*BEEP* “Hello, Sam? This is Maggie at Doctor Wilson’s Office, you missed your last appointment; and I’m afraid you didn’t call us to reschedule at least twenty four hours in advance, so we had to charge the full rate. Get back to me when you can, and we’ll set up a new appointment for you.”
*BEEP* “Sam, this is Liz. I tried your cell like eight times, and you never got back to me. So now I’m reduced to leaving a voicemail, like it’s 2002 again. You’re lucky I even remember your phone number, bro. I need help here! You’ve got my itinerary. Call me at the hotel when you get this!”
*BEEP* “Good evening, I’m trying to reach the homeowner at this number, to ask your feedback on a few vital matters of local ordinance. As a taxpayer, your feedback is important to us, and-”
*BEEP* “Hey, Sam. It’s Roger here. I heard about your trip. We’re all really glad to hear that you’re okay. As vacation time goes, that’s not really a good one. As it happens, I talked to HR; and they agreed to extend your accumulated sick days till Monday, but… given your injuries, you’ll have to go through a standard Physical assessment. I’m told it’ll all go through on the nod; but it’s standard procedure. I’m sure you’re eager to get back to work and put it behind you. Give me a call.”
The answering machine ran out, and Sam went back to his apartment. It was like being in a stranger’s place. He had seven sharp steel knives on a magnetic rack, just waiting to be grabbed and used at a moment’s notice. His fridge had three bottles with clean, cool water in them, no need to boil it first. But if he ever did have to boil it up, there were four burners on his stove and a kettle that could boil a day’s worth with the push of a button, no firewood needed.
There’s nowhere to make a fire.Sam thought. But I don’t need fire. I have a space heater and an oven. Or I could just tap the glass screen on my phone in the right places and make a feast arrive at my door within twenty minutes.
He went to his bedroom. He barely recognized it. His bed wasn’t made. He hadn’t bothered, since he lived alone. There were cobwebs in every corner, but they were empty and he’d had live spiders creeping into his shelters for warmth for weeks.
The books on the shelves were like a library. He’d forgotten which ones he owned. The movies held little appeal to him. He could put any of them on and fill his world with movement and noise, but doing so would require him to sit still; and he hadn’t been able to do that for a while.
He had been expecting to be away for a few weeks, and so he hadn’t left much perishable food in the fridge, but there were canned goods and cereal packets, and crackers and half-empty bottles of almost every flavoring he could think of. He wasn’t hungry. He had stopped at the store long enough to get bread and fruit; and the shopping mall meant he was never more than ten feet from food on a stick being pushed into his hands. He’d eaten a banquet before he even reached the grocery aisles.
His body remembered the couch, and he slouched into it the same way he always did. It was the one truly familiar moment he’d had since getting home. Sam shut his eyes and listened. The apartment downstairs was cooking something with cabbage. In the next apartment building over, he could hear a heavy metal song being played, loud enough that he could sing along from at least a hundred feet and two walls away. There was traffic, always; and a construction site somewhere, jackhammering concrete. He could hear birds too, his ears picking the sound out over the cacophony of civilization. Birds meant food. Ravens meant predators. Here in the city, birds meant kids tossing free food to fat pigeons; but he knew where they all were.
Are my ears sharper now, or is this what I would always hear when the television is off? I can hear someone in the stairwell, coming upstairs-
His cellphone rang.
“YAH!” Sam nearly levitated out of his skin. It was a sound that he hadn’t heard in a lifetime; and he had no idea that the volume was so high. It took four rings before he could answer it. “Hello?”
“Hi. You busy?” Liz asked brightly.
Sam smiled. “Not terribly. Where are you?”
She disconnected. Knock Knock.
Sam rolled his eyes and went to the door. Liz was there, with her oversized sunglasses pulled low enough on her nose for her to look over them; and a large pizza box balanced in one hand. “Deep dish pepperoni. I know you dreamed about it at least once up there!”
“More than once.” Sam agreed and pulled her in for a tight hug. “I thought you were still in Europe. I told you I was fine.”
Liz didn’t let him go. “I know you said that, but you’d say that if you were set on fire. I had to see it for myself. See you, back home and alive and everything; with my own eyes.” She pulled back. “So, let’s eat!”
Sam led the way to the living room; and she grabbed his shoulder. “You’re limping. Not in a ‘my leg is sore’ way. I’ve done Physical Therapy with patients before. I know that walk.”
Sam sat down heavily on his couch and pulled his sock off. The two missing toes had healed well, if not attractively. “Frostbite. I’ve had to learn how to walk again, but I’m getting there.”
Liz was tearing up. “Why didn’t you tell me, dummy?”
“What would you have done? Made them grow back?”
Liz let it go, and opened the box. They both took a slice. Sam stared at it intensely for a long time. “Does it look like you remember?” His sister teased.
Sam nodded, having a religious experience as he took a bite. “It tastes… perfect.”
Liz laughed happily. “So, what else?”
“When I came back, I had a letter waiting regarding my Rental Agreement. They demand repayment.”
“For what?” Liz asked in disbelief.
“The Jeep. In the view of their liability insurance, the Jeep being torched was ruled my fault; and my rental agreement holds me accountable for ‘abandoning the vehicle’.” Sam told her with biting sarcasm.
“If you could have called a tow-truck, you would have been home weeks ago.” She retorted.
