick quilt. Emmett was still gently and slowly draining the fluid out of each mighty blister with a hypodermic and withdrawing quite disgusting amounts when he ceased to remember any more.

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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