“That’s what I told them. They were unsurprisingly unsympathetic on the subject.” Sam said with a sigh, holding out the letter. “Funny thing, when I was up there; I ran through a list of all the people who would come looking for me. My rent got paid automatically out of my bank account. I was still on leave. I cancelled my newspaper subscription ages ago, since I get my news online now… I don’t have a maid, or anyone to deliver groceries… There are emails backed up, but the Rental Company was the only one looking for me. They had lojack on the Jeep. If it hadn’t burned, they could have come and found me; but since they couldn’t find the signal, they swore out a warrant.”
“They figured the thing was stolen.” Sam nodded. “I spent my first day back among people sorting it out. Fortunately, Ewan vouched for me. A badge helped with the local law. They told the Rental Company what happened. I had a six-figure bill waiting in my letterbox by the time I got here.”
Liz shook her head lightly. “Welcome back to the wonderful world of human civilization, bro.” She quipped. “But it’s still the only place to get a decent deep dish.” She sat next to him on the couch. “I went to see dad.”
“Yeah? How was that?”
Liz rolled her eyes. “One-sided. How do you think it was?! I knew you wouldn’t go out to the cemetery. Felt like someone should visit him, now that you’re back.” She noticed the pill bottles on the side-table and picked them up, scanning the names. Her eyes flicked to the bandage on his upper arm, where the claws had left their mark. “New meds?”
“Some painkillers, some antibiotics, a paper bag full of ‘soft’ bandages for me to add if my arm itches. All precautionary, apparently. They sent me home after two days.”
Liz set the pill bottles down and laid her head on her brother’s good shoulder. “I nearly lost you as well, little brother.”
“I’m okay.” He promised. “I feel like I’ve been saying that on a loop for the last week and a half, but I’m okay.”
She looked up at him. “You are, aren’t you?” She said quietly. “I know it’s been a while, but… You look good. You’ve lost a ton of weight; your arms have filled out a bit… I like the beard.”
He rubbed a hand across his chin. “Wondering if I should keep it.”
“It’s the sort of thing that could keep you warm in the woods.” Liz commented. “Why do you need that here?” She suddenly noticed the couch they were sitting on. “What is this?”
Sam ran a hand over the soft material, with the speckled silver and gold pattern. “Buckskin blanket. Chloe’s parting gift. You should see my fur-lined moccasins. Made them myself.”
“Uh-huh.” Liz looked at him carefully. “Are you sleeping?”
“On the plane. Tried to take a nap when I first got home, felt like the bed was a warm marshmallow.” Sam pulled back from answering that one. “So, what else did I miss? Tell me about your trip. No Cougars after you, I hope?”
Liz snorted. “Oh, I wish. The worst wild animals do is eat you. I got my phone stolen.”
“Oh no.” Sam laughed. “Where? Italy or France?”
“Does it matter? I didn’t speak the language. I’d spent my entire trip using Google Translate. And it had worked, and then I went to this nightclub with some friends I made at the hotel; and somewhere between my third and fourth shot, my phone sort of turned into smoke and vanished.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “And you do all your banking by phone, so by the time you shook off your hangover…”
Liz shrank a little. “I spent the last four days of my ‘Feel Better About Being An Orphan’ European Vacation cancelling my credit cards, and trying to convince the bank that I’m not out buying video games and Blu-Ray Players in a dozen different high-end stores.”
Sam winced. “Ouch.”
Liz laid her head back on his shoulder and sighed wretchedly. “They got my social media feed too. Managed to insult everyone on my feed before I could get to a computer and change my passwords. Twitter has ‘suspended my account, pending an investigation into violations of Terms of Service, regarding racial slurs and hate speech’.”
“Sounds like I had the better time.” Sam almost laughed.
She rolled her head back to look up at her brother. “Did you?” She asked seriously. “I don’t pretend to have any idea what it was like for you, but when dad died, you took it a lot harder than this. You and dad hadn’t spoken in a while, and it’s been some time since we moved out and started our own lives; but this was a three-month near-death experience. Why do you seem so cool about it?”
Sam bit his lip, and his head cocked like a bird. “Someone’s coming up the stairs.” He said quietly. “Moving slowly, my guess is they’re checking apartment numbers.
“Well, nothing went wrong with your ears up there.” Liz set the pizza-box on his lap and answered the front door herself. “Hello?”
“Hi. You must be Chloe. I’m looking for Sam.”
“Well, you’re half-wrong so far. Who are you?”
“Cole James. Daily Chronicle.”
Silence. Liz stuck her head back into the room. “Yes, or no?” She asked, and her tone made it clear she was ready to throw the guy out without hesitation.
Sam sighed. “Why not?”
The Receptionist was sneaking glances at Sam the entire time he was waiting. She had one of the daily newspapers open in front of her. She was glancing back and forth from him to the picture they’d taken.
The door opened, and Doctor Wilson stepped into the reception area. “Sam! Good to see you again! And I mean that today more than ever.” He gestured at his receptionist. “Maggie ask for your autograph yet?”
“I don’t have an autograph book.” She excused. “But if you were willing, you could sign the article itself. It’d make a great addition to my scrapbook.”
Sam picked up a pen. “Your scrapbook of?”
“Local heroes that are patients here.”
Wilson frowned at her. “You have a scrapbook for that?”
“No, but if I get an autograph, I can finally start one.” Maggie said brightly, holding the paper a lot closer to herself than she needed to. “Sign, right here?” She said, trying to be just a little coquettish.
Sam did sign the article, and Maggie was given a pointed reminder about the confidentiality of patient names. Sam went in ahead of him.
Wilson came in and shut the door. “Maggie’s old enough to be your mother.” He said lightly, and it wasn’t a question.
Wilson grinned. “And you thought you were done with Cougars.”
Sam almost laughed as he looked around. The office was unchanged. “I keep expecting everything to be different than last time I saw it.” He commented as Wilson sat at his desk.
“That article you signed is making the rounds. I saw the interview on two different news sites.” Wilson told him. “You are indeed a local celebrity.”
“There’s a store that sells camping gear. They’d like me to take some of their products out into the woods and promote them. They don’t get that the whole point of the story was that I started with nothing and improvised for two months.”
“And won.” Wilson reminded him and reached into his desk. “I got the package.”
“My journal?” Sam smothered a smile. “You asked me to keep a record of my thoughts and interactions in the weeks after the funeral.”
“I did. Your phone apparently uploaded the dictated portions once you returned to town. Thank you for sending this.” Wilson pulled out the notebook and pushed it across the desk to him. “I didn’t expect it to turn into this kind of story, but it made for some interesting reading.”
“I wondered if you actually read it, or just skimmed it to see if I was following your instructions about journaling.”
“I won’t deny that I’ve done that with patients before, but if I wasn’t interested a week ago, I most definitely was after reading the article in the paper. It sure sounds like you had a pretty lousy vacation.”
Sam came over and sat down in the client chair. “That’s exactly how my boss put it too. He found out about my foot, and told me I’d have to undergo a ‘physical evaluation’ before I could come back to work.”
Wilson smirked. “That tick you off?”
“It’s weird, but… Everyone back here is treating it like a bad holiday. I swear, one of my coworkers saw the article, and called to tell me about this time he got dysentery on a trip to Mexico.” Sam shook his head. “As sick as he felt, nobody was going to eat him.”
Wilson was marking something down in his notebook. “Why do you think they reacted that way?”
Classic shrink response.Sam reflected. “Maybe… Maybe they don’t like having someone going through things they can’t relate to. Everyone I know is pushing me to get back to my old life; pick up where I left off, make the Valley a memory that I can talk about at parties one day… Everyone in my world wants to sweep it under the rug.”
“And you? What do you want?”
“I don’t know that it matters what I want.” Sam shook his head. “I don’t think I cango back to the way it was, even if I wanted to. It wasn’t a vacation, it was… Life. Maybe the only real life I’ve had in a long time.”
Wilson tapped at his notepad. “It’s what therapy journals call ‘a defining moment’. The sort of thing that changes you. Changes your whole life.” He studied Sam from behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “And now you’re back. In your life.”
Wilson waited for him to speak, and when he didn’t, tried to draw him out. “Just out of curiosity, how accurate was the article? The press is notorious for sensationalising the facts until they’re barely recognizable.”
Sam scoffed a little. “The Chronicle was about ninety percent right. Thing is, once the Chronicle ran with it, other news sites picked it up. They picked out the most sensational bits, and filled in some blanks; so they got about two thirds of it right, and then the comments section went full science fiction…” Sam chuckled ruefully. “It was never going to be a bigstory. I’m not a world leader, or a celebrity. And Survival Stories are nothing new. They usually come out a day or two after natural disasters, and those are getting more and more frequent. I’m one of the few guys who was legitimately lost in the wilderness with no rescue coming.”
“And you survived.” Wilson said warmly. “I’m glad to hear it. If even only half of that article was right, you excelled yourself in many ways.”
“I guess I did.” Sam nodded, looking awkwardly over at the bookshelves.
Wilson noticed his awkwardness. “What’s on your mind?”
“I lied to my sister.” Sam confessed. “About pizza.”
“I’ll need a little context.”
“Liz brought over deep dish, my first day back. I told her it tasted perfect. It didn’t. It tasted like the city. It tasted artificial. I could taste the grease, I could taste the salt, I could taste the preservatives on the ingredients… And the funny thing is, it tasted exactly like I remembered. It was just like every other Deep Dish pepperoni I ever ate.”
“Fast food.” Wilson said absently.
“I never appreciated how accurate that term was.” Sam said profoundly. “Convenient food. Heavy food that would put fat on my bones and protect me from the cold, and fill my mouth with different flavors from different sources... Except that I have no idea where it came from. The meat could have been in a freezer for months, shipped across whole countries. The sauce would have been mixed together from a hundred different chemical ingredients… In fact, now that I think of it, the first meal I’ve ever eaten and known the source of? It was the meat I’d carved from an animal that the wolves got to first.”
“But did you eat it?”
“The Pizza? Sure. Took me three days. I know the sin of wasting food.”
“I’d like to ask you, Sam: What was the first thing you noticed?” Wilson asked briskly. “On your first day back in civilisation, what stood out to you the most?”
Sam’s eyes glinted.
Wilson gave his friendliest smile. “It’s not a test, Sam.”
“I was thinking how fragile it is.” Sam told him, like he was teaching a class. “We just take for granted that the water comes out of the tap. We just take for granted that there will be food in the supermarkets, and that the trucks will roll in on time to stock the shelves, and the container ships will dock just in time to fill the trucks. We take for granted that the ATM will spit out money and that money will be be worth more than just... paper." He almost laughed. “At least now I know I can handle it, if ‘The System’ ever breaks down completely.”
Wilson nodded, as though this all made perfect sense. “Y’know, I have patients that survive a home invasion, or a car wreck. Those moments are burned into their brains, but they only last a few moments. Your experience lasted for months. How do you feel you’re doing, now that the ordeal is over? And before you answer, remember I’m looking right at you. Your eyes are completely bloodshot, and your head is twitching and turning constantly. You look like a terrified bird.”
“I know, I must have that kind of posture; but I’m not terrified at all. It’s possible I may never be scared of anything again. And my eyes are like that because I haven’t slept well since coming back to the city. My bed is way too soft, and the noise is... I’m not twitching. I’m listening. I can’t stop listening.”
“Everything.” Sam breathed. “In the Valley… Every noise had a meaning. Every time a twig snapped, every time a bird chirped, every time a rabbit pushed through the long grass. Usually it was a harmless sound. Just critters going about their day. But every now and then, you got that sudden sound that meant a hunt had started. That’s why I’m reacting like a hunted animal. I’ve been one, and I’m still listening.”
Wilson put on a gentle tone. The same one Chloe used when trying to lull an animal into staying still while she lined up her camera, or her bow. “It’s natural to have some reentry trouble. People adapt to their surroundings. That’s not limited to survival situations. I remember when I moved house, the light switches were suddenly on the left side of the doors; but for a year, I kept reaching to the right without thinking.”
Sam finally said what he was really worrying about. “I was only up there two months.”
“Two months when your life was in danger. You learn things faster when your life depends on learning them. And that makes it harder to let them go. I have former soldiers as patients. They all say the same thing: No such thing as an Ex-Marine. You just don’t forget survival training.”
“But it was still just two months, wasn’t it? I mean… Could I have changed that permanently, that fast?”
Wilson smiled. A real smile this time, not a professional one. “I knew a man who changed every single thing about his life after five seconds.”
“What happened to him?”
“Three words: ‘Sweetheart, I’m pregnant’.”
Sam laughed, despite himself.
“Another man changed everything about his life when he started arranging a funeral and applied to join the army, both on September 12th. Another got a visit from the police in the middle of the night and inherited two nieces by morning. Things happen, good and bad; but they can happen all at once.”
“But those things involve other people.” Sam countered. “They involve how we relate to other people. I mean, not to make this about Dad, but I remember after I first moved out, I got my place set up, I was doing well at my job, and the second dad came over, I suddenly reverted back to how I was at nineteen. Shouldn’t that happen again? I was alone when I went up there. I was alone while fighting for my life. I was alone when I came back.”
“Were you?” Wilson pressed. “Because I’ve read your journal of the whole survival story; and even before you reconnected with her, none of it is you talking to yourself. Not really.”
Sam hesitated. “...How close are we to the end of the hour?”
Wilson grinned. “Okay. That’s what we in the brains-trade call ‘avoidance’.”
Sam was silent for a long while. “She didn’t think I’d changed.” He confessed quietly. “As soon as we got a way out, she dropped me off at civilization and went back up there without me. She didn’t think I’d changed enough to stay. I trust her opinion of what her life is like.”
“Interesting.” Wilson had that mellow, measured tone again. “Did you want to stay up there?”
Sam shook his head. “She made the right choice. I had injuries that needed seeing to. She and her uncle were good, but it’s not like she could improvise a hospital up there.”
“But… Did you want to stay up there?”
Sam flushed. “I still had an apartment and a job and a life back here in town. To say nothing of letting my sister know I wasn’t dead.”
Wilson’s expression and tone of voice hadn’t shifted at all. “But did you want to stay up there?”
Sam didn’t meet his eyes. “I spent almost the entire time praying not to die. I spent the whole trip alternating between freezing to death, starving to death, trying not to pass out, and trying not to get eaten.”
“Butdid you want to stayup there?”
Sam sighed hard and gave in. “It… It felt like I was finally starting to get good at it. Living up there. It was one thing after another. There was a lot that I didn’t have figured out, but I finally felt like I had it sorted.”
Wilson nodded. “But Chloe didn’t feel that way.” It wasn’t a question. “How do you feel about that?”
“How do I feel about what I think Chloe was feeling?” Sam scoffed. “That’s not just a Shrink question, that’s like Shrink-Inception.”
Wilson chuckled a bit, despite himself, stretching in his chair. “If she’d found you on day one, she’d have sent you home immediately; and you’d have been glad for it. But after a couple of months, when you ‘had it sorted’, she made the same choice as fast as she could. Just as you were ready to stay, she kicked you out. How do you feel about that?”
“Roughly the same way I feel when my boss talks about how glad I must be to put it behind me.” Sam said. “The same way I feel when Liz keeps asking if I want to catch up on the TV Shows I missed… Like it was just a bad dream and I should forget all about it immediately.”
“But you don’t want to forget about it?”
“Honestly? I want to forget about half of it, but…” Sam’s voice dropped. “That other half? I can feel it slipping. It’s getting easier to walk down the street without flinching at the traffic. I can feel myself falling back into what I was before. There’s this newsstand I always go to when I walk home from the station. I always picked up a chocolate bar on my way past. When that interview came out, I went to get a paper. I was in there for the first time in three months; and I wasn’t hungry, and I haven’t snacked on candy in almost as long; but I didn’t even blink before I picked it up and handed it to the cashier.” He squeezed his eyes shut mournfully. “It was like muscle memory. I didn’t even think. He’s still in there.”
Wilson’s ears pricked up. “‘He’ is? Who’s ‘He’?”
“The old me. The one that went up to the Valley. The one who…”
“The one that Chloe didn’t want to stay?” Wilson finished.
Sam jumped up from the chair, pacing a little. “Crazy, isn’t it? I went through this thing that changed me on a fundamental level, and yet I keep coming back to-”
“It goes both ways.” Wilson cut in.
Sam blinked, caught by that. “What do you mean?”
“While you were figuring out how to live in her world; and discovering something about yourself; she was also getting deeper into a whole new way of thinking.” He tapped the journal, still sitting on his desk. “I’ve never met Chloe, but consider for a moment what her life is like. She’s responsible for nobody but herself. Then she makes a friend; possibly more than that, and invites him into her world... only to cause his death. Of all the things to be responsible for in loved ones, their loss is the most damaging.”
“You think she was sending me someplace safe while she still could?”
Wilson raised an eyebrow so casually there was no way he hadn’t rehearsed the reaction. “Possibly. Long-Range diagnosis is strongly frowned upon. Why? You think it’s something else?”
Sam scoffed. “Okay, that’s what we in the ‘paying-a-hundred-bucks-by-the-hour’ crowd call ‘dodging the question’.”
“Therapy is about helping you find your own answers. If I just gavethe answer to you, I’d lose out on a few more billable hours, and I’d have to turn in my license.” Wilson quipped. “I can’t tell you what the lady was thinking. Either she wanted to be rid of you, or she wanted something else. You know her better than I do. What do you think?”
Sam thought about it. “I think… I think that before I tried to cross the lake; something was different. Something that had nothing to do with Chloe.”
Wilson nodded, and leaned forward. From earlier sessions, Sam knew that meant he was getting close to making his point. “You said you were going up there to help recover, after your father died. Did you find it? Recovery?”
“I found…” Sam waved a hand back and forth at the view out the window. “I’ve been trying to put it into words for days. It’s like everything boiled away. I know what matters now. Money? Never used it, never saw it, never touched it; didn’t miss it. Apartment? Built a box with my bare hands. I found out how much relies on the world being the way it is.”
“And it doesn’t matter to you, anymore?”
“Not that, exactly. Just… I got back, and went to the supermarket. Doc, there was almost thirty types of plain bottled water on the shelves. When I came back, I didn’t even plug my phone in until I got home. And the second it came back online, it suddenly set off so many alerts and notifications that I thought the phone was going to explode. And none of those alerts were messages from people I cared about. Just retweets and Amazon Suggestions. Also things that I hadn’t thought about in ages.”
“Clarity.” Wilson summed up, and sounded pretty pleased with it. “You found clarity. That’s what this is all about, having a good relationship with others, and yourself. But how does that affect your father?”
“It doesn’t. It affects me.” Sam said immediately. “My dad and I got caught on a lot of the trivia. He always made sure he told me the important things. People from dad’s generation weren’t that open about how they felt. Especially with their kids. But my dad was always honest with me. I just… At the time it seemed important, but… Now I know what ‘important’ really is. All that ‘unfinished business’, all that ‘complicated history’... It’s amazing how much of it fell by the wayside the last couple of months. Everything’s different now. Even life. Even death.”
“Yeah?” The Doctor looked interested in that, on a far more personal level. He wasn’t asking this as a therapist. “Tell me? How do you view death now?”
“It’s the enemy.” Sam said. “But it’s one that everyone loses to, and in some way depends on. Out there, it’s like a painting. In a painting, everything is put there by the artist for a reason. I feel like… Like losing the Game of Life is just part of the picture. Not only is it there, it’s a part of things that makes the whole artwork look right. Even when the wolves were tearing into my camp, it’s not like they did it to be mean. No animal, even a predator, would do something to be malicious. Road Rage is a purely human invention.”
Wilson looked disappointed. “Is that all there is to it? Just base survival instinct?”
“Now you’re doing it.” Sam scoffed. “Three interviews, two photographers. They all had the usual ‘how do you feel’ questions, but once that was done they all asked me ‘off the record’ if I figured out the meaning of life.”
Sam scoffed again. “In the last two months, I’ve been so thirsty that I’d peel the skin off my tongue to eat snow. I’ve been so hungry I had to force myself not to eat a rabbit raw. I’ve been so tired that I could sleep on ice, and I’ve been lonely enough to talk to a raven picking at the bones of my dinner. I don’t know if you find the meaning of life in that, but I didfind the anti-meaning.”
Wilson jotted that down in his notepad. “The anti-meaning?”
“While I was up there, I hadn’t heard about one mass shooting, not one count of rape in my town; not one violent crime in my neighborhood. No political scandals, or celebrities charged with drug possession… When I got back, I had all that information drilling into me the second I turned on the nightly news.” Sam turned away from the window and came back to sit down. “You’re a therapist. Is it good for your mental health?
“It’s good to be prepared.” Wilson offered.
“None of the things that nearly killed me over the winter were part of any news broadcast I’ve seen.” Sam countered. “Chloe and I have this standing line joke, about who can handle the other’s world better. When I was in the valley, I was dodging things that would have fed on me. But it’s thisworld that makes me feel like I’m being eaten alive.”
“Also not uncommon.” Wilson put in. “Lots of people seek the ‘back to nature’ bit when they need to unwind. You can get a lot of clarity by removing yourself from distractions. Could be that the reason you’re having re-entry trouble is because you feel like you’re starting to lose that clarity.”
“I am. And I lost it so easily.” Sam explained miserably. “I went back to work. One of my coworkers asks me what I thought about ‘the game’ the other night. I haven’t been watching in months; but I still wanted to know the standings. I was in the office pool before I left. I go for a walk down to the supermarket, and I have to watch for cars and trucks, and wait until the light changes, and ‘do you have exact change’, and ‘would you like a drink with that’, and ‘as long as I’m here, I better get milk’, and ‘do they have the brand I like’, and ‘it’s gotta be low in fat, and it’s gotta be high in calcium’, and ‘oh wait: this other one’s on special’, and ‘maybe I’ll just order in for dinner tonight’, and ‘I really should fix that tap’, but ‘oh wait, what day is it, and is that show I like on?’ And ‘I just gotta check twitter on my phone because I’ve been away from the house for eight whole minutes’…” He shook his head. “Muscle memory. When I’m in these streets, visiting that store, sitting in this room, this is what I do.”
Wilson tried to soothe him. “You aren’t the only one to feel this way, you know. Far from it. Stress is the number one reason I have patients, and most of them haven’t been through a fraction of what you have. Could be you just can’t process it the way most people do.”
Long silence. Just the tick of the clock, and the squeak of the leather chairs they sat on. Sam stilled his breathing and could hear the next patient outside, giving his information at the front desk. He could hear the traffic a few floors below, and someone leaning on their car horn at the crosswalk.
“You know what the worst part is?” Sam asked finally. “I don’t have a high-stress life. I’ve never been a big spender, or a ‘keep up with the Joneses’ type. My job keeps me pretty well in the black. Not by a lot, but enough that I’m not stressed too much by my bills. I don’t have any chronic health problems, I have no wife or kids to keep balanced with my work… My life isn’t that stressful, and I can barely handle it anymore.” He put his face in his hands. “And it wasn’t like that a month ago. A month ago, I had to decide if an empty M&M packet was worth carrying around. Anything not worth the bother got left behind.”
Wilson closed his notebook. “So, we’re left with a simple question: What do you want to keep?”
Chloe left her Valley and flew to Fairbanks a week earlier than usual. She did something she’d never done before, going to a cafe, and watching people pass by. Her wardrobe was getting her some looks, but even in town, there were enough people who recognized a hunter’s uniform.
She rarely drank coffee. Like everything else in her world, she would have to carry it in, ration it out; and she saw no point to spending more on one cup’s worth of caffeine than she usually spent on a tin of instant grounds that could make her a hundred cups at home.
And yet here she was, staring out the window, watching people go by. People looking at their phones (which she’d never had) and talking about tv shows (that she’d never seen) and just sitting together in cafes and on park benches, being close to each other (which made her heart hurt).
She checked her watch, did the math on the time difference; and decided not to put it off any more; heading for the local library. Chloe rarely checked out a book. Her loans would expire before she could return them. But there were computers available for use. She sat down at one and started writing an email, when the messenger popped up.
Chloe smiled and closed her email down, giving her full attention to the chatroom.
Chloe:Hi. I was hoping you’d be online.
Sam: I’m a little surprised you’re in town. Did I use up that much of your toilet paper?
Chloe laughed a bit to herself. It was his way, to raise serious questions with a lighthearted tone. A tone that she had missed terribly since he’d gotten into the ambulance.
Chloe:I finished ‘harvesting’ the Cougar. We were right about the thing being in a bad way. I can tell you a pretty sad story from his hide. Lots of little scars. Everything from a cattle prod to someone putting out cigars on his back. Still not sure what happened to his eye.
Sam:As it happens, you’re right. I was interviewed a few times, and I asked the journalists to look into the microchip. The Cougar was registered to a breeding program. Privately owned. It got shut down due to budget cutbacks, and the animals were all meant to be released back into the wild. The journalist that interviewed me called back and said that it turned out that one of the guys who was meant to release the animals was recently arrested for trafficking in endangered species. The Cougar got sold to some private black-market collector who kept him for ‘entertainment’. Against other animals. Against other predators. Against morons who thought it would be fun to fight a Big Cat with a knife. Think an illegal dog-fight ring, only with more exotic tastes. You can probably guess how that story ended.
Chloe:The poor cat. How’d it get to my valley?
Sam:Not sure. The only thing the police know is that the buyer got turned in by the guy he bought the Cougar from. They went to arrest him, found him dead in the basement, next to an open cage. The Cougar found his own way out and vanished into the woods.
Chloe:It explains the way it came after you. Poor thing only knew humans as abusers. Bite first or run away.
Sam:I was talking about the whole trip with the Doc? He suggested that you ‘don’t forget survival training’. The Cat’s survival training was to attack any human it came across. If it hadn’t found me first, it might have found your cabin. It’s strange, but I actually wish I could apologize to the Cougar, on behalf of my species. I don’t know why. He tried to eat me at least twice.
Chloe:In his defense, I’m sure you’d be delicious.
Chloe sent that response with a grin. She suddenly realized she’d been smiling for half the conversation, no matter that the subject was dark and unpleasant. She tapped quickly, keeping him on the line.
Chloe:Other than that, how’s it going? How do you like being back?
Sam:I don’t really. It’s strange, but I suddenly realized how thin my life was. I was going to throw a ‘welcome home’ party, but I didn’t have anyone to invite. I’ve got friends that I talk to via email; and people I know at work, but aside from Liz, there’s nobody I’d invite over.
Chloe:Nobody? After what you’ve gone through, I’d think there’d be someone eager to talk about it.
Sam: Plenty of people, but I seem to be having the same conversation every single time. Everyone asks me if I’m okay, then ask if I was scared; then they ask me what I ate; and finally, everyone talks about how glad I must be to be back. That last part is the most common. It finally hit me: everyone *wants* me to forget about the valley. ‘Get back to the real world.’
She had typed that response before she stopped to think about it, and then she scrambled to write a follow-up, before he took it the wrong way.
Chloe:And that was a mistake. I’m sorry I didn’t go with you. At least as far as the hospital. I should have. It took me almost ten minutes to realize how you must have taken that.
Chloe:I know. It isn’t like me to be so callous. But I think I understand why now. See, everyone wants you to forget the whole ordeal because most people don’t know what to say. Losing a relative is one thing, losing yourself is something else. Everyone’s lost at least one family member. Very few have gone through a long-term ordeal like yours, and done it alone. It finally hit me that I was responding the same way your co-workers are. I wanted you to go back to your old life, so that I could go back to mine. Back before I ‘got you killed’.
Sam:Chloe, you know I don’t blame you for any of this.
Chloe:I blame me. And I was in such a rush to get you home because I think I wanted to put the universe back in order. Like I could throw a switch and reverse the world to the moment before I found that Jeep. It was weeks between the moment of finding out you were lost in the Valley and the moment of getting you back. I did not like those weeks at all, Sam. Those weeks changed things. Changed me.
Sam:They changed me too, Chloe. I’m different now.
Chloe:So am I.
Sam:Really? How is it different for you?
Chloe’s fingers hesitated over the keyboard for a long time.
Chloe:I’m lonely now.
Chloe:I know. It’s so out of character it took me a week to realize what was wrong. I routinely go for more than a month without seeing other people; and I never had trouble with it. My mother thought it would break me, but I thrived on it. At first the woods were scary, but the better I got at living in them, the more accustomed I got; the more I felt… empowered. Like I could do anything, all by myself. It wasn’t a problem, it was a victory.
Chloe:Now, with you gone and Ewan gone, I am hyperaware of how far away from everyone I am. My valley feels empty. Which is ridiculous. I remember giving you the speech about how there was more real life in the valley than in a dozen cities. And yet, for the first time, it feels lonely.
Sam:Chloe, I always wondered if you understood this, but most people feel that way even in the city. You’re on a computer right now, so you must be in Fairbanks. Do you feel any less lonely being surrounded by people you don’t know?
Chloe:No, not really. So, I was wondering how you’d feel if I came there again? Just for a little while.
Chloe:Ewan tells me they’re talking about farming out Firewatch in ‘low-risk’ areas to locals, and I’m the only local for my area. So if you got sick of me, it wouldn’t be forever. I’d have to be back before the Spring, anyway; when fire becomes an issue again. It’d just be a while.
Sam:You are practically allergic to the city.
Chloe: I know, but I can’t ask you to come back to the Valley. Not only is that idea patently cruel given what you went through last time, it’s also how we started this whole mess in the first place.
Sam:Now you’re doing it. I seem to be the only person in the world who doesn’t want to put it all behind me and forget it.
Chloe:You want to come back?
Sam:Before the Lake walk, I started to wonder if I could make it through the winter. I know how incredibly lucky I was, but I was getting there. What you said, about how it was ‘victory’? I don’t want to go back to the way I used to be. I don’t want to go back to the way things were before.
Chloe: Neither do I.
Chloe wiped a tear away as she sent that. She was smiling again, despite herself, and she quickly tapped at the keyboard again.
Chloe:So, where does that leave us?
Sam:Ask the guy behind you.
Chloe felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as she turned to look behind her. Sam was sitting at the far side of the library, typing into the chat from his phone. He waved at her with a grin.
She was up instantly, rushing across the library to hug him. “You came back here?” She said into his neck. “Why? Because it’s not just for me.”
“No, it isn’t.” Sam agreed, hugging her tightly. “But once I got home, it suddenly hit me: All that effort to go home and I can’t, for the life of me, remember what I was trying to get back to. I was good at my job, and I was proud of doing it, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t even think of it until I got back. I turned on the TV, and just got hit by this wave of… Noise. The commercials were twice as loud as the news, and the news was a horror show. It was like a concussion of noise pressing into me. I would rather listen to my campfire crackle than anything TV can offer.”
Chloe pulled back enough to look up at him. “How long can you stay?”
“Well…” He pulled his head in a little, as if caught out. “I called in at my job. I, uh… Asked to be based out of Fairbanks. It’s the same job. I stay on call. When some radio tower goes down, they send me to get it running again. It’s just that I’m based out of thisarea now, for a year long trial period. It’s actually a decent job move. More towers are being used around wilderness and country areas than any of the megacities. The Big City radio stations, like in Anchorage? They’re all online now. This far north, there’s plenty of regional stations.”
“But you’d have to stay in town.”
“I don’t have to stayanywhere.” Sam held up his phone again. “Sat-Phone. Gets a signal anywhere on the planet. I get the call; and if I can get to an airport, I can work from anywhere. Including the Valley. Last time I had to leave your valley at a moment’s notice, I believe you dropped me at an airport.”
She hugged him tightly. “Little presumptuous, aren’t you?” She teased, despite herself.
“Oh please, get over yourself.” He teased back. “Don’t know if you heard, but I built my own place on the whole other side of the Lake. Your cozy little cabin has no room for my big-screen TV, my three car garage, the Hot-Tub, indoor swimming pool-”
She bounced up on her toes and kissed him, mid-sentence. “Welcome back.”
Okay, so you were right about Chloe and Me. I’m happy to know that I’m at least two states away from your patented ‘I-Told-You-So’ dance. We’re the only humans up here, and we’re more than friends. That’s a double-edged sword, given that there’s nobody else for five hundred miles; and that we’ve changed absolutely everything about our lives by adding each other. As a result, we’ve decided to take it slow. I’ve been improving my shelter here and there; spending time with ‘the neighbors’ in between. We both agreed to have two cabins, no matter what happens. It’s good to have a backup when you’re this far from civilization.
In a way, it’s transactional. When the call comes in, I have to get to an airport, and Chloe flies me there direct. But Chloe’s taking on some of the responsibilities of her uncle, so she needs to stay in communication with the Department. So my satellite phone is now the most valuable piece of equipment for us both, with her plane a close second. We officially need each other to stay here.
I’m glad I came back. Just being here, it’s like my pulse slowed down, my lungs breathe better, and according to Chloe’s Med-Kit, my Blood Pressure has never been better. To be honest, I was coming back for the woods as much as The Girl.
The thaw started a week ago. Chloe and I will head back to town and get the plane’s skids replaced; which is when I’ll post this letter. It’s all changing here, coming alive. It’s like the whole world is waking up from hibernation, and pushing its way out from under a blanket. I hope you’ll come to visit one day too.
I saw the wolves again this morning. They keep their distance from me. The animals know there’s a new neighbor in these woods; but we’re all part of the picture now. I’m not scared of them anymore. You asked me if I was scared, last time I was up here. The answer is: I was scared all the time. Up here, I only fear the things that a human being should legitimately fear. We were never meant to be afraid of having our social media hacked, or be afraid of credit card fraud. These things just aren't in our program. Or at least, they aren’t in mine. Not anymore.
Also, I know what’s important, and family stays at the top of the list. You and Dad were always on my mind, even when everything else was forgotten. I look at the living things here, and they all have families and packs and flocks up here. Everything holds onto the pack to thrive. So if you ever need anything more, I’m there.
But I’d like it if you came up here, at least once. You’d probably hate it, but I’d like you to see it. Chloe and I have so much to show you.
The Valley was full of color and vibrant life. The insects sang constantly, but that was nature’s version of background traffic noise. Chloe declared the Winter was officially over as the mosquitoes returned.
The plants and animals came out of hibernation all at once, and the two humans got to work preparing for the next winter.
“In a way, that’s how everything lives up here.” Chloe had told him. “The animals store food, even the trees; shedding their bark every spring, growing a thicker outer layer as the cold comes back.” She gestured at the basket between them; full of root cuttings. “I’ll plant some berry bushes up your end of the lake; show you how to preserve fish and meat long term… Between the two of us, we might have some real variety in our combined surplus. More time for other things.”
“Other things, huh?” He quipped. “Give you a hundred bucks for some of your sourdough starter.”
“Let’s see the money.” She retorted.
“I’m afraid I left my wallet in my other suit.” He shot back. “If you’d rather I pay in collateral or services, I’m open to suggestions.”
“I bet you are.” She drawled. “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
The early days of spring were spent cleaning up whatever damage the winter left; which gave them plenty of time to work on Sam’s shelter, turning it into a proper cabin, one room at a time.
“Remember to be careful of the trees you cut. You want to leave more than enough room for everything you share this valley with. To tell the truth, if you want a proper house like mine, it might take you the entire spring and summer.”
“I’m not afraid to use power tools.” He countered with a smile. “I’ve done survival, starting with nothing. I’ve had to make tools before; I can live with charging a battery off a solar panel.”
“Even so, it’ll be the hardest job you’ve ever done, building your own place this far out. Chloe waved the mosquitoes away and produced a large coffee tin, tipping some sticks and twigs into it. Once she got a small fire going, the mosquitoes vanished, fleeing the smoke. “Shall we get lunch?”
The two of them were fishing by the lake, casting their lines, and lazing in the shade. It was still too cold to fear the sun, but it was a good fishing spot. Sam was drawing plans for his own cabin, and also a canoe, to make trips across the lake. He glanced over at her; setting up a campfire for the first fish they caught. She had a small round loaf, and some of the berries they’d gathered.
Chloe was aware of him looking at her. She let him look. Across the lake, she saw the deer again. The large buck, and the beautiful silver doe. Sure enough, there was a small fawn alongside them, crouching close between the proud parents. Chloe wore a watery smile as the doe nuzzled into her mate; for no reason other than to be close to him. Everything in the woods made room for the rest of their pack.
Then she looked down in surprise and found Sam was holding her hand, as though he’d been reading her mind.
“Sam?” She asked quietly. “What do you hear?”
Sam smiled broadly, taking it all in. “Everything.”
She nodded, pleased. “So do I.”
